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Participants discuss digital learning communities in our #educon session.

At Educon this weekend, my friend and colleague Andrew Marcinek and I wanted to talk PLNs. Personal learning networks. Professional learning networks. In conversations together over the past year or so, it had become apparent to us that it was time for a change. Anyone who has participated in learning networks for a significant period of time has likely noticed the “echo chamber” effect or have perhaps found the seemingly identical streams of tweets and links shared on a daily basis relentlessly ungratifying. We felt compelled to discuss how to critically examine, deconstruct, and reinvent your PLN in order to become and remain contributing members of meaningful learning networks.

I was inspired to develop a conversation around this topic by many posts regarding the demise of Twitter, specifically this work shared by Bonnie Stewart about all that is “rotten” in the state of Twitter and one of my favorite posts in recent years from George Siemens who declared his PLN “the most awesomest thing ever!“, asking us to truly think about the ways in which we engage in learning in digital spaces.

The session was live-streamed, so our attentive SLA student assistant, Miriam, kept us posted about the backchannel conversations emerging in the streamed space. One of the earliest questions was from Lisa Durff, who quite frankly inquired at the start of our session:

“Why do I need to reinvent my PLN?”

Andy summarized the highlights of our session in his reflective post here, so I will spare you that account from my perspective, however I’d like to share some of my own reflections and struggles with PLNs and the strategies I will use to be a more engaged participant in my networks. This, perhaps, will help answer the “why” posed above.

I need to think critically about who I follow, and why.

One of our participants asked me how I keep up with the stream of information since I follow 3,000 or so Twitter users. Simple: I don’t keep up with it. Early in my connected experience I was told, you will never read every tweet that comes through your stream, so don’t even bother trying. While I’m not at the point where I will reset my account to “Following Zero” as I know others have done, I will take some time to weed through my following list and unfollow accounts that aren’t adding anything to my learning. Because, as Scott McLeod reflects after Tony Baldasaro’s choice to unfollow folks:

Tony’s post reminds us that social networks are like gardens (thank you, David Warlick). They require some nurturing and, yes, some pruning now and then. Sometimes they may even be like prairies, requiring a full burn to nurture new, positive growth.

Twitter, Google+, Facebook… who I add to my circles, who I connect with, how and with whom I engage in conversations… these are the decisions that will have great impact on my learning. There are people who, when I first followed, seemed to share a lot of information relevant to my work. I now see them as posting mostly self-promotional material and/or pie-in-the-sky quotes and things that honestly make me cringe. I seek to engage with a more diverse network, with a group of people that question and challenge my assumptions, and who inspire me on a daily basis.

I need to consider which platform will help meet both my needs and those of the engaged audience. 

Do I tweet a request for help? RT someone’s shared link? Start a new post in Google+? Use a service like IFTT to cross-post to all of my spaces? Since delving into our comprehensive Google+ tech coaches community for questions, answers, and to share ideas and resources, I can honestly say I’d recommend new users make a relevant Google+ community a major component of their PLN. In fact, during our Educon session, while social media services were not an intended focus, many of the participants wanted to learn more about workflow options, tools like Tweetdeck to make organization of the info a bit easier, and the benefits of using Google+. We somewhat veered from our planned discussion topics at that point, but it’s what the learners wanted to learn.

I need to acknowledge that there are educators brand new to “connecting,” and that my advice to blow up your PLN may not be applicable to newbs. 

I hear that. But, I would be doing those new users a disservice if I wasn’t frank about the time commitment involved in developing a strong PLN, or the truth that inevitably, they will need to reinvent the ways in which they engage. It is important not to sugarcoat this experience because someone just sent out their first tweet. I don’t want new users to be deluded into thinking their PLN will a) grow quickly and effectively and require little effort to get started b) last forever exactly as is and c) offer the same quality of resources and support day in and day out. It’s not going to happen. If your engagement with your PLN is exactly the same as it was three years ago- if your relationships with those in your network haven’t evolved or the platforms you use haven’t caused you to reconsider how you contribute and when – then kudos to you, you don’t need to reinvent your PLN. I don’t think many of us can claim that’s true. So while I will continue to support and hopefully inspire those new to the experience, I will also be honest about what lies ahead, the good and the bad.

How about you? What challenges do you face as a connected educator, learning in networked spaces? The more we discuss the dilemmas surrounding quality participation in learning networks, the more meaningful our contributions can be for one another. Thanks for learning with me.

8 comments on ““Why do I need to reinvent my PLN?”

  • Thanks for putting these thoughts up. The points you raise about the relative effectiveness of our PLNs are well taken. In my own connected educator experience of about 18 months I can safely say that the process of relational decision-making through social media is ongoing and a persistent challenge if you have designs on remaining critical as you engage. If unfollowing someone feels like an act of bravery, what does that mean?
    If we are in this for longer than the short-term then some strategic thinking is called for. How do we help each other not only become better but to recognize when our growth gets stuck? It’s in the questions like the ones you pose here. It’s in the act of deciding not to follow back just because I followed you first. And it comes when we open ourselves to challenging conversations – the ones where we might find it tough to stay entirely polite.
    Wow! I didn’t realize how much this post got me thinking. Thanks for putting a dent in my iceberg.

    • Hi, Sherri,
      I really appreciate you taking the time to leave feedback here and share your experiences. I agree, it’s important to develop some engagement strategies, if not at the outset of the connections then absolutely after one is starting to feel comfortable in the spaces. I have seen many conversations lately that have stretched my thinking and some, like you said, that have turned not “entirely polite.” I think it’s a testament to the emotion we share about these topics, about our students, and about our roles in education, but to me, it’s important to stay respectful in those interactions. We need to model for our students how to engage in discourse in respectful ways. We owe that to them as much as we do to ourselves. Thanks again for commenting!

  • Thanks Lyn for sharing!

    I very well understand and have experienced the “echo chamber” effect that you mention within your post.

    “I sometimes think that PLNs become digital choir lofts for people, with a whole bunch of “Amens” being shouted around but without a whole lot of critical thinking going on. ” – Bill Ferriter

    While those “Amens” are important — we all need to feel affirmed, — “Amens” ONLY aren’t enough to drive real change. It’s time we stop talking so much about “why” and begin talking about “how,” “when,” and then reflect upon implementation. I have always wondered why every chat has a new topic each week rather than a reflection chat after a week or two of trying these new ideas and strategies….. or are we just talking about them. We must ask ourselves, “Am I teaching the same way I was this time last year?”

    About 2% of my current PLN influence through honest, straightforward connectedness..

    These are those people who not only cause you to think daily but many times differently. They courageously and willingly engage in connected, uncomfortable, conversations. These are those people who are not afraid to disagree and share their differing viewpoint. They take the time to politely acknowledge one’s perspective and boldly provide a reasonable counterclaim through rational comments, tweets, or direct messages. They say what they mean and mean what they say. They have a way of causing discomfort which inspires others to rethink expectations and perceptions in which many times lead to a change in belief. They focus on influencing the influencers. In short, they work hard on growing your knowledge.

    As I work to “reinvent” my PLN, I hope to increase this percentage. In my experience, I’ve yet to learn something new when someone agrees with me. However, when someone disagrees, one of us will more than likely learn a new way of thinking. I crave robust dialogue within my PLN!

    I hope you keep following me after the “reinvent phase!” Stay connected, Shawn

  • Shawn, thanks so much for your comments! You’re right that Amens aren’t good enough to drive change. (That Bill Ferriter knows what he’s talking about, right?) 🙂 Twitter is an interesting thing because out of my number of followers, there are very few that I actually engage with, or who actually contribute to conversations or push my thinking. I love your paragraph describing those contributors, you explained it perfectly. I, too, need to make the time to connect with more people who will cause me to think critically. Thanks for being one of those people, Shawn!

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