It’s been some time since I last put pen to paper (so to speak) about the concept of a personal learning network (PLN). I came across the term about three years ago when it was just starting to gain momentum and earn ‘buzzword’ status. I thought it might be time to revisit my thoughts to see if anything has changed.
Why was I writing about personal learning networks three years ago? I was in my second year of the LIS Masters course when I started to venture more into the Twittersphere. I was a newbie librarian, dipping the toes in for the first time. I was (and still am) motivated to learn everything I possibly could, and so Twitter fast became my ‘go to’ platform to access information relevant to the information profession and where I made my first online connections with others in the community. A research project, which I did with some guidance and encouragement, looking into how a personal learning network develops for a newbie was actually one of the reasons for starting this blog. During this research project I documented my experience in establishing and building a personal learning network and presented my learning at the 5th New Librarians’ Symposium in September 2011. If you’re super keen, you can read these blog posts under the ‘PLN Project’ category.
At the time of the research project I did a literature review and since then have presented on the topic of PLNs. Has the concept of a PLN changed? No, not really. How people understand what they are, appears to have moved forward, which I believe is a good thing as we can now better understand the value and benefits of a PLN. There is more distinction between understanding the PLN and what is a PLE, or personal learning environment. Your PLN resides in the learning environment you create for yourself. Your PLN is made up of the people you connect with. And you use the tools chosen to be a part of your PLE in order to connect, interact and converse with your PLN.
A definition for a PLN I presented at NLS5 is a mish-mash of a number of definitions that didn’t seem to fit in isolation.
“a group of people with whom you connect to interact and exchange information resources; share knowledge, experience and ideas, collectively creating an informed guide to professional development opportunities and continual learning
(Klingensmith 2009; Berge & McElvaney 2009; Tobin 1998)
While I continue to agree with this definition, there are a few things missing that I’ve come to understand about personal learning networks. I may have implied or meant this with the definition but two words immediately come to mind that belong here – ‘support’ and ‘conversation’. There is definitely a ‘support’ element within personal learning networks. I remember I may have used the term ‘cheerleading squad’ in my NLS5 presentation to demonstrate this. But the word ‘support’ should be included in the definition, I think. Support doesn’t need to be in the professional sense, particularly as experienced in the library and information online professional community. Support can also be more personal and be related to non-professional interests and life happenings. This is perhaps one of the library and information community’s greatest strengths. And building a strong network means faster connections between each other’s professional knowledge when its needed.
Now, conversation. ‘Interact’ might be a more formal word to convey that a personal learning network – building, maintaining, participating in one, comprises of ongoing conversation. Serendipitous connections to people, information and knowledge happen with conversation. Following someone on Twitter or finding a re-tweet pop up from someone you follow, can lead to others aligned with a professional interest or field. A diverse network will have conversations about different things. A network doesn’t expand or strengthen without diversity. Conversations then, are an integral part to a thriving personal learning network.
I guess one thing which strikes me from this reflection is how informal a personal learning network has become for me. This is possibly a sign of having become comfy with the concept and the spaces in which I participate. It could also be a sign that since finishing my Masters I’ve realised there are other parts of my life (needing attention) I wish to share and so I’m better able to let go of the professional stuff from time to time and participate in other conversations.
What I think a personal learning network is geared towards and perhaps the reason for being, is the continual learning. Participants in personal learning networks are motivated, lifelong learners. This is what binds us and enables us to be big sharers of information and knowledge, but also big givers of support. A personal learning network then needs three things – conversation, mutual support and information to go around, which spur us on our own journeys and pathways in the pursuit of continual learning.