Picture 015It all began through one teacher’s “personal learning network” (PLN)” a global community of professional educators, facilitated by IT.

Going global

Dorothy Burt, professional development facilitator at Point England School, met Carol Anne McGuire in an online discussion forum for educators. Carol Anne was seeking schools to collaborate in Rock our World, a project that brings students together to to work on a shared theme with a common focus: communication, storytelling, music and movies. Dorothy told her colleagues about the project, and teacher Andrea Tele’a took it from there – contacting Carol Anne, joining the online network and getting the students involved.

“Through Rock our World, our students get access to a huge global network of learners,” says Dorothy. “One of the things they learn from being involved is that, if you want to learn, there are others out there who can help you.” As well as helping her find great learning opportunities for students, Dorothy’s PLN has dramatically changed the nature of her own learning. Dorothy now shares her ideas and connects with colleagues globally. A PLN can help teachers to sift through information to find what’s most relevant, identify learning resources and opportunities, and share their own learning and insights, as well as hear about the learning and insights of others.

New ways to learn and connect

PLNs typically involve many communication channels, and Dorothy’s is no exception. As well as the online communities to which she belongs, Dorothy publishes her own blog and reads the blogs of other writers too. “I blog to record my thoughts – my personal learning – and to get reflection and feedback from others. It’s nice when people confirm your thinking, and it’s great when they challenge it!” she says.

She’s been contacted by teachers who’ve tried the approaches she’s described on her blog and applied them in their own classrooms. “It can take you quite by surprise,” she adds. “I’ve realised that what we’re doing at our school isn’t just something we’re doing for ourselves – it can be effective, relevant and adapted to different learning contexts elsewhere.”

Dorothy has a Twitter account, where she sends out and receives messages no longer than 140 characters. She reports that her Twitter contacts are a great source of useful links, updates and practical help. And she stores her favourite web links on a social bookmarking service to keep track of the material that she finds valuable. Social bookmarking not only helps Dorothy to organise her own version of the web, but makes her links available to others.

Dorothy’s personal map of information and people in education means she knows where and who to go to, to find what she needs, when she needs it. The point, she says, is to build a broad network that will provide a diversity of opinions and views, and then to contribute back to the network by commenting, posting and replying. Active participation is essential.

Five steps to build your personal learning network

It can be daunting to get started, and sorting through the wealth of information and sources can feel overwhelming, but your PLN is what helps you keep up with new developments in your areas of interest, and the tools are there to help you get organised.

Some steps to get you started:

– Join an online community or social network with a focus that matches your own interests. Complete your profile to let other members know something about you. Post a question or a link to something interesting or useful.

– Pick a couple of blogs you like and start reading them. Become part of the conversation by commenting on them.

– Set up an RSS reader and subscribe to the blogs so that it’s easier for you to monitor new posts.

– Sign up to Twitter, and find five people who are talking about the things you’re interested in. Look at the people following them to gradually extend the number of people you’re following.

– Start a social bookmarking webpage to help you organise and retain the material and information you find.

What is a PLN?

– It consists of professional connections, worldwide, with educators and related information sources.

– It is largely dependent on information and communication technologies.

How does it work?

– It changes as your interests and needs change.

– It enables you to learn from others, and others to learn from you.

– To take full advantage, you need to actively contribute.

– It will require you to learn new technical and communication skills.

Resources

Online communities – Join discussions with people who share a particular interest or activity. Members have a profile page and can also post messages, images and video. Check out the e-Learning Research Network if you’re interested in technology in education.

Blogging – Keep an online journal, regularly adding text, photos, audio and links. Dorothy’s blog.

RSS readers – Set up a personal page for collecting and viewing information feeds from sources across the web. Examples are Netvibes and iGoogle.

Microblogging – Send updates through short messages and follow the updates of others. An example is Twitter.

Social bookmarking – Record, tag and share links to online content. Examples are Delicious and Digg.

Common Craft – View three-minute videos explaining how to use the tools discussed in this article.