Sunday, February 24, 2008

My Personal Learning Network in Action

This article was originally published in the March/April 2008 issue of ISTE’s Learning & Leading with Technology. I’m cross-posting it here because it’s much more meaningful with links, plus it’s more likely I’ll read a comment here than if you write it in the margins of the magazine. As a side note, I found it very difficult to write a column for Bloggers Café with a due date that was two months before publication. And, of course, I found it very hard to write something that was only 500 words or so!

We’ve spent a lot of time at my school thinking about the concept of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). We live in an age of information abundance. Our students need to learn how to find, evaluate, organize, synthesize, remix and re-purpose information in order to understand and solve complex problems.

A PLN isn’t a particularly new idea; learning networks have existed for a long time. What’s new is the reach and extent that’s now possible for a PLN, with technology and global interconnectedness providing the opportunity for a much wider, richer and more diverse PLN than ever before. This is a complex topic that can’t be fully addressed in a short article, but let me provide an example of my own learning that resulted from my PLN.

I’ve been a big proponent of publishing student work on the web, of using Web 2.0 tools to provide our students with a wider, often more authentic audience. But I’ve struggled with the quality of that work and question whether publishing student work that at times is pretty mediocre is such a good thing after all. My PLN helped me think more deeply about this.

Christian Long posted, “are we really prepared to drown in a sea of "just good enough" presentations.” That led me to several posts by Dan Meyer, “But if they and their teachers aren't immersing themselves constantly in better, clearer work than their own . . . work which for the first time in history is available freely and quickly, how in that vacuum can they rise to any greater occasion?” Dan led me to read Cult of the Amateur by Andrew Keen (books are still part of my PLN). Both Dan and Carolyn Foote led me to a post by Garr Reynolds, “Perhaps if all of us smart experts, with our massive intellects, tried to approach problems with ‘the beginner's mind’ we could get much better at solving problems.” A couple of posts by Vicki Davis got me thinking again about how it takes a “special kind of individual to make connections to be able to see things that specialists on their own cannot see. How do we teach that?”

I had multiple conversations with teachers in my school to further refine my thinking (direct conversation is still part of my PLN). Finally, I came upon a post and a Technology, Entertainment, Design talk by Larry Lessig, who suggested that the “read/write culture” is “a literacy for this generation.”

My thinking has evolved; I have a more refined, nuanced viewpoint on students publishing their work on the web. I believe even more strongly this is something we need to do with students, but I’m also thinking more critically about how to nurture the quality of that work.

As I envision the future, I think it’s critical for our students to create, nurture and expand their PLNs. It’s also critical to include varied viewpoints in our PLNs, to make sure we don’t continually reinforce our already held beliefs. I thank the members of my PLN for all they’ve taught me and encourage all of you to help your students – and yourselves – develop powerful, meaningful and effective PLNs.

Due to space limitations, I couldn’t include this portion with a very long quote from Howard Rheingold that I think is relevant.

A post by Will Richardson led me to an article by Howard Rheingold writing about the importance of developing critical and analytic skills:
Loss of certainty about authority and credibility is one of the prices we pay for the freedom of democratized publishing. We can no longer trust the author to guarantee the veracity of work; today’s media navigators must develop critical skills in order to find their way through the oceans of information, misinformation, and disinformation now available. The ability to analyze, investigate, and argue about what we read, see, and hear is an essential survival skill. Some bloggers can and do spread the most outrageously inaccurate and fallaciously argued information; it is up to the readers and, most significantly, other bloggers to actively question the questionable. Democratizing publishing creates a quality problem, the answer to which is—democratizing criticism. Critical thinking is not something that philosophers do, but a necessary skill in a mediasphere where anybody can publish and the veracity of what you read can never be assumed.
I would also highly recommend that anyone interested in learning more about Personal Learning Networks regularly read both Will Richardson’s and Clarence Fisher’s blogs, as well as the work of George Siemens on Connectivism.


  1. I'm working on a compilation of the best L&L articles from the past 5 years, and I would love you and your readers to visit my blog and nominate your favorites.

  2. Great piece on PLNs. I have been working with them as well and hope to present it to my colleagues next fall as part of our professional development. I really like your ideas and links. I will continue to follow your blog and read on! Thanks!

  3. Come on(line) down .... Connect!Your PLN series. Please join the conversation at:
    Challenge activities and webinars to engage and learn. Holly Rae and tektrekker will facilitate the series.
    Hosted by the Regional Educational Technology Assistance Program (RETA)