Supercharge your PLN – Part Two

Following from my previous post, which explored how you might use hashtags to supercharge your PLN, this post will continue looking at ways to enhance your learning through the PLN, this time exploring the importance of connections.

Learning through a PLN is inherently social. If we listen to what George Siemens and David Weinberger say, humanity has generated too much knowledge for any one person to hold in their head, and what’s more, it’s changing too rapidly for us to stay on top of it all. Old models where learning was considered to be the sum total of what we could store in our brains are no longer practical, hence the focus on theories such as networked learning and connectivism. These theories explain how connections between people and information sources create opportunities for knowledge construction, and they emphasise the mediating and enabling features of digital technologies which provide the context and affordances which allow this learning to happen.

An active PLN is based upon a tacit or explicit understanding of learning that is dependent upon connections, and a recognition that learning is a social experience. This doesn’t mean that learning happens within a room filled with people – paradoxically, we are almost always alone when we are experiencing social learning through our PLN. What it means is that the construction of new knowledge and understandings happens through interaction with others via our connections.

This means that our PLN lives or dies by the quality of our connections – and that is what this second post focuses on – the different types of connections you might cultivate, and how to develop these connections so that they remain healthy and positive. Some of this information is drawn from my research exploring teachers’ experiences of professional learning using PLNs, so thank you to those who have contributed to this knowledge!

Creating quality connections

1.Find your tribe

Being able to break down traditional geographic and temporal barriers means that no matter where you live, or what your professional interests are, it is almost guaranteed that someone ‘out there’ shares the same passions as you do. As your PLN is something that you have initiated and that you have spent time developing, it is likely that it is driven by your interests and passions. It may be that you are working in a small school, or you are the only practitioner interested in pursuing a particular professional interest in your local area – but this matters no longer! Careful sleuthing online is likely to reveal a host of individuals and information sources that you can begin learning with.

This doesn’t mean that you are seeking others who will constantly agree with you – we should all be aware of the dangers of echo chambers, and of the ease with which we may fall into our own internet filter bubbles. Rather, when searching for our tribe, we should be looking for a like-mindedness clustered around a shared need and desire to continue learning and pushing oneself into new areas associated with our interests – those who will challenge our thinking, question our practice and help us to grow by presenting us with new ideas. It is lovely to have someone pat us on  the back and tell us we are fabulous – and we should always take the time to encourage and validate – but when developing our tribe, we must also be brave enough to give and receive constructive feedback – or it is not learning that we are engaging with, but just approval seeking.

2. Think different

Beyond your tribe lies literally thousands of others who come from wildly diverse disciplines and backgrounds, who bring  serendipity and discovery to your PLN. Having a PLN enables us to break free of the silos that often exist within our workplace and even our profession. Think of the way that Da Vinci straddled the Arts, Mathematics, Science and Philosophy. Do you believe that his achievements would have been as great in any one of these areas had he not had the rich experiences in the other disciplines? Wide and deep connections may have links to your profession without being practitioners – they may be vendors, individuals involved in higher education or consultants. Others may be drawn from backgrounds with little or nothing to do with education.

Having diverse connections creates opportunities to see your position from a completely different perspective, and allow you to become informed in areas which then may have unexpected flow on effects. Diversity doesn’t have to be discipline based, either. Seek connections with various levels of expertise – people who will mentor you, and people you can mentor. Sometimes learners can ask questions that prompt you to see things in ways you had never considered. Having culturally diverse connections is also a wonderful learning opportunity. In fields that are global, such as education, cultural or national differences can provide new layers of understanding, and help to develop a sense of community that allows us to appreciate and not fear difference.  Very often, a random insight from a seemingly unrelated context can inspire an idea or may jog progress when previously ‘stuck’. Refreshing your PLN with wisdom from a wide range of sources offers inspiration and opportunities to learn and grow in unexpected ways. This is a huge strength of the PLN – and something previously very difficult to achieve, particularly in isolated professions such as traditional classroom teaching.

3. Create authentic connections

Developing a PLN that provides rich learning opportunities is dependent upon authentic connections. Whereas the goal of marketing is often to harvest massive numbers of followers, the goal of learning through social and digital technologies is not about ‘following’ at all – it is about interacting.  Blindly following others without reading through their profiles, accepting connections without due diligence and failure to weed out bots and spammers creates a PLN that is more problematic than professional. PLNs operate on (largely) unspoken principles of sharing and reciprocity. Giving credit where credit is due (i.e. acknowledging the work of others when retweeting or reposting), contributing your own content as well as seeking content from others and building an atmosphere of trust is vital for a PLN to be productive and positive. Start slow when creating connections, and make sure that each one is authentic. It is a process of curating, not collecting connections. Just as when curating information, the connections you leave out may be more influential than those you include in your PLN.

4. Recognise different types of connections

After you have been building your PLN for some time, you may begin to observe that you have different types of connections. This is a great learning, and something to be aware of as you strategically grow your network.

Some connections are strong and close – that colleague who always offers feedback on content you share, the person who you regularly bump into at conferences and connect with online in the meantime, or the group with which you regularly tweet chat with. These connections, or strong ties, are the ones that are based on trust and reciprocity – you know that if you put a call out for advice, are seeking inspiration or have some work that you would like to have critiqued, they will spare the time if they can to help you – and vice versa.

Some connections are strong ties, but only in passing – say when you are researching a particular concept for a university assignment, or beginning to investigate a new pedagogical approach. You connect while needed, but after the need passes, you both move onto different interests and into different circles.

There are some people online who I call ‘network stars’, with whom many of us have weak ties – one sided relationships, where we read and engage with everything that person shares, but they may not know of us among their thousands of followers. These weak ties are important to provide constant injections of inspiration and encouragement – but it is important that we don’t fall under the spell and believe that popularity equals expertise. Some network stars in my PLN include Alec Couros (@courosa), Amy Burvall (@amyburvall), Liz McGettigan (@lizmcgettigan), George Veletsianos (@veletsianos) and Audrey Watters (@audreywatters). These people are just some of the amazing thinkers and leaders in my PLN – and they have loads of followers, and are busy people. I’ve only met one (the lovely Liz McGettigan) in person, and have only exchanged minimal comments with a couple of them – but I follow what they share, and make sure I keep up to date with what they are posting, because they are leaders in their field.

Knowing about strong and weak ties is important. Having both types of connections is what identifies your PLN as a network (if you only have strong ties, it is probably closer to a community, because this implies you know each person in your group quite well). It also means that your PLN is a space where you feel safe and confident to share (because of your strong ties, based on trust and reciprocity) and yet where you discover new and fresh ideas (because of the serendipity of what weak ties contribute). Having a balance of both strong and weak ties is one way (but not the ony way) you can guard against your PLN becoming an echo chamber like what was described earlier).

So in closing…

Developing a supercharged PLN means being aware of your connections – spending time building goodwill within your network, contributing and interacting, acknowledging those whose work you find useful and ensuring that you have a good spread of people and information sources that will challenge and extend your thinking, not just confirm what you already know. Some people ‘weed’ their networks regularly, keeping them small and intimate, while others see it as an historic record of interactions as their interests grow and change – a network is never static.

Whatever is right for you, what you put in is what you will get in return. A little bit of tending will ensure your connections flourish!

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