Encouraging teachers to become lifelong learners should be the aim of each school’s professional learning program. Learning success inspires a sense of achievement, self-satisfaction, increased confidence and motivates continued learning, leaving teachers feeling empowered to set their own agenda and pursue knowledge just for the sake of it.
To motivate this kind of learning, there is perhaps no better resource than that of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), a resource which can liberate teachers from the confines of traditional learning opportunities such as those offered in staff meetings, curriculum days, workshops and conferences. PLNs, in which connections with other learners is a key component, are both exhilarating and inspirational.
What is a PLN?
Sometimes experience can be a better teacher than teachers themselves. Understanding the nature of PLNs, what they are and how they develop, often comes from participation in a PLN. “A PLN is a group of people or professionals, with whom you connect, communicate and collaborate in the sharing and exchanging of information and ideas and through whom you increase your knowledge and understanding of topics of interest to you.” (ow.ly/CCFMd)
The group of people or professionals in a PLN may be known or unknown and may be located locally or globally. PLNs are not clubs or groups to which membership is prescribed. Instead, a PLN evolves, most often over an extended period of time, with participants coming and going and new participants continually being drawn into its circle. The group is nebulous and defies being defined by membership, size or configuration. One of the defining features of a PLN, however, is that participants are like-minded people who share common interests and a desire to share and exchange information, knowledge and ideas. With key components of a PLN being connecting, communicating and collaborating, most often these exchanges occur in cyberspace, utilising one or more of the many social networking platforms available. Unlike traditional networks that draw in educators from local schools, network groups or delegates at conferences attended, PLNs allow for expanded borders, in which teachers worldwide, alongside world leaders, experts, scientists and researchers, can interact with each other. The ensuing exchange of knowledge and information enriches shared understandings and experiences, bolstering individual and group learning. Reflecting on the thoughts and ideas of others is very powerful. It is not unusual for participants of a PLN to feel they are part of a worldwide knowledge chain.
PLNs constitute a new and powerful way of learning that are increasingly engaging and exciting the interest of educators worldwide. Enabling educators to decide what they learn, when they learn, where they learn and with whom they learn allows teachers to determine their own learning path. As the one-size-fits-all model of professional learning is increasingly acknowledged as not suiting the needs of teachers, the nature of PLNs ensures that individuals can learn at their own pace. This individualised learning ensures that teachers no longer have to compete with their peers nor endure the embarrassment inherent in not understanding or mastering new concepts, tools or pedagogies as quickly as their peers. It ensures that learning occurs in a very personal, meaningful way.
PLNs provide a safe and secure learning space, where reassurance and support is constantly given by participants to each other. Forging virtual friendships where collaborative projects or learning are the focus is a fun way to learn. It is not unusual that the frequent virtual interaction between participants of a PLN forms the kinds of close bonds normally developed in face-to-face friendships. This closeness enables participants to feel confident to share, discuss and question, a process which enhances learning from and with others. PLNs are a forum in which ideas, thoughts, experiences and concerns can be shared.
How to Develop a PLN
The first step in any new process can be quite daunting. This can be overcome by teachers being quite definite about what it is they want to achieve. Once an interest-based focus – either professional or personal – is decided upon, teachers should decide what they really want to achieve, then determine from the outset how, where and when those aims will be achieved. Clearly, the more time invested, the greater will be the return. Being able to create time to stop, think and do is essential for successful learning.
Teachers should set priorities and establish achievable steps, with the understanding that not everything can be learned all at once, so new tools and new concepts should be tackled one at a time. Let learning build upon itself, much like the scaffolding teachers aim to create in lessons for use by their students. Teachers need to give themselves time to absorb the new and to synthesise the new with the old. They should immerse themselves into this new learning environment and be an active rather than passive learner so they can maximise their experience and learn by doing. Being shy, reticent and not taking risks are factors that should be set aside for this new kind of learning experience.
As mentioned earlier, the key component of a PLN is connecting, communicating and collaborating with others in cyberspace. But cyberspace is vast. For the uninitiated, knowing where to start can be both overwhelming and intimidating. Consider the various components of cyberspace to help choose the best path which suits the aims. Social media platforms, including Twitter, Facebook, Google+ and LinkedIn, are just a few of the cyberspaces in which teachers can share, discuss and exchange thoughts and ideas about the immense amount of information constantly gleaned when exploring websites and blogs which are augmented by curation tools such as Pinterest, Tumbler and Scoop.it and by a host of audio and video feeds typical of podcasts and YouTube videos. No matter what the starting point though, remember that each of these distinct components constantly interact and overlap with each other, so very quickly participants will become submerged within the vast ocean of networks that float around in cyberspace. The repeated interactions had with others will gradually evolve into a PLN.
Although trying to create a structured approach for the new learner who aims to develop a PLN can be a challenge, it is possible. Participation in a highly structured, well thought out online learning program can allow participants to simultaneously learn, explore and discover while interacting with each other in a predetermined social networking platform. As participants engage with the subject matter of the online learning program, they will inevitably wander off on their own, making independent discoveries and new connections. Bringing those new independently gained learnings back to the group provides a basis for sharing and exchanging of information which is part and parcel of a PLN.
Gains from a PLN
Much can be derived from participation in a PLN:
1. Learn anything: Both formal and informal learning opportunities constantly present themselves when engaging with a PLN. Indulge in work-related issues or personal interests. Choices are limitless.
2. Learn anytime: The freedom to connect with PLN members on social media opens the door to learning any time of day, week or year. Time restrictions no longer apply.
3. Learn anywhere: The location of where teachers link up with PLN members is theirs to make. The freedom that comes with deciding whether to link up at home, at work or while on holiday is both liberating and empowering.
4. Learn with anybody: Teachers can engage with academics who have written the books they read, professors who hold positions at leading universities, local or overseas presenters they have heard at conferences or in online forums. Meet, chat and interact with them in the PLN.
5. Self-directed learning: Deciding what, when, where and with whom learning occurs in a PLN also allows teachers to determine how quickly or how slowly learning transpires. While PLNs may be comprised of a wide variety of experienced and inexperienced participants, professors, academics, researchers, principals and teachers, as well as first-year graduates, it is a level playing field in which interaction is on an equal footing. Competition and comparison between participants of a PLN simply does not exist.
6. Formal and informal learning: While formal online learning programs encourage a focus on specific issues, PLNs encourage and inspire a wealth of informal learning opportunities engendered by members sharing links to blogs and websites or tips, thoughts and ideas.
7. Problem solving: The mentoring and guidance offered by participants of a PLN to each other to support the learning of new skills, explore new tools, locate specific information or answer questions is powerful and often overwhelming. Its value is beyond measure.
8. Collaboration: Sharing, discussing and interacting with members of a PLN is a powerful way to develop new ideas that can be tried and tested by a team and be the kernel for the development of great programs, techniques, lessons and curricula. The joy of learning is enhanced when it is shared with others.
9. Friendship: Learning from and with peers while exchanging thoughts and ideas, solving problems and connecting in meaningful ways are great. The bonds of professional friendship created with like-minded people who are participants of a PLN are cemented by these shared experiences.
10. Lifelong learning: PLNs encourage all participants to nurture that underlying desire within each of them to continually learn. Indeed, learning begets learning.
Enabling teachers to discover the joy of learning and its inherent power is really what school professional learning programs should be eliciting. To learn for the sake of learning rather than to learn because it is a requirement needs to be the basis of all teacher learning programs. The mentoring that occurs within a PLN is indeed a very powerful way to learn and to share achievements, knowledge and skills gained and developed. Giving and receiving, sharing and exchanging is inspirational, powerful and challenging.
Encouraging teachers to become self-starters who are able to take control of their own learning, design its path and learn based on their own interests and needs, can power a burning desire to learn, develop and grow. In turn, the entire educational sector benefits.
Read more about PLNs in this Scoop.it! (ow.ly/K3TCj)
Bev Novak has had extensive experience as a classroom teacher, specialist and Head of Library in a variety of school settings where she constantly aims to inspire a love of reading and ignite a joy of learning among students and teachers. Having published widely, Bev also authors two blogs, NovaNews and BevsBookBlog, in which she shares many tips, tools and experiences. In between exploring, discovering and experimenting, Bev actively encourages others to expand, embrace and enjoy their own journey of lifelong learning. Bev can be contacted via her blog novanews19.wordpress.com or follow her on Twitter @novanews19