The Power of Professional Learning Networks

Shyam Sharma

Your “social” network is probably represented fairly well with who is on your Facebook “friends” list and how you engage with those people. But what does your professional learning network look like? In fact, what is a professional learning network?

In this entry, I share with you a powerful concept called the “professional learning network” (PLN) and share a few specific tips on how to develop–or become more conscious and deliberate about–a professional learning network in order to enhance your professional development as teachers and scholars, and what is more important, also help others in your professional community develop professionally by sharing your knowledge with them.

The concept of PLN originated from Personal Learning “Environment” (PLE), which referred to the situation and mechanism that a learner develops and uses for setting learning goals, managing learning process, and assessing outcome. With the advent of information technologies, it evolved into Personal Learning “Network” (PLN). More recently, many educators and other professionals have adapted the idea into “professional” learning network (also PLN; here’s some description and here’s some history).

With the advent of powerful networking technologies, professionals as well as learners are now able to access vast amounts and variety of information, aggregate and organize that information, prioritize what to read and/or respond to and how, with which community to share what and how much, and so on. As an example, here is an image in which I attempt to visually describe my own personal/professional learning network (you can click to see a larger image or right-click to download the file). I am still unsure how to integrate many other things that are not in the image and how to better organize an relate what are there, but trying to visually represent my PLN really helped me to think about my professional goals, management of time and energy, and so on. I call mine personal and/or professional because my roles as a learner and a professional overlap quite significantly.

Having introduced the concept, let me now share a few suggestions about how we can develop our professional learning network (both for ourselves as individuals AND in order to benefit one another).

1. Subscribe to blogs in your areas of interest. This means asking the blog to send you an email alert when a new entry is posted. Except with blogs (like those of news outlets) that may publish too many entries, blogs don’t usually flood your inbox. I guarantee that this blog will only sent you a few emails and only once a month, and I reassure you of that in order to (yes) suggest that you can go ahead and subscribe now.

2. Follow professionals on Twitter. Twitter, as many of us know, is a microblogging site where people share very brief (140 characters max) messages–breaking news, teaching tips, pithy comments, humor, hyperlinks, and whatnot–with their network. Compared to blogs, these are short and therefore good for mobile devices, as well as busy/mobile people. Compared to the full experience of social networking on Facebook (including its silliness, narcissism, distracting pictures and videos, and worst of all, too many “friends” ranging from the principal of our childhood school to maila kakaki saliko jwainko bhatijaki soltini to NELTA colleagues around the world to what-the-heck-when-did-I-add-this-guy kind of people)–okay, compared to Facebook, microblogging allows you to “follow” professionals in your field(s) of interest and let people “follow” you… and I don’t think maila kaka will follow your ELT Twitter feeds and hashtags, unless he happens to be an ELT person, which would be great.

3. Use Social Bookmarking. How often do you find yourself sending a link to an interesting article or educational video to a colleague, or two… well, post it on NELTA’s Yahoo Mail and flood the inboxes of 500 (?) people? You don’t have to share resources on the web like that. Just save your bookmarks in applications like Diigo or Delicious (install extensions on your browser) and people can see what you have “saved for later” and you can see theirs. That “theirs” could be people you know or it could be the whole social bookmarking community who have used “tags” to describe their findings on the web. (Here’s a fun video intro to  social bookmarking.)

4. Sign Up on Listservs and/or Mailing Lists. You probably are on NELTA’s Yahoo mailing list, which will send you a copy of all mails any member sends to the list. While it’s no longer the most efficient mode of conversation (though it is a still a good means for organizations to update its members), being on mailing lists is very important to stay updated. Listservs are more advanced forms of mailing lists.

5. Remember to Use Plain Old Personal, Human Contact. Motivated professionals as well as learners communicate with their colleagues and peers with both the intention of socializing and the intent of learning. Attending training events and workshops, conferences and seminars, and just asking questions or sharing ideas with colleagues are all extremely important aspects of persona/professional learning network. It is on top of this basic network that we want to take, as much as the resources allow us, that we take the human network into the web and extend it to people you may not be able to meet in person, add the affordances of synchronous and asynchronous exchange of ideas, conveniently store and retrieve information, and use the technology to help you aggregate and organize information for you.

There are many benefits of PLNs. First, it not only increases access to information and ideas that are relevant to us, it also allows us to organize that information. Second, the accessing/aggregating and organizing of information is mostly done by the invisible hands of technology, saving us huge amounts of time. Third, even when we are not using too advanced technologies, the very process of identifying our learning network and planning and organizing it makes us more efficient learners and professionals. Fourth, the network takes us from the isolation of our roles as “masters” of our classrooms where students do not engage with us as an equal into an open society where we can talk to our own learning peers. Fifth, we get the opportunity to learn by sharing our own knowledge  with others (and most of us learn by teaching!), and because we share that knowledge and experience with like-minded people, we also get useful response in return. (Here’s an interesting representation of the benefits of PLN).

Before I paint any rosy picture, let me add an important caveat about PLN that we, as members of a smaller, younger professional community, need to keep in mind. For us, it is not enough to sit there and try to access and organize knowledge and experience shared by others; very often, there are simply not enough sources or people for you to gather the information from. We must create and share new knowledge with one another. By contrast, if you think about teachers in Europe or America, because of the number of teachers and scholars in those societies who have access to the web, the resources that they need, the amount of time they have been on the web, etc, individual teachers there can access cache of information even without giving as much back. In our case, if we want our professional learning network to be rich in local/relevant and really useful information, we must contribute to our own new pool of knowledge, as well as utilize what is available from teachers/scholars from other societies. Let us use a specific example. If you have read the humorous examples of broken English shared by Parmeshwar Baral in this issue, no one else but Nepali English teachers can explain and help us understand/tackle these error patterns. So, we need to share our knowledge with others, as well as learn from them, if we want to make our PLNs useful.

Using the comment function, please share with other readers of this blog any general or specific ideas about your own PLN. Let us use this forum to exchange ideas among as many of us as possible, rather than use it to passively read the ideas of a few of us. Thank you in advance for your time.

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