Build Your Professional Learning Network (PLN):
Expand Your BRAIN
This group of educators I engage with every day are a living, organic, knowledge base. They are real people with real experiences, and a wealth of knowledge. When I reference my network of educators I call them my "brain trust."
As a educator, probably one of the tougher challenges you face isn’t just keeping up with the technology, but rather understanding how to leverage it in your teaching and learning situation. While in the past, we were limited by the occasions that served as “learning experiences,” in the 21st century, learning isn’t restricted to a special event bound by time and place. We don’t learn just when sitting in a meeting, or at a conference or from 8:00 to 3:30 PM when school is in session. Today, we have the potential to tap into a flow of conversation, a web-based learning ecology, that we can learn from 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While some call this a Professional/Personal Learning Network, a Professional Learning Community, Dan Rezac (quoted above) calls it a BRAIN.
Whatever you call it, you have instant access to a community of educators dying to share fantastic ways to help you transform teaching, learning and leading. All you have to ask yourself is, am I willing?
In the past, reading, evaluating, and critiquing were done to different degrees by each of us individually. It was rare that any of us actually published our critiques for others to read. Now, it is possible for me to share how what I read, evaluate, and critique connects with my own personal learning and schema. That’s powerful, because individuals like you and me now have the power to publish at will to an audience of millions. The key thing to remember is that as we externalize our thinking, it becomes less of “I am an expert expounding on what I know” and more of “I am a learner, just like you, sharing what I’m learning so that we can learn together through our common errors and maximize our breakthroughs.” Consider that our understanding of learning is changing. We need to think of learning as an experience that happens when we connect with others.
If you fail to connect to the network of learners, you miss out on a global conversation about what you are passionate about. And missing out is a darn shame because it can save you time, energy, and increase your reach, no matter how brilliant (or not) you are. That’s a powerful idea. Smart people get smarter because they have access to the network of learners. People who are just starting out are able to learn as fast as they can to accomplish what they need to do.
When I meet folks who are just becoming aware of the global conversation — usually because I push them over the edge in a workshop — I like to share several tools with them. They are essential learning tools that every 21st century learner should have. Using them involves action, but it is the acts of use that cast out our fear of change. The act of building your own personal learning network (PLN) is your fundamental act of freedom. Start now.
Here are some to get started:
Let's take a more in-depth look at each of these! Please feel free to skip around.
1) Social Bookmarking - Get a Delicious.com account.
Ever wish you could access your list of links from any computer, easily share them with others, and publish them to a variety of web sites (e.g. blogs, wikis, Moodle)? If so, then social bookmarking tools make those tasks easy!
As wonderful as many social bookmarking sites are--several now feature highlighting, annotation, note-taking--they present problems due to cost. One free, longstanding service that remains is Delicious.com, a social bookmarking service, that allows you to bookmark (a.k.a. add to Favorites) web sites you visit that have relevant information. Once bookmarked, you can choose to share that web site link via email, add keyword descriptors (known as "tags") to organize the bookmarks.
How To Bookmark
Relevant how-to links that you may find useful appear below:
Since Delicious.com is about being social, you can do some useful things with Delicious.com. The list below is not exhaustive, so keep your eyes open:
a) Theme your Tags - If you know you are doing research on "CivilWar" use that phrase as a tag for all CivilWar resources you find online. Then, share the link to those resources online or via email with one link to your colleagues and/or students. For example, my Civil War links might look like this: http://delicious.com/mguhlin/civilwar and result in a list of resources I think are relevant to that topic.
However, you can also tap into a worldwide network of folks who are interested in the Civil War who may use a slightly different tag. By going to Delicious.com, you can find resources tagged in a variety of ways:
You can easily find popular Civil War sites in this way: http://delicious.com/rss/popular/Civil_War+Abraham_Lincoln
If you want the computer to do all the work, take advantage of Bookmark Insuggest service. You can enter your Delicious.com username, and then click on the tag for which you would like to see similar web sites suggested...and they appear! It looks like this:
You can also keep up with what's "hot" in Delicious.com--what people are bookmarking--by subscribing to this Twitter account: http://twitter.com/#!/HotOnDelicious
b) Create LinkRolls that Fit On Your Web Site - Use Delicious.com Linkrolls--accessible via HELP. The benefit of this is that you can easily embed a list of links from Delicious.com--without having to copy-n-paste them one by one--onto a wiki, blog page or Moodle HTML block or discussion forum. This makes sharing links with your student a breeze!
The word in bold (e.g. mgwrites) is the tag, or keyword, that I use to identify items I want to see in the sidebar when I'm bookmarking something. Here's the linkroll creation page:
c) Syndicate Your Own Podcast Feed Using Delicious.com
Have a web server where you can post audio? Or, maybe you want to create your own favorite list of podcasts--that either you've created or linked to--and then share that with others? You can do that easily with Delicious.com. Although we often think of creating podcasts by posting audio in blog entries that people can subscribe to--essentially, that is a podcast. Audio you can subscribe to!--you can create a Real Simple Syndication (RSS) feed using Delicious.com.
One way to accomplish that is to tag all your podcasts as your "myfavpodcasts" and then view that list of links via Delicious.com. You'll note the orange RSS button, like the one shown below, appears at the BOTTOM of your Delicious.com link page:
As you can imagine, this makes it very easy for folks to subscribe to content. For example, if you click this link in GoogleReader, you can subscribe to some of my favorite podcasts. You can also embed RSS content in a variety of places, such as Moodle...here are some suggestions for accomplishing that! Imagine bookmarking cyberbullying and digital citizenship information students and parents need to know and posting it on your District's (or your classroom's) Facebook page!
Enhancing the Delicious.com Experience
There are also a variety of tools available that can enhance your Delicious.com experience.
Clicking on Browse these Bookmarks will open up into a larger page as shown below:
As you can see, this makes it possible to easily do a visual walkthrough of links, essentially creating a presentation based on the links. You can, of course, share the link to the visual walkthrough of web pages.
2) Use Twitter.com or Plurk.com to build a professional learning network.
"I have learned more about what people are discovering from Tweets," shares Porter Palmer, an educator in a university Master's course, "than any single blog could bring me. I especially like it when my edublogger friends’ Tweets begin with, 'just blogged this…' I don’t have to guess when they might have updated. I can just click over and read their blog!" Twitter is a powerful Web 2.0 tool to facilitate communication and collaboration--globally. It enables us to get in contact with educators from around the world. Many 21st century teachers are out there. Find them and create a Twitter network that can be a support group, provide inspiring projects, and keep you in touch with like-minded people. All of you participating in a workshop, for example, can be a group.
You can use Twitter specific tools to connect with others. One of my favorites is the Twitter search tool, accessible at http://search.twitter.com. It allows you to search the many “tweets” that occur each day (view a search on Education) and subscribe to the results via RSS. (See the “Google Reader” section of this article for more on RSS). That way, real-time comments about what is critical to your work come to you. Whenever there is contact with other educators, I find my enthusiasm and energy for education renewed. That’s the power of communications. You select whose tweets you will receive so you can build your own professional learning network.
Many 21st century teachers are out there. Find them and create a Twitter network that can be a support group, provide inspiring projects, and keep you in touch with like-minded people. All of you participating in a workshop, for example, can be a group. Locate one another in Twitter.com and become a network.
You can use Twitter specific tools to connect with others. One of my favorites is TweetScan.com. It allows you to search the many “tweets” that occur each day (view a searchon Education) and subscribe to the results via RSS. (See the “Google Reader” section of this article for more on RSS). That way, real-time comments about what is critical to your work come to you.
Some Twitter specific tools:
Whenever there is contact with other educators, there is hope. That’s the power of communications. I can’t begin to share the excitement I felt on September 19, 2000, while participating in a TeachMeet 7 taking place in Scotland. How did I find out about it? Obviously, I was not in Scotland. I was sitting at my desk working on work projects, when a “tweet” came in from Paul Harrington, an educator in Wales. As a result of his sharing via twitter, I was able to participate in the conference via my web browser and listen to speakers like Ewan McIntosh and others share what they are doing in schools in Scotland. Do you think that might have impacted my perspective about the power of global learning opportunities? How might participating in a dialogue with educators from around the world have impacted your perspective?
By combining the power of Delicious.com and Twitter/Plurk, I am able to track more easily ad-hoc professional learning opportunities as they occur, as well as have conversations about them before and after they occur. That kind of just-in-time learning, as it happens, can be very powerful for educators. I invited other educators to join and now we have a collaboratively updated list of EDuStreams —educational professional learning happening online via uStream, Elluminate, Wimba.com sessions that are appearing online. EDuStreams are actually video/audio presentations and conversations done by educators about topics they are interested in. Twitter/Plurk allow us to share those at will, while Delicious.com allows us to keep track of those opportunities and share them with others, even if they are not on Twitter.
You can also use a third-party service known as Packrati (http://packrati.us/) to save your tweets to Delicious.com bookmarks. As they describe it, "We follow your twitter feed, and whenever a status you tweet or re-tweet contains URLs, we add them to your delicious.com bookmarks. Optionally, bookmark URLs in @replies to you, and in tweets you mark as Favorites."
Example: Norms for Online Behavior
Find it here: http://twitter.com with a list of educators to follow at http://twitter.com/mguhlin.
Others are building Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) using Plurk.com. While Twitter is white-water rafting in social media with a rapid flow of content, Plurk is a bit more reflective and allows for pauses in that flow.
Having a Professional Learning Network in advance makes the Difference at a Conference or Learning Event.Note: The capitalization is there because I'm including Paula's paraphrase in a presentation I'm doing next week.
For me, Paula's expression of this idea is an evolution of a blog entry she wrote reflecting on her ISTE experiences:
Having connections to a PLN is very important for helping me stay current and continue my learning. Members of my PLN are the people I will turn to first when I want to work on collaborative projects in my classroom.For Paula, it appears that having a PLN in advance makes the difference, enabling her to put a handshake or hug, a physical presence, with the person they have been learning from all along:
I have created quite an online presence. I was looking forward to meeting members of my PLN and I thought I would have to find them. I didn't think that they would be looking for me. When Peggy George come up to me and said she was so glad to finally meet me face to face I was floored. Kim Caise did the same thing, and so did so many people I know online. It was great to hear someone say, "Oh I follow you on Twitter", as I was introduced myself to them.The power of meeting your PLN is akin to "reuniting" with friends who are learning with us as we face challenges and work to overcome obstacles in our lives.
Consider these remarks about Plurk and Twitter from actual educators:
It's easy to feel overwhelmed by social media tools...the output of these can make us feel inadequate to the task of managing it all. Perhaps that's why we see some expressing the opinion that it's easier to "follow conversations and get responses" in Plurk, as opposed to Twitter.
Social media can also establish pools of quiet reflection, where we may, with others so inclined, recline and ponder what has been shared. Such pools of diversity are rich in ideas because they allow individuals to share what they are thinking rather than being focused on just sharing content.
As a writer, I seek an audience. But now more than ever, I seek an audience that discusses what I've written, and more importantly, allows me to think about what others are sharing. It makes sharing more of a reciprocal dialogue than a casting of bread on the waters.
What about for you? Consider the following "deep" conversations...
Get started! Plurk or Twitter. Here are some suggestions when getting started with Plurk.
3) Start blogging.
Blogging is a process of reflecting on what you learn every day. How can anyone spend time blogging on top of what they do all day? The fact is that some of my best blogging research — when I decide on Future Blog Posts — occurs while I’m looking for something else. In fact, my focus during the day is learning something, either for work or to satisfy my own curiosity (which begins with a question or a wondering).
At the end of the day, early evening in fact, I quickly look back at what I tagged for a Future Blog Post, which is actually a “tag” I keep in Delicious. I might bookmark many items, but I only blog about those that are immediately relevant or connected.
In the past, I would copy-n-paste the link or the relevant quote or point that triggered my thinking into my blog program (e.g. Blogger) but now I just use the SHARE button on my GoogleToolbar. In that way, blogging for me isn’t a “special” activity, but part of everything I do. When I’m asked about what I know about a particular topic relevant to my work as a technology director, I am able to check my bookmarks. If I have spent time reflecting on the implementation of a technolgy-related project in my blog, I usually bookmark that as well and quickly can pull up the needed information. That work prepares me in advance for questions my job naturally throws at me.
In a real way, this is a much different way of behaving and acting. Modeling it for our students is critical, as Cheri points out above, but understanding it ourselves is just as important. Before blogs (BB), I never would have done that (tag ideas, blog about my response/reflection, wikify my resources for others, podcast valuable conversations with other people for later listening). In fact, keeping a journal was a joke for me, even though I knew that every “good” writer kept one. It wasn’t until I started blogging — with a real audience reading it — that I understood the power of blogging everything.
Amy Gehran at Contentious Blog articulates this really well when she writes the following (via Teach-n-Babble):
In my recent Blog Your World! workshop at the PBS/KLRN ICTT 2007 Conference, I shared it in this way, as perceived by one of the newbie bloggers, Juliet Ray at Deep Thoughts (drop by and give her a comment):
This kind of externalization is useful to others. For example, back in 2005 I wrote a how-to for doing something in GNU/Linux operating system that used KDE as the GUI (as opposed to Gnome or the others out there). In September 20, 2007, someone found it and blogged about it…if I hadn’t externalized my knowledge, made a “backup brain,” then the information would not have been here for Jim Plumb to discover:
Another neat result of Jim’s discovery is that I rediscover my own blog entry when Jim writes about it or interacts with it. It makes me want to re-read the entry. In reviewing my social bookmarking network, I noticed Mark Ahlness had picked up on one of my favorite blog entries, The List Article. I hadn’t seen that blog entry in ages, even though every article I write is based on the structure outlined in it.
Blog what you learn, what you do. Soon, you’ll realize you know — and as importantly, discover more — about what is in your head than you think.
Example: LeaderTalk Blog for school district administrators at http://leadertalk.org.
Get started at Google's Blogger.com with an education-related blog about what you are learning and how it is relevant to your work. Ask yourself a few questions to get started, such as What are you most passionate about in your work? andWhat is the hardest thing you do in your work, and why is it challenging? Finally, share your successes — and failures – by answering such questions as What obstacle or problem have you encountered and how did you overcome it?
Some common questions technology directors might want answered include:
And many more. Responding to those types of questions in your blog and sharing resources with other educators via Delicious will enable you instantly to share ideas about important matters relevant to your work.
Use Google Reader to Manage RSS Subscriptions:
Most new web pages now have what is known as an RSS feed button. A web site with an RSS (real simple syndication) feed enables you to read the content without visiting the site beyond the first time. You can subscribe to a site’s content — and subscription is free — and any updates/changes to the site will be delivered directly to you. (Watch this Video.) The benefit of that method is that creating a personal learning network will not result in more email, but less. Instead of receiving email notifications, you go to Google Reader to review the latest updates and changes, and participate when you have a need.
My Example: Miguel’s Shared Items in Google Reader
Get Started at http://reader.google.com
I hope you’ll continue to learn every moment and share that learning with others. The rewards are infinite.
Around the Corner. He is also a Moodle course management system advocate and founder of Moodle Mayhem, a non-profit education group focused on facilitating learning conversations around Moodle's use in teaching and learning situations.