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Personal Learning Networks

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Personal Learning Networks

As educators, we know that learning takes place every day and everywhere. But with the need for information and expertise in all sorts of related and unrelated fields these days, we just can't learn quickly or deeply enough to satisfy personal or professional demands. Consider the following approaches most people take:

Workshops and training programs: These may be great, but they end after several hours or days. How do we continue to seek guidance or confirm our understanding once the workshop or program has ended? In addition, so many in the ELT profession live in areas without a large enough community of teachers to allow regular workshops and training.

Self-directed and continuous study: Yes, this proves essential to our professional development. Yet, at first, we can't apply the ideas gleaned from many sources so readily. We need to move this information to flexible knowledge that then lets us quickly adapt and apply it to new situations. How do we do this?

Observe a lesson in whole or in part (or be observed): We have the chance to gain some new ideas. If we see a successful activity that has students actively participating, we similarly have the chance to add this to our teaching repertoire. If we are observed, it really only becomes a mini-workshop unless our peer provides repeated feedback. How well do we know the whys and hows and what ifs that allowed for the success of the lesson and/or activity?

Thus, Personal Learning Networks, or PLNs, are vital to improve as a teacher.

A personal learning network represents a group of people who can:

1: Recommend articles, guides, websites, blog entries, experts, and so on. This tops the list because it supports all the following points. With a personal learning network, we automatically have access to the accumulated references and resources of possibly hundreds of people. For each person in our network, they are similarly connected to other people in other networks. Each person is a hub of sorts. And some people may be very active networkers, connecting to and engaging with thousands of people individually. These can be considered mega-hubs.

2: Guide your learning. When we hold conversations with others in our PLN, they provide knowledge and expertise gleaned from articles, websites, blog entries, and personal experience. They've accessed this information more than once, thought about it, tested it, perhaps retested it, and linked it their pre-existing storehouse of knowledge and expertise. They then share the information with us, as well as possibly recommend the articles, websites, etc. In short, they guide our learning.

3: Answer our questions. This is especially important, because training and workshops, self-directed study, and personal observations generate so many questions. We seek to plug that information into what we presently know. However, without answers to those questions, we don't move towards the ability to apply information in new and novel ways. The knowledge remains rigid and stuck to the situation in which it was initially learned.

4: Push us in new directions. Let's say we understand but one aspect of an idea, resource, theory, etc. Our PLN can offer competing theories, caveats, or suggestions. We eventually have more methods and models on which to base our future studies and endeavors.

5: Challenge our currently held beliefs. Discourse advances understanding because it requires us to support our opinions. The careful analysis that comes with discussion reveals the fallacy, truth, or perhaps inapplicability of the information to a given situation. Many times we must reevaluate the beliefs we currently hold.

6: Prevent us from taking the comfortable, well-walked road again and again. When confronted with challenges and problems, most people instinctively fall back on what has worked in the past. Although newer, better, and more efficient methods may exist, it takes time to move those new methods into action. Our personal learning network provides us with the chance to carry on the discussion, which reinforces what was learned but not yet implemented. It also allows access to additional materials and resources that offer improved comprehension.

7: Offer support. Not every day goes well. Not every lesson meets our anticipated objectives. A personal learning network provides much needed support. People in our network can provide recommendations, guide our learning, answer our questions, push us in new directions, and force us to more carefully examine the ideas and information we currently possess. (Review the above.)

A personal learning network requires reciprocation, which means we similarly provide all of the above points too. A PLN isn't unidirectional, as is a workshop or book. And even a novice on the topic can actively participate in the discussion. Although he may not understand the full depth of the conversation, he still has access to articles, sites, lesson plans, and experts that allow him to provide value.

So where can we get access to personal learning networks?

First, it's easy to share ideas and information with our coworkers, perhaps between classes in the teachers' room. It's easy to ask one another questions or give answers. There are also professional organizations. These often provide newsletters, forums, and conferences that allow us to gather support.

Although these traditional PLNs remain valuable, they're also somewhat limited in their breadth. For example, a handful of teachers who work together likely have faced the same difficulties, or teach the same demographic of students. As a result, they then have faced the same problems, discussed possible solutions, and accessed the same information. Professional organizations offer a wider network, but conferences don't get held every day or even every month. Forums may be active on some topics, not so active on others. Newsletters most often remain one directional.

Web 2.0 offers the best and quickest ways to expand our personal learning network. Much of the article was written with web 2.0 in mind, as so many links and references are at hand to share. We can communicate with teachers all over the world, twenty-four hours per day. We can ask questions, offer comments and advice, or make pleas for help.

Take a look at my personal learning network, where I can be found learning and sharing most every day. The network has expanded my expertise, thanks to all the friends and fellow educators, and their friends and fellow educators, and their friends and fellow educators... The list goes on and on through an endless network of personal learning.

I invite you to connect with me via the following:

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