Initiating and maintaining a Personal Learning Network (PLN) can be an incredibly exciting, rewarding and very effective way to engage with professional learning. However, learning mediated by social networks is not without its challenges.
This post is all about how to manage perhaps the most obvious challenge that connected professionals encounter when they engage through their PLNs: infowhelm*.
Infowhelm is that feeling of being overwhelmed by the massive amounts of information online which is readily available…and constantly growing.
Having access to what seems like an almost unlimited amount of information may be a tremendous resource, but it also has the potential to make you feel out of control. Engaging with your PLN can begin with just a handful of connections, but it can quickly grow to a point where the flow of information becomes so great it is impossible to keep up. Teachers who contributed their thoughts to my research commented that they sometimes felt flummoxed when trying to reconcile the desire to “know everything” with the realisation that it is not humanly possible.
It is undeniable that it is no longer possible to be completely aware of the sum total of information available on any particular topic. Rather than allowing this to make us feel inadequate or overwhelmed, here are some great strategies to consider that teachers have shared with me, and that I use myself to manage overwhelming amounts of information. You probably use many of these information literacy strategies already, however there may be a tip or two that you haven’t considered.
Even if you don’t have a PLN, they are still worth considering. They are great ways to fight that feeling that you may be becoming ‘addicted’ to your social networks, and could also prove useful research strategies for you or your students.
The strategies: in depth
1. Limit your connections
Sometimes, the easiest way to limit the amount of information that is flowing through your PLN is simply to limit the amount of connections you have that are sharing that information. Perhaps you are interested in gathering information for a particular topic, but you are short on time. Why not seek out the leading names or experts in the field, and simply follow them, rather than following every individual who cites an interest in the topic. Often, you only need to gather the key ideas, or a few inspirational concepts, and by identifying those in the network who are sharing information of the highest quality, you can quickly zero in on what you need, without being overwhelmed by others who may be simply resharing or making a passing comment.
How do you find these thought leaders? It really depends on what area you are exploring. Try looking on social networks for authors of seminal texts, or investigate conferences on the topic and see who the keynote speakers are. Look at who others are following; if many individuals in your network all seem to be following one particular person or group, check them out – there may be a reason they have such a large following! Ask your network who they think the key thinkers are in your field of interest; then zero in on these names and see what is being shared. Narrowing your network is not always a worthwhile strategy, but if you are short on time, and know what you are looking for, it may be worth a try.
2. Choose your platform
Along similar lines to strategy number one, consider focusing your network on one particular platform if you are finding yourself flooded with information. Usually, a high quality PLN spreads across different platforms and applications in order to harness the widest range of opinions or sources of information, but if this is leading to too much information, try being more strategic. Think about the topic you are wanting to focus on, and consider how content in that topic is most often shared, and by whom.
If your topic is highly visual (e.g. you are an Arts teacher, or designer), perhaps you might find limiting your network to Instagram, Pinterest or even targeted networks like DeviantArt might help you access more relevant information. If your topic is highly controversial (e.g. you are exploring people’s political preferences, or certain religious topics) you might go to Twitter for a broad range of opinion, or seek specific groups on Facebook for a narrower focus. Just be aware that by limiting your focus in this way, you may only be gathering one side of the information story. Part of cultivating a PLN is about gathering a balanced range of information, so don’t narrow yourself too much!!
3. Use keywords or hashtags
There are many reasons why you might use keywords or hashtags to sift through the masses amounts of information available through your PLN, and one of the most obvious is to help bring order to what can sometimes seem chaos. Gathering relevant information from a wide range of people who may or may not belong to your PLN is made so much easier when you use a hashtag, which is essentially a keyword to search. Start by choosing broad terms that you might associate with your topic – for example, if you are a Catering teacher, you might begin a search using the terms #Cooking #Culinary – and then narrow down your focus from there, being guided by the hashtags others are using in their posts. Discovering a relevant hashtag can be an amazing way to tame the information surge, and can also lead you to discover new people to include in your PLN. For educators, great lists of hashtags to begin the search can be found on TeachThought or Cybraryman‘s site.
4. Curate purposefully and with tags that are meaningful
One way to organise all of the great information you encounter through your PLN is to curate it as you discover it. This means to save the link or information source using a tool so that it can be found later, when you want to come back to it. It’s a bit like bookmarking, but it goes a little further. Digital curation is more than simply collecting. When you curate information, you are developing a resource for yourself and others which will be a stand alone source of content. For more information on digital content curation, check out this post, and for selecting the right curation tool, read up here.
One of the most important things to remember when you curate information is to add tags that are meaningful. Most curation tools will allow you to add a tag or tags, which are keywords. These keywords act in a similar way to hashtags; they help you organise your content, and allow you to find the content you have saved. There is no use adding a tag like “for later” or “must read” to a piece of content. Although this makes sense at the time, three months later when you come back to search for that content, you won’t remember that you used those tags. Instead, choose meaningful tags that describe what the content is, or how it could be used.
For example, when you find a terrific lesson plan for your Year Four science class, use the tags “Year 4” “science” and “lesson plan”. That way when you go back to your collection, and want to find a lesson plan, or something to teach in science, or something for your Year Four class, you are more likely to be able to find it. Content curation can sometimes make you feel as though you are actually not getting through all of the information you would like to, but taking the time to curate as you go means that what you do access will be more likely to be useful in the long term; after all, we always find that amazing idea when we are not actually looking for it!
5. Walk away
Sometimes, the best way to deal with feelings of infowhelm is to simply put down the device or walk away from the computer! Having a PLN means that your connections are there for you, and although the feeling of FOMO (fear of missing out) may be strong, the great thing about having developed authentic connections means that if you ever do miss something, it is likely that someone else will be able to direct you to it when you actually need it. We all need to take a break from the onslaught of information we encounter every day, and being able to step away and take a break means that you will come back to the flow with fresh eyes, and a great chance of using your network productively. Remember, your PLN is like a fast running river; you will never be able to capture all of the ideas rushing past, but the ideas will keep flowing; so taking a break is quite often the best thing you can do when you feel overwhelmed!
We can all feel overwhelmed by the huge amount of information we engage with everyday; even the 24 hour news cycle can be hard to keep up with. The concept of an expert has changed; no longer one who knows all of the content possible on a particular topic, but one who knows how to find and evaluate the most relevant information, building on their firm foundation to explore new and changing knowledge all the time. What strategies do you employ when your PLN seems too ‘busy’ and you can’t possible process all of the ideas and suggestions being made? By recognising the new ways of working social technologies have created, we can support each other (and our students) to become better learners in an information saturated environment.
Stay tuned for my next post, which will deal with time management and your PLN!
*A note on the term Infowhelm; at this point I am unsure who coined this term, however I can trace its use to Andrew Churches’ 21st century fluency project and this video: – if anyone has any further information, I’d love to recognise the creator of this term which I have used frequently over the years to describe ‘that’ feeling.