Personal Learning Networks and Pedagogy – what’s the connection?

A few weeks ago now, I was honoured to visit the University Pedagogy Centre at Lulea University of Technology, in Northern Sweden.  During the week I spent working with Oskar Gedda, Malin Larsson Lindback and their team, we discussed the role of PLNs in the professional learning lives of teaching staff, and of the students at the university.

I presented my research to staff and students on different occasions, and learnt more about the team’s desire to use the PLN as a driver for the development of a pedagogical approach that acknowledges the value of connectedness and digital literacy capacities in our networked society.

Here is the presentation I gave to the graduate students – advice for becoming connected.

Most of my research has been focused on how teachers experience learning through their PLNs. All of the participants in my research engaged with learning through online connections – in a variety of ways, and with a variety of outcomes. No two experiences of a PLN are alike. However, what is emerging for me is the fact that a PLN doesn’t just happen – initiating, maintaining and drawing benefit from a PLN requires certain capabilities, which do not necessarily develop naturally through access to social technologies. Facebook has 2.19 billion monthly active users as of the first quarter of 2018 – however I do not believe that this equates to 2.19 billion individuals who know how to actively learn and construct new knowledge through their connections. The PLN requires individuals to go beyond merely ‘liking’ posts, sharing comments and posting photos – and learning how to do this takes time, commitment and effort.

This Thursday, I will be presenting the Keynote (via Zoom) for the Lulea University of Technology Pedagogy Conference. Preparing for this has gotten me thinking – how can we harness the concept of the PLN to design pedagogical approaches which will help students move from using connective technologies as sites of socialising, so that they may also become sites of learning and growth?

The beginning of 2018 has been a busy time for me. As well as visiting Lulea, I have been involved in a subject called Connected Learning, which has been designed, co-ordinated and taught by Dr Mandy Lupton, and run as a part of the Master of Education qualification at Queensland University of Technology. This subject encourages students to “explore connected learning as a contemporary learning approach for formal and informal learning contexts, including school, higher education, libraries, workplace and community settings.” It also allows students to “develop your digital identity as a connected educator.” The first part of the semester asks students to identify and critique a connected learning environment, before they turn the spotlight on themselves in the second half of the semester, by developing and critiquing their own professional learning network, based on a specialised area of interest.

This subject has required the students engage with and develop skills in navigating different social media platforms and technologies, publicly reflect on their learning through blogging, experiment with creating a variety of digital artefacts (such as curated collections, infographics, podcasts, tutorial videos etc) and become familiar with the concepts of creative commons, copyright and the public domain, as they influence online publication, remix and reuse.

Not every course has the flexibility to enable an entire subject to be devoted to connected learning. As a course in education, it is important that this contemporary form of learning is addressed, but in many other disciplines, this may seem to be less than relevant. However, the capacity to connect, and to learn through the connections which are available to every individual thanks to the networking capacity of social technologies is an essential skill across disciplines. Medical and health professionals, those working in the sciences, engineers, academics, those in IT, in the public service, in the legal profession – all of these people and more will find that being able to create networks of learning and support across geographical and temporal boundaries is, or will soon become, an indispensable capability. Article after article discussing the skills most needed in a future dominated by rapid change and artificial intelligence emphasises the need for students to know how to continually access learning – to be flexible, agile and able to update their skills to meet ever-changing demands:

Today, in the 21st century, we’re seeing the rise of new work models such as freelancing and remote work. In the most advanced companies, teams are learning to be more agile, to work with distributed and remote teams, and to scale up and down to adapt to ever-changing conditions. This is the future of work. Stephane Kasriel, CEO, Upwork for the World Economic Forum.

Therefore, to support students to become 21st century professionals, all courses must design pedagogy that supports the development of connectedness skills, and the cultivation of PLNs. Lulea University of Technology and Queensland University of Technology are testing the waters – and I’d love to hear more stories of how we are educating students for a connected, networked future.