The Personal in PLNs

I will teaching two open online courses next semester, and I have been brainstorming a number of ways to do things a bit differently. In both courses, students will go through the process of forming their own personal learning networking. “Their own” is key here and is something I have been struggling with. In the past, I have just given students a list of people from within my network, but I am beginning to think that this practice may be problematic. First, is this not a bit contrived? Or is it? Is this an accurate way of representing how learning networks form? Maybe. I am not sure. Second, does this not just lead to replicating well-formed, existing networks? Or, does this contribute to the dreaded “echo chamber” effect?

Sure, I know that if I give a short list of network contacts to my students, they are not by any means going to form the same exact network that I have, but I would bet these would be very similar. And I am not by any means trying to criticize the members of my own PLN. In fact, I wouldn’t be connected to you if I did not feel that it was a positive connection. But I am curious of what I am missing. I want to understand personal learning networks not only by the connections that form, but also by those that are absent.

So, help me out here. What if I gave each of my students a single point on the the network, a single individual (probably via a blog address), and made all attempts to keep these points as unrelated as possible (yes, quite difficult in our x degrees of separation world). What networks would students form? How similar would these PLNs be? And what could we learn about how educational PLNs form?

Most importantly, if I used this approach with my students, would this in any way disadvantage their learning opportunities?

As always, I would love to hear your thoughts.

20 thoughts on “The Personal in PLNs

  1. If you give them a short list, I also think they would end up with very similar networks. I’ve tried with a couple of teachers to form a network that is more slanted to math teachers or more slanted towards english teachers, tried to go the discipline versus technology as central focus route. It always comes back to ed tech folks and a similar network. I think its the natural overlap between teachers who embed tech that transcends discipline and an absence of enough discipline specific types to grow a full network.
    If you give them unrelated network nodes to enter with, I would bet they end up differentiating by k12 vs. college or by timezone initially.. then they overlap and converge around educators who “get” revised curriculum and tech integration.
    Can I take your courses?

  2. I love your idea because, as I stated in my Twitter reply: building your own network is half the excitement of utilizing these technologies. This will encourage them to look within AND outside their normal circles to create a PLN.
    If I was a student in a class such as this, I think the first network ties I’d make would be to fellow students (which would, in turn, give me access to their networks as well).
    I’m anxious to see what others think, too!

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  4. Okay, that didn’t work.

    Yes, give it a shot. I’d suggest providing some good descriptions or perhaps a quick peek at several options before choosing one. Finding one great blogger you resonate with is key.

    Then have them track their creation of their PLN. That would be interesting.

  5. I agree wholeheartedly with the notion that you should be helping students to create their own networks rather than loaning them a subset of your own – but I wonder about the usefulness of giving them only one person to start with. High stakes. That said, it would be interesting to see what develops.

  6. I agree with Robert. If they are going to be successful in ‘real life’ then they need to learn how to build a PLN. By far the bulk of my current learning comes from my own PLN – colleagues, blogs, delicious and/or diigo, nings, RSS feeds, wikis and recently Twitter. I would show them how to do a blog search for different subjects or interests. It’s a skill for them to learn how to separate the wheat from the chaff and learn how to sift out what will be useful to them. You’ve probably seen Miguel Guhlin’s article on PLNs:
    I wonder how long it would take one of them to find Jane Hart’s links

  7. First, I’m wondering why we’re assuming they don’t already have a PLN. Even if they aren’t connecting in virtual spaces, I’m guessing they have some kind of learning network already, and just need help identifying it. If they have a digital PLN, it’s possible they are in spaces you’ve never even experienced. I’ve found several of my instructors are heavily involved in discipline-specific online discussion groups, that are just as valuable as a network on blogs and Twitter.
    I know you will be addressing literacies. It seems if they are digitally literate, and capable of recognizing learning, they should be able to build their own network, without a seed contact. Let them find their own seed. The reflections on the process will be so valuable. I’ve found that no matter how many times I reinvent my network, it consists mostly of people passionate about education and technology. It works for me, because that is what I do for a living. I don’t think it works for all educators.
    What I would think would be interesting, is exploring more of the object centered sociality. We all congregate around ed tech tools. Your students may have other objects that make more sense. They should be finding communities centered around their interests. For example, have them search youtube, teachertube or slideshare, find an interesting video and then connect with interesting commenters. Have them find the communities that surround their favorite journals, societies, or other organizations. There are many exciting options, but I think it would be a mistake to force any kind of connection. Thanks for bringing your thoughts out in the open. This is an important discussion!

  8. I started with Will Richardson a few years ago. At that point, he was doing an excellent job pointing folks to multiple bloggers around the world. I quickly found a number of prolific bloggers to follow.

    So if you are going to pick one blog, it’s got to be someone who is a connector. Wes Fryer maybe?

    If that doesn’t fly, you can try with the list on

    Also, blogging doesn’t work for everyone. I’m an audiophile — so maybe opening it up to podcasts could be an option. I would even go so far as to point students to social networks like Classroom 2.0 on Ning. You might get better bang for your PLN building buck for some of your students in NING.

  9. @Dean: First, I am thinking about disabling Riffly, as it seems to be having issues … and I also noticed that it has gone to an ad model. I have been avoiding ads at all costs. Second, I really like your idea of documenting the development of a PLN. I think there is so much to learn, and had I know I was developing one (all the time) I wish I had been more deliberate about recording key occurrences (or TSN turning points to my Canadian readers).

    @Elizabeth: Thanks for sharing your past strategies and outcomes. I really would like to see students develop alternate, and (to use THAT term) authentic networks. It’s good to hear what you have tried already.

    @Robert: I like your idea of first looking to the next student (similar to Jen’s later comment) and about looking both inside and outside of their normal circles. Maybe a key question or activity would be to assess their current PLN.

    @Bud: High stakes indeed, and I guess that was partly why I wrote the last sentence in my post. Then, after writing, I thought … why even give them one person at all. Why not try to figure out a much more constructivist approach to getting to not only building a PLN, but also understanding why it may be meaningful. If I continue to tell people how important is to me, it may not necessarily be important to those I share this with. So, in some ways, I am back to rethinking this whole concept.

    @Lesley: And the critical piece, or the filtering piece will have to be incredibly important to all of this. And, I guess this could be built in to Dean’s notion about documenting steps in building the PLN. I could ask students to think about what criteria they use when adding someone on Twitter, or subscribing (or unsubscribing) to a blog. This would be interesting. And thanks for Miguel’s article (hadn’t seen that one), but have seen Jane’s list.

    @Jen: Immediately after I wrote the post (as explained above), I even questioned the single connection. I think your idea of having students identify their own active connections formed around areas of interests (even those that do not involve things like teaching or educational technology) would be a great first step. Maybe we could get back to the basic questions: what sort of things do you do online, who do you converse with, how do you converse, in what ways do you connect, what sorts of things are discussed … toward a notion of, “did you know you can also use these same principles in learning and professional development?” Then, move on to taking the steps to extending their existing PLNs to educational nodes while understanding the necessity (in most cases) of negotiating boundaries between and among communities.

    Thanks all for your comments, they are greatly appreciated, and I am excited about the possibilities.

  10. @Alex: That’s one piece I am not sure about. Will is certainly a supernode (if there is such a thing) and his blog is a fantastic resource. But I still wonder, say if I started someone with Will and another person with say Vicki Davis … how radically different would their networks look at the end of the day? I am not sure, and definitely not saying that would be a bad thing. But I guess, I really want to better understand how these personal networks are formed other than in the way(s) I have always witness them form.

    And your comment re: audiophile, that’s really got me thinking. I need to be more considerate of the medium students prefer when connecting, reflecting, etc. I have (more recently) gone back to reading blogs more than listening to audio … and I need to be cognizant of these preferences of my students. Thanks for commenting!

  11. The piece I keep thinking about is the importance of the online connection as a start…or maybe at all. I guess it comes back to what your ultimate goal is: to have students consider and develop online PLNs or to help them recognize the PLN they are part of and then consider where that network could benefit from the use of online tools to maintain communication.

    I work with teachers who take our online classes most often for the convenience of the schedule. It is after developing strong, interactive relationships with their classmates via technology- the lms, chat, email, etc. that they even recognize the value and potential of online communication tools. I think back to when email was a ‘techy’ tool (not that long ago) and when teachers shunned it as ‘inefficent’ or ‘awkward’. These days it is assumed- just what you do to share information, stay connected. I am wondering if this next wave of online tools will also make that shift. I think the connections come first though, and depending on your exposure to online tools, an online class is an opportunity to consider a new medium for the conversation. And when led to recognize their existing network, and provided a chance to use online tools to connect with classmates, the connection can then be made that online tools can facilitate communication with your existing network, and you can see the possibilities of building an online network as well. I think whether the goal is ‘network’ or ‘online’ changes the way you would want to go.

  12. I am sure if this will help but here is my experience as both a student and a tutor.
    In 2004 I started a Masters programme on educational technologies.One of the courses was called at the time Virtual Learning Communities, and we were asked to do something similar to what you intend to do – we were asked to experience a community, to find ourselves in it, and to form our own learning bonds. No individual contacts were given, but a couple of links such as Tapped In, and others I don’t remember anymore. That would allow us to have a starting point. The idea was to connect to these networks/people according to our interests, personality, etc. We struggled at the beginning – we were not used to have this kind of freedom and choice – but that uncomfortable stage of “finding our feet” is also part of the learning process, as we were later asked to reflect upon. As a student I ended up taking part of a community where I ended in “places” that were never suggested by the professor – also because he didn’t know about them at the time. Online, and with the autonomy granted, I was able to find very generous people who are now very meaningful as part of my PLN – I probably wouldn’t have “looked for them” if it wasn’t for the need to find my own “links”. I had to “fish fr myself” – and that became quite important for me. I really made an effort to find something which I could identify myself with.
    And that’s what I do with my students too – I point them towards directions (inform them about some SNS, but don’t suggest specific people); tell them to observe what people are doing there, to find someone that catches their attention, and to check whom they are engaging with…maybe they are people they will find interesting to “have” in their PLN. Then it’s time to start cultivating a network around them. Above all, I let them know that it’s not that simple, It doesn’t help much just to befriend people – they also need to give a bit of themselves – participate actively and communicate with people in environments they find relevant for their personal development and learning.

    just my two cents. I’m sure whatever you will do will be fine. Hope you share the developments of the students’ activity then! :-)

  13. I think – and this is probably the answer that you least want to read because it is the most time consuming for you – that you will need to find out about each student and provide them with the amount of support they need. I think this is what you (we) did in EC&I 831’s first iteration – we asked students to start developing and participating in an online PLN, then helped out those who needed the support. Remember the importance of social capital entrepeneurship. Also, you invited others to start connecting with students, so in that way they were assimilated into existing networks. I think that was an important step. Sometimes we don’t find a social network, it finds us (that sounds like a slashdot-type Soviet Russia joke).

    I also think you should recommend they listen to EdTech Posse. I’d like to get the subscription numbers up. :-)

  14. One of the key aspects that was highlighted in my PLN Survey was the importance of having mentor(s) when building Personal Learning Networks. Many of the online tools you can use to build your network can be really confusing to use and lonely if you don’t have friends. Mentors that help pave the way do make a difference.

    I would suggest have a series of names of people who you know willingly help others and will also help them connect with other people. That way the students can work out for themselves which individuals they relate to better.

  15. I’m coming late to the convo, but there are a couple of ideas that I use in my classes.

    First, I have my students all link to each other – posts and comments. While that creates a kind of echo chamber, it also creates a critical mass almost instantly.

    Second, I give them a list of about six key points of intersection with the net. You can guess who they are. They’re the ones everybody has.

    Third, I ask them to pick somebody outside their norm — at least one news feed, one political blog, and somebody who writes interesting essays — and share the links with the class.

    I focus them into a PLN that’s largely ‘gator-ized, because I really think the aggregator is the hub in any PLN. I also point out that they’re part of a larger network that extends offline as well, but that access to the meat-space net is limited (and limiting) based on availability and geography.

    One of the major challenges is prying the cold dead fingers off the Synchronous Tools. Yes, being online together is kinda cool. But it’s not *all* and that seems to be difficult for a lot of folks to deal with.

  16. @Jenna: Thanks for this, and I think the “online” vs. “building a network” is an important distinction. I am going to have to think hard about what I want people to do in the course, I am really building the course objectives on the fly (this is all new territory), so I think I need to (re)define some of the key questions and understandings. Thanks for the insight.

    @Cristina: I think you raise two important distinctions: communities vs. tools, and ‘friends’ vs. strong individual connections. I think that would be key to an early discussion, degrees of ‘friendship’, collaborative relationships, etc. Again, very helpful thoughts here.

    @Rob: And I think we both did a great job in EC&I 831, and the social capital entrepreneurship piece worked better than both of us expected (IMHO). As people have mentioned before, I’d really like to focus on being explicit about how people form networks, the steps taken, key occurrences … hmmmmmm … let’s talk soon about this.

    @Sue: I really like the mentorship model, Sue. I guess in the first time around (for this grad course), mentors just emerged and we were less deliberate about making this happen. I often leveraged my own network, trying to match people I knew with student interests … it seemed to work well. But, I guess the piece that I question is whether or not this is a natural way that networks form. Or, should I be worried about this? I guess I am trying to think about a model that any teacher could take on, regardless of the network they have already established. Maybe I am not being realistic.

    @Nate: I like the idea of key intersections, perhaps this is similar to my conceptualization of the supernode. And, the piece on connecting to someone “outside of the norm” is appreciated, and I guess that may be where the difficulty exists. It may be both difficult to (a) find someone outside of the norm (or even define what that means) and (b) to create an authentic connection with that individual by definition. Still, I think this is an important challenge, not only for our students, but for our own knowledge construction. As a final note, I found it interesting that you started with “I’m coming late to the convo”, and ended with the Heston analogy re: Synchronous tools. I am guilty of this, coming to an asynchronous conversation less than 12 hours after it started and feeling late to the party. :-)

    Thanks again to all for adding your thoughts to this important conversation, and helping me figure out a few things.

  17. I guess I missed what level your students are on. Most students have some kind of ecclectic network via Facebook or Myspace at the very least. My suggestion would be to brainstorm what makes a person interesting to someone else and then find the kinds of keywords that would lead them to the ones they will find the most compelling. I’d require the network to include people from contrasting viewpoints. The documentation of this project will be interesting action research. Of course, a very interesting conversation will be about the serendipities involved – the rewards of a good network are not always apparent until they arrive…

  18. Good point about “a model that any teacher could take on, regardless of the network they have already established.” Based on this I would take it as your main aim is really to show them best practice for using with students and also helped them experience learning through using these tools so they understand the value of it. So that is what I would focus mostly on.

    What I’ve noticed as a big failing of many University lecturers working with preservice teachers is that they are getting their students to blog but not supporting them adequately. This concerns me because when these same people then use it with their own students they won’t appreciate the mechanisms needed to support their learners.

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