Anyone who has spent anytime engaging with social networks and the internet in general will know of its addictive qualities.
Whether it is endlessly scrolling through photos on Instagram, reading Tweets as they pop up during your favourite reality television program (watch them fly while QandA is on the TV!) or simply getting lost in the rabbit hole of linked Wikipedia pages, it is very easy to be distracted from your initial task and find yourself an hour (or two!) later trying to remember just what exactly you were meant to be looking for.
When engaging with your PLN (personal learning network) for professional learning, it is very easy to let time slip away, and what begins as time dedicated to high quality learning may quickly be derailed by fascinating (but off track!!) discoveries. In my research, every participant commented on the challenge of managing time effectively when learning online.
Connected professionals are busy people. Although getting lost online may be an enjoyable way to spend an afternoon, if this is how every engagement with your PLN ends, it will soon become evident that this is not an effective use of your time. Therefore, just like the participants in my research study, it might be useful to develop a range of strategies to help keep you focused and make the best use of your precious time.
Time management strategies when engaging with a PLN will be dependent upon your personal learning style, what type of learning experience you are seeking and how much time you actually wish to spend on this type of professional learning. For some of my research participants, connecting with their PLN was an important but minor part of their day to day practice. For others, their PLN formed and informed a great deal of their professional and personal identity. These teachers all had different ideas about how much time spent online was ‘too much’, yet all of them recognised the value of balance, and the need to combine the always available accessibility of the PLN with time spent with family and friends. Professional learning through a PLN is most usually informal learning, happening in the individual’s own time, and therefore it is important for mental and physical health to be able to put limits on how much time one’s brain is engaged and thinking about work.
With these things in mind, I present below four strategies, identified through my research and practiced by myself and others to manage time spent online. When your family and friends are beginning to comment on how your eyes are seemingly permanently glued to the screen, remember these strategies and smile.
While learning with and from your PLN is fabulous, there is a life outside of the network!
Let’s look at each of these strategies in more detail.
1. Set limits
Although it sounds obvious, consciously setting yourself limits as to how long you will spend engaging online with your PLN can help you to manage your time more effectively. These limits could be as simple as a set period of time – “I will spend the next 45 minutes on this” or allowing yourself a certain number of ‘screens’ to scroll through.
One research participant said when he opened up Twitter to simply catch up on what had been recently shared, he limited himself to three screens worth of tweets; if he didn’t come across anything interesting or useful as he scrolled, he put the device down and moved onto something else. He said that knowing discovery was often serendipitous, if he wasn’t meant to find something new in three screens worth of information, he would find something next time. Having simple guidelines to stick to can help plan your engagement with your PLN more effectively.
2. Engage purposefully
Similarly to setting limits on your interactions with your PLNs, engaging with a specific purpose in mind can help you to take control of how long you spend online. Engaging purposefully with your PLN might look different each time you interact, however being clear on your learning intentions can help you to zero in on the type of resource or engagement you are hoping to access.
Use hashtags or the search function to directly access resources or previous discussions on the topic you are focusing on.
Consider who within your network might have experience in the area, and contact them directly. If you aren’t sure of who might be able to help you, sometimes a tweet or message requesting assistance can reveal a wealth of connections and resources you may never have discovered otherwise.
Another strategy is to find the profile of well known authors or experts in the field, and either contact them, or look to see who is among their followers; perhaps you already have a connection that you didn’t realise may be able to help you!
3. Remember time zones
Having 24/7 access to a global network is an incredible learning opportunity that has never previously been possible. I have engaged with webinars and online discussions with individuals from all over the world in a synchronous format that has blown me away – what an amazing experience! Another benefit of a global network is that even while your hemisphere sleeps, the other is working hard; this means that if you put out a request late in the evening, there is a chance that when you wake up, you will have received responses from those who have been hard at work…pretty magical stuff.
However like everything, this too has a shadow-side.
Be aware of time zones, and respectful of the fact that others need their leisure time also. Even when learning with others on the other side of the world, there are usually ‘sweet spots’ where meetings can coincide during working hours; one participant may be meeting early in the day, the other in the late afternoon. Use a tool such as World Clock Meeting Planner to identify the best time to meet, or to calculate when events in other countries will be held in your time. And remember to figure in Daylight Saving! This can catch you out if you aren’t aware, so avoid missing meetings by an hour or so by checking with a local or doing some research :).
4. Trust your network
You can’t be online ‘all the time’ and there will be events or discussions that you will miss. Whether it is a conference happening on the other side of the globe which is occuring while you sleep, a Tweetchat that is scheduled for the middle of your work day or just a useful resource that is shared when you are not online, it is impossible for anyone to stay on top of the huge amount of activity, sharing and information exchange happening in your PLN (See Managing Infowhelm for tips on how to deal with FOMO (fear of missing out!)) This is where trust in your network is essential.
Your network will consist of strong and weak ties – connections with individuals you interact with more frequently, and weak ties, those serendipitous encounters with connections which might only happen once, but mean that your network is receiving fresh perspectives and ideas. Trust your strong ties to tag you in conversations that they feel you will be interested in; and do the same for them. When someone tags you in a conversation, you will receive a notification, meaning that you will be alerted that someone has mentioned you, and you can check it out at a time that suits you. Do the same for others in your network, and you might find that you save time as resources come to you! Also save time by checking out replays of webinars or archived tweet chats, which will enable you to skim through to find anything of interest; it might only take 15 minutes to read through the tweets that were shared over the course of an hour long chat, saving you precious time and meaning that you don’t have to sit up at odd hours to interact. Of course, asynchronous access is not the same as ‘being there’ and contributing, but if time is short, or if time zones are not in your favour, this strategy could be an effective one for sourcing useful information or resources.
How do you manage time when engaging with your PLN? Do you have strategies that allow you to zero in on what you are looking for, or do you send out requests for assistance? What is your best time saving technique? We often neglect to discuss the challenges of this type of informal learning; but when we share our experiences, we all benefit. After all, that is what learning within a participatory culture is all about :).
If these strategies are useful, why not check out my previous post on managing infowhelm, and stay tuned for future posts with more strategies to help you evaluate quality and credibility and manage your professional digital identity!