Reflecting on the Personal Learning Network

I have mixed feelings and thoughts about the PLN requirement.  I am about halfway through the program. I have taken classes horribly out of sequence. So, my introduction to the PLN was through Owen Guthrie’s Online Pedagogy course. Accordingly, despite Owen’s efforts it still felt contextually weird, and somewhat artificial. Nonetheless, I also appreciated having a name for something that I had been developing organically for most of my life.

So, despite how old fashioned they are, libraries are still central in my PLN. As a small child, 4-5 we lived within walking distance, I was allowed to check out as many books, at a time, as I was years old. I gamed that rule by making several trips per day and exchanging books I was finished with for new ones. Once school started in earnest, the library became the place where I was in control of my learning in a way that I was not in school. Google was a couple of sets of encyclopedias. As well, San Diego has a rich set of museums in Balboa Park, and the Scripps Research Institute and Zoo are valuable aspects of my PLN. I recall a moment when I was ten years old reflecting on my book smarts but practical ignorance. Therefore, making, and tinkering became important to me. In this way, I also connected with my Grandfather, and so my PLN suddenly included the craft of the hand and eye and people (mainly old-timers but not, my school teachers). I hated school, elementary, middle and high school all. It is a wonder, actually because of a car accident putting me out of work that I went to college. College was great stuff and graduate school even better. Accordingly, I have taken classes almost continuously throughout my adult life. I have stayed in contact with professors for years following their classes. John Schumacher until his death is one example. Bob Whitcomb is another. We are fast friends and talk regularly working on each other’s’ challenges, work, life, whatever.

I share all of this because it feels like it is missing from the ONID PLN assignment (and here I am referring to the thematic reoccurring PLN assignment that occurs across ONID courses). The PLN is mostly focused on online tools and resources, and that almost seems to negate a lifetime of learning. I think the assignment would be better if it built on what we are already good at, and instructors helped us plug into online resources that amplified that.

I am not a huge fan of Twitter though over the last year and a half I have found ways to use it to good professional effect. Not so much in creating a web presence but in keeping informed of relevant online content. I had heard the librarians, at my previous job, talking about Diigo. One, in particular, I hold in high regard, used it and so I was willing to be patient with it. However, it was not until Skip’s presentation this semester that the penny dropped for me. That said, bookmarks, spreadsheets, bibliographies are all still good ways to manage web resources, though not necessarily “socially.”

All of that acknowledged I hate having a quota of retweets to make and all the required tags are annoying, and finally I just had to rebel. I see myself participating in the spirit of the assignment but the letter of the law – just felt to school for me.

I am visible and moderately active on LinkedIn, and that is a great source of work-related articles, videos, blogs, podcasts along with too much drek and rubbish. It is unclear to me why it is not a priority in the PLN assignment. G+ is an interesting tool used in the way this program does.

Unfortunately, I do not hear enough in the PLN assignment about attending workshops and trainings and networking. One door that may open at those events is an opportunity to get involved with professional organizations. I attended an EDUCAUSE leadership training and was roped into working on the NERCOMP conference selection committee for the library track at the annual event. That was a great bad experience, and I opted to leave it alone. However, I also have not thrown the baby out with the bathwater other opportunities like that will allow me to build quickly a reputation in Alaska. Moreover, I would urge an early or mid-career person to do it sooner than later. Conference presentations are a tremendous way to grow a network quickly, as well. The little I did immediately opened doors for additional presentations and consulting. My previous boss dragged me kicking and screaming into that, and he was right.

In the end, I would not encourage killing the PLN assignment.  Rather, make more of it, and let learners, at least, sketch out the parameters of their network then add gasoline to their fire by suggesting online resources and tools that amplify the learners’ native activities. Right now it feels half-conceived, awkward, too much about a rubric and too much about the internet.

3 thoughts on “Reflecting on the Personal Learning Network”

  1. After our hangout the other night, I began thinking about potential replacements for the PLN assignment. A few occurred to me–ebooks, for example (another underutilized tool)–but rethinking the assignment itself didn’t really occur to me until I read (and reread) your post.

    Like you, I react negatively–viscerally, actually–to the idea of counting tweets or other easily quantifiable measures of whether or not one is using a particular tool as a valid measure of student progress. I’ve always thought of that in the same sense as giving a participation grade–e.g., making a part of one’s academic grade a measure of whether or not they showed up in class a countable number of times. Showing up–like tweeting or collecting Diigo bookmarks–is not any sort of measure of the quality of work that a student is doing or the utility of that tool for a student’s progress. I think it has a lot more to do with the instructor’s ego than a student’s progress. Additionally, we tend to give assignments that include easily measurable markers just because they ARE measurable and therefore gradable. We confuse vigor with quantity. (“I can make this course more vigorous by assigning even MORE reading.”) So how do we as instructors focus on the quality of the work that a student submits and how do we create a learning environment that values personal struggle, thoughtful reflection, and meaningful output? This is the question that I struggle with in designing and delivering an effective asynchronous online course.

    The PLN assignment is failing in that regard, on several levels. For some time I’ve been thinking about dropping it. Now, I’m thinking about ways to enhance it and make it more meaningful and useful to students. In the context of ED 431, the PLN assignment has focused on Twitter and Diigo because they ostensibly form the basis of an expanding concept of a learning network over time through the ONID program. That’s probably still a given in any sort of reconfiguration of the assignment. What the assignment lacks–as your narrative makes so clear–is the connection between that and the rest of the learning environment that we create for ourselves from online and real world resources (if indeed there is a difference). More importantly, the assignment doesn’t ask for or encourage us to think about the relative importance of these resources for any given individual. I’ve been thinking about some rough categories of PLNs in the broadest sense of the term, thanks in large measure to your response. They might include:

    Technology tools (e.g., social networking, Diigo)
    Physical tools (e.g., libraries, genius bars)
    Interpersonal tools (e.g., conferences, peer/mentor relationships, networking)
    Knowledge resources (e.g., databases, help desks, Google searches)
    Content resources (e.g., Creative Commons, Internet Archive)

    Obviously, there is quite a bit of overlap in that list. Genius bars are physical spaces, but they encompass interpersonal tools and knowledge resources. Most knowledge resources are accessed via technology tools… But sometimes it’s useful to see how people conceptualize their sources of help. In my own cases, I’d list my use of Google +, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. as Interpersonal Tools because I don’t really focus on the technology but rather on the personal connections I’m making. But it’s still useful to think about the technology tools that I do use and whether or not they are serving my needs in a personal sense.

    Here’s my thinking at this point, then. What if the PLN assignment required a mind map (or flow chart, Venn diagram, or similar visual representation) of the emerging PLN with a biweekly checkpoint or update (in the every two weeks sense of the term) in which students would chart their interactions with the learning resources that they were utilizing at the time, along with a reflection about the relative importance (or lack of utility) of those resources? The end product would also need some final reflection, and there would be some necessary requirements for using some specific tools (e.g., Diigo, which I still hold great respect and with which I think a long term interaction is necessary to see the real benefits of the tool), but it would also include those resources that we utilize but don’t give much specific thought to. It’s a simple question, really: What help resources did you use during this two week period, and how did they (or did they not) resonate with you?

    I’m very eager to hear your response, and I hope others will chime in as well.

  2. After reading your post, I really got to thinking what my actual Personal Learning Network is in all areas of my life and why I think each one is an important asset. What I like about Twitter, is that my new feed has posts that are usually relevant to my interests, and I like that with Diigo, I can bookmark and annotate articles I have found. I actually use Pinterest quite a bit to find articles and infographics, which displays posts that are like the ones I’ve been viewing and lets me bookmark them. A huge part of my PLN is interpersonal: my colleagues and peers I have met through work, school, and conferences. Thank you for that insight!

  3. Bob’s response also really resonated with me- I agree, Skip, that expanding the conception of a PLN to include technology tools, physical tools, interpersonal tools, knowledge resources, and content resources would be most productive. One thing I kept seeing repeated in “The World Is Open” is just how we are learning everywhere, all the time, so an expanded definition of a PLN would certainly speak to that!

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