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Three Significant Obstacles to Creating a Personal Learning Network

My Personal Learning Network
Flickr CC image - PLN

Last weekend, after enjoying Joe Morelock's keynote about the facing the challenges of rapid change in education, I shared my thoughts on personalized professional development with a group of about twenty eager educators. Midway through our session I made the mistake of asking the group, "What is your favorite activity, or tool, for engaging with your PLN?"

A few averted pairs of eyes, a few puzzled looks, and a few others choosing to be distracted with mobile electronics (wait time...), and then courageously, Anna asked, "What's a PLN?"

"Hold the phones! Stop the presses! What is a PLN?", I let the question simmer for a few moments.

I swiped back to my previous slide, and a few participants took their turns at defining a personal learning network, along with how they personally interacted with their own learning communities.

"After learning a bit more about PLNs, how many of you regularly engage with what could be considered a personal learning network?", I asked. Predictably, the same three hands went up.

I wanted to ask, "Why is it beneficial, in this day and age, for educators to engage in a PLN?" Fearing that the conversation would have a strong likelihood of stalling out, I instead asked, "Knowing a bit more about what PLNs are, what are the primary obstacles that are keeping a majority of educators from engaging in a PLN?" Connected, Semi-connected, & Unconnected Educators - Tom Whitby

Here is the group's three most prevalent responses, along with their respective takeaways:
  1. Fear - Fear of transparent sharing, fear of giving up classroom control, and fear of failure were mentioned by the group members. Several teachers admitted that fear of trying new things was their primary reason for not using social media, and web resources, for engaging with a personal learning network. Even our more experienced connected educators admitted to feeling anxious about putting themselves, and their ideas, "out there". Our acknowledgement of these feelings, along with the acknowledgement that we were all DSL ("digital as a second language" - Joe Morelock) learners seemed to lighten the mood and calm some fears. Several participants created new Twitter accounts during our session. The Takeaway - Once the concept of failure is positively re-framed, trying new things becomes an exciting exploration instead of a nerve-racking endeavor.
  2. Time - Lack of time was cited as a significant reason for not engaging in a PLN. There is no denying the time intensive commitment that is required of educators. How can teachers be expected to carve out a piece of time from their daily schedules for professional growth, and personal learning? Several teachers commented that time demands have increased substantially during the course of their careers, which is a common theme. The PLN-connected educators helped shift the conversation to a discussion of how PLN interactions actually saved time. Once again, Twitter was at the center of a conversation that illustrated how small, daily PLN sessions provided helpful suggestions, useful resources, and professional connections promising future support. A few teachers agreed that this sounded more efficient and productive than the contrived workshops and professional development opportunities they had grown accustomed to. The Takeaway - Working largely in isolation is time ineffective. However, crowd sourcing for ideas, resources, and solutions is very time efficient, professionally energizing, and personally validating.
  3. Ignorance - Lack of knowledge, or at least familiarity, was mentioned as another obstacle for engaging with a PLN. A few of our participants discussed not knowing how to get started with a personal learning network. We reviewed the components that make up an effective personal learning network; professional learning communities (PLCs), personal learning networks (PLNs), and communities of practice (CoPs). We also took a look at several types, and several specific online tools, that help connected educators more effectively share and fully engage with PLNs (see the Slideshare presentation below). I shared a short video created by Dr. Jackie Gerstein to help illustrate what it means to be a socially networked learner. We agreed that it was necessary to adopt a learner's mindset in order to reduce ignorance, grow our PLNs, and become models of connected learning for our students. The Takeaway - Working to leverage the collective knowledge of our networks is more efficient and effective than trying to become the content expert in our classrooms.
 Are there other obstacles to PLN engagement that deserve to be discussed?
What is your favorite activity or online tool for PLN engagement?


Darryn Swaby said…
This is a great post. I had no idea what a PLN was a few months ago. To be honest, I'm not entirely sure I'm creating one now. I started a blog and joined Twitter, but if the various avenues I'm exploring were part of a more traditional conference, I'm really just moving from room to room eavesdropping on interesting conversations. When I read or hear something that piques my interest, I follow or bookmark, but it has taken some time to work up the courage to engage. I don't just walk up to strangers at events and start chatting - that's not me. Getting over that hurdle online is just as difficult.

I would suggest that fear and ignorance are going to be ongoing concerns for me. I can relate to the anxious feeling of getting "out there". Regardless of whether an offline conversation goes well or badly, you walk away and there's no evidence save for the memory of the people involved. Online it feels like every word has the potential to attract a response (positive or negative) that may end up being disproportionate to the original idea being expressed.

As for the ignorance - sometimes I read things and wonder if further engagement is worth the effort. Not being a particularly social person, the idea of 'social networks' sometimes feels very uncomfortable, mainly because of the aforementioned public nature of the conversation. Too much attention. What if I'm wrong? What if someone vehemently disagrees with my word choice, or picks up a spelling error or... once you get started, the list is endless.

I am also regularly reminded of my own ignorance. Do I really want to share my point of view on something at the risk of being personally denigrated? I admit it. In some regards, I'm ignorant. There are people who would jump on that and run with it. They would use it to characterise me in my entirety. And now I'm back to the fear thing... it is a vicious cycle.

Anyway, as I said, great post. I commented. That is a start, right?
Thank you Darryn. You are providing what I am hoping for with this blog, which is meaningful, relevant conversation. I appreciate your feelings of apprehension related to engaging in social media. My PLN processes are still evolving, but it took me about a year to gain confidence with contributing my thoughts. I would love to moderate Twitter chat, but I feel that I need to sharpen my technical skill, and become better at conversation flow. As reassurance to you, I have never been ridiculed or belittled in my PLN circles - occasional disagreement, but never any personal attacks. I am often impressed by the ability of PLNs to provide safe havens for educational conversations like this one. Thanks again for sharing your feelings on this. I am hopeful that others will follow your example by getting engaged in relevant, authentic, learning conversations.
Unknown said…
I actually wrote my dissertation on the subject. Interesting data and even more interesting literature review on the topic.
Unknown said…
I wrote my dissertation on the topic. Interesting data as well as an interesting section in my literature review.
Unknown said…
I've been trying to create and participate more in my own PLN lately. One of the biggest challenges for me earlier was a fear of putting yourself "out there" on the internet. You hear so many stories of teachers' personal lives being public through social media, and how that can affect their profession in a negative way. I've listened over and over to instructors and teachers telling me to either keep everything as absolutely private as possible, or just refrain from things that might leave a digital footprint all together. That way you don't put yourself at risk. It's been difficult for me to overcome that feeling and begin intentionally allowing myself to be a part of these online communities of educators. We just need to make sure that the footprints we are leaving are positive (and intentional?).
Thank you Will - where can we find your research?
Hello Alexandra, I appreciate that you took time to comment with such clarity. I agree that we should not leave our digital footprints to chance. It takes time to create a strategy and gain confidence with social media interactions. My hope is that educators will acquire this confidence and then guide their students safely into online learning communities. Thanks again for your comment - have a good day, Bob

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