As a PhD student I spend too much of my time pondering what topic I’ll eventually tackle for The Dissertation. Naturally, I’m interested in leadership and leadership development, but I’m also interested in learning. Specifically, the way we learn when we leverage the power of collaborative technologies that, right now, we’re barely even scratching the surface of. How do these technologies empower educators to educate and, maybe more importantly, to be educated.
Most of the learning that I see happening online occurs in what have come to collectively be called “Personal Learning Networks.”
I’ve wrestled quite a bit lately with this idea of a Personal Learning Network (or “PLN”). While creating a PLN is all the rage, discounting their significance could be grounds for excommunication (twexcommunication?). Initially, I wondered how this had any sound, educational value as it seemed to me akin to meeting some friends at the local coffee joint, talking a little about work and a little about the Broncos and calling it professional development.
But then it struck me exactly how many times I’ve done exactly that. And how many times I’ve said or heard someone else say something to the effect that, “Hey – all professional development should be like this!”
As with many things “21st century,” the notion of a PLN is vague at best. What are they? Do we start our own? Join one? How? What’s the protocol? To get some idea of how difficult it really is to pin this concept down, think of the last time you tried to explain to someone that you learned about something from someone on Twitter.
“Yeah – I heard about it from this guy I know. Well, not ‘know, know.’ I know him from Twitter. It’s this website where you can tell everyone what you’re doing. Well, I guess they care since they’re following me, but anyway – he had this great idea…”
If all of this is a little too abstract for you, Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach has assembled some resources for people interested in finding out what the heck a PLN is and why they should care. My interest is really in watching these things develop. In the two years I’ve been blogging and Twittering, I’ve already seen conversations around social networking in general grow from the fringe, early-adopters (“Hey, this is cool!”) to becoming more mainstream, at least among forward-thinking educators (“I learned about this resource from someone on Twitter.”).
A New Era of Online PD?
Even though there is little specific agreement on exactly what a PLN is, I think that even the doubters may have to grudgingly accept the value of these tools when it comes to connecting with others to share resources and ideas. Has the time come when using Facebook and Twitter for a few hours can be counted as “professional development time?” Probably not. But as the significance of creating virtual learning communities gains acceptance by those higher up the chain, I think we will see more and more structured, high-quality learning opportunities become available to those willing and ready to embrace them.