Henceforth I will divide my life into the pre-PLN Era and Life Hereafter. Building my first personal learning network, or PLN, has been that transformational – a threshold experience.
In the pre-PLN Era, I had been refreshing myself on a pretty thin gruel of information made from randomly and casually foraged ingredients.
I know that Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli (2011), in their book Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education, were advocating something much bigger than the Transformation of Ruth L. Bender. But their grand plan is grounded in deeply personal change and they kindly unpack their concept to that granular level. At first, the breadth, depth and seemingly feverish commitment of avid PLN practitioners sucked the wind out of my sails. I began to think of the pre-PLN me was a bit of a disaster. Disorganized. Haphazard.
But, spurred on by Richardson and Mancabelli’s enthusiasm and advice, I started to inventory what I already do. And….huzzah!….I found that I had elements of a bona fide PLN already in play. The inventory process encouraged me to credit what I already do by honoring the sources, both online and offline, that I currently dip into regularly. But it also prompted three realizations:
- I underutilize my current tools and resources and complacently rely on them rather than scour the landscape for fresh ideas and smarter practices.
- I don’t share! How can this be true!? In my “offline” life, I hope I display upstanding behavior in this department but my online persona is shockingly stingy and secretive. I have an inclination toward privacy and a reluctance to clutter the airways with my small contributions.
- My online seclusion means that the gems I do take in….and the learning, new thinking and products that they prompt….have small audience. Most of my network-fueled products are submitted for MLIS course assignments or job-related needs. These are all good outcomes but I routinely forfeit a chance to contribute to the broader conversation.
As a result of these epiphanies, my newly resuscitated PLN got a transfusion of clarity, organization and intention.
PLN Scope and Aims
The scope of my PLN is the intersection of lifelong learning, technology, information seeking behaviors and the library profession. My short-term aim is to markedly enhance my contribution to the learning environment at the school where I currently work in a high school library. My focus is on helping teenagers and adults develop the aptitude for lifelong learning and a comfort with the meaningful integration of new technologies. An emerging area of interest is in online searching. In particular, I’m interested in 1) those skills and habits of mind that transform how we get the information and 2) impact of new trends in online curation on the use of online search engines and subscription databases. Whether these goals lead me to another traditional school setting or distance learning environment will be one of the questions that my PLN may help me answer. Aside from these defined areas of interest, my PLN also includes elements that give me regular injections of wonder and inspiration from beyond my narrow scope so that I stay alive to other perspectives, problems, and fields of endeavor.
My PLN in Detail
Spurred on by my PLN epiphanies, I centered my PLN around three fundamental activities:
These three intentions are based in a large part on Char Booth’s valuable advice about reflective teaching and transformative learning (Booth, 2011). Mind mapping in MindNode Pro proved to be a very useful way to visualize my PLN. Let me take you on a brief tour.
GLEANING: On the right, I’ve itemized my approaches to gleaning. At the top are the usual, rock-solid pathways I use to get information. I value, as always, my community contacts as well as the the wealth of resources and educational opportunities I have access to through SJSU MLIS program and the high school where I work. But I what I really set about to improve and routinize is the way I make use of Google Reader, Diigo and Twitter.
- I made small, but significant changes, like adding bookmarklets to make curation virtually instantaneous.
- I am more clever about my use of Twitter hashtags and the search functions on both Twitter and Diigo.
- Most importantly I carefully vetted and augmented my sources on Twitter and Google Reader and stepped up my habit of checking in at both sites.
These improvements to my practice have markedly improved the quality of my find yield and my ability to share.
REFLECT: The next action in my PLN is to reflect. Right now blogging is my perfect platform for deep reflection. For me, a commitment to regular blogging is like cross-training for my multiple literacy muscles and sets me, in particular, to a high caliber of writing and thinking.
CONTRIBUTE: It is my newly minted intention to be a contributor to the wider conversation. Over the past couple of months, I have become a true convert to Twitter and will continue to focus on participating in the Twitter chatter. Follow me @ruthlesslyterse! In addition, I am experimenting with Paper.li, a daily online newspaper format for showcasing sources that I’m interested in. My edition is called Warp+Woof. I can select and custom filter what streams in to Warp+Woof but I can also instantaneously push items that I glean from other sources on to it as well.
Both Twitter and Paper.li are rapid-fire ways to share what I find. It has been very empowering to realize that sharing in this way isn’t clutter. It’s curation! My contribution is the very personalized lens through which I see and collect information. My goal will be to enhance that contribution through meaningful synthesis and discoveries of my own.
An active PLN is a perpetual work-in-progress, with the resources in the network subject to constant enhancement and editing. For a moment-in-time snapshot of the resources that I currently consult via Twitter, Google Reader and my Warp+Woof Paper.li edition, please refer to My PLN Resource List.
Habit Forming a PLN
The sustainability and success of the PLN I’ve just described will depend utterly and completely on an intentional practice. It will require a habit of:
- organized monitoring of the sources that I value,
- careful curation of the finds that resonate with me, and
- routine reporting out on unique connections and discoveries that I make.
Therefore, I have committed to a daily habit of combing my customized conduits of information and tweeting what I find. I will continue to blog on a bi-weekly basis and converse frequently with members of my network both on and off-line.
My PLN in Action
Ask me now how to build a PLN and I will report, from newfound experience, that you have only to consult and nurture your nascent PLN and just keep building. Its evolution is a magical combination of hard work, attention and serendipity. Here are a few examples of my PLN paying dividends.
Informing practice: Toward the start of this project, I had a long chat with a faculty member at my high school, Sarah Sutter, an avid networker who teaches summer courses on PLNs. She swore by the zen-like nature of her PLN practice. She suggested calm, mindful routine. I try not to fret about what slips by me and instead look at each dip into my PLN as a refreshing sip from a deep spring.
Producing results: November 11, 2012 will live on as the day that I caught my first big fish by routine trawling of my PLN. A recent goal is to strengthen the capabilities of my PLN to yield results relating to online searching and information gathering. When these two tweets came in, they were the first confirmation that my PLN could deliver, and hopefully build, on this area of inquiry.
Validation of results: A Twitter search of ProQuest uncovered ProQuest’s DiscoverMoreCorps which offers access to a new ProQuest database each month and offers helpful search strategies. The merit of this find was reconfirmed by another source in my network, Professor Virginia Tucker, when I solicited advice from her on online searching resources. My PLN served up both the original find and a second party validation of it.
PLN Maintenance Plan
My ongoing challenge will be to stay on top of my PLN by both efficiently adding to it and winnowing it as needed. Truly useful resources tend to rise to the surface but so do truly distracting ones. For instance, @mashable supplies a barrage of information. The sheer volume can mask what is useful to me from Mashable. I need to figure out how to attack that source with more precision.
Paper.li is an experiment in curation and sharing. Paper.li is a wonderfully efficient way for me to access and feature items that interest me. But it isn’t perfect. It is representative of the ongoing task before me to refine current PLN tools or seek new ones. My network, including colleague Glenda Baker who introduced me to Paper.li, can help me do that.
Another challenge will be to pay attention to what I’m ignoring! After reading Cathy Davidson’s Now You See It, I am more aware than ever that my selection of resources will have its bias (Davidson, 2011). My network will bring me new information that I would not have found on my own, but it will be bring me only that slice that meets my preset parameters. The secret will be to look beyond.
PLN Life Hereafter
Now in place, my more intentional PLN practice seems very natural and healthy..…almost a living organism that needs care, feeding, exercise and attention to thrive. Its online aspects dovetail very neatly with my offline, day-to-day community. And vice versa. One of the most intellectually invigorating parts of my day is my lunchtime conversations with my colleague Glenda Baker. We ponder and brainstorm around the topic du jour. We value our private conversations but we love what we call our “guest speakers”…. colleagues who join us for the lunchtime free-range conversation. These conversations spill easily onto Twitter where we continue a back and forth of new finds and ideas. This is where I see the consummate potential of the hybrid, living-breathing, cyber network.
The PLN Life Hereafter is simple. Glean. Curate. Share. Reflect. Contribute.
This is Now.
Bender, R. L. (2012, November 23). Google Soup [photograph].
Booth, C. (2011). Reflective teaching, effective learning: Instructional literacy for library educators. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.
Davidson, C. N. (2011). Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn. New York, NY: Viking.
Richardson, W., & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks: Using the power of connections to transform education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.