Tuesday, May 29, 2012

My Own Journey into the world of PLNs

"PLN" has been a buzzword for a while now.  I myself first heard the term right before school started this past year at a local conference.  It didn't really have much meaning for me at the time, and the idea of having my own "Personal Learning Network" seemed overwhelming--I already was very busy (aren't we all, as teachers?) and couldn't imagine fitting something else into my schedule.  That changed, though, when Miriam and I started writing Pomegranate Beginnings in January.

The blog's name ended up being a lot more meaningful than I realized at the time.  The pomegranate is associated with rebirth and fertility in many cultures, and seemed fitting--we were planning to use the blog as a way to share our ideas, experiences, and experiments with other teachers and hoped not only to offer help but to receive comments and critiques in return: a way to improve and innovate in collaboration with educators from all over the world.  Or at least with our friends, who would read the blog out of pity, if nothing else.

However, the symbolism has gone further in the short five months since we began.  Pomegranate Beginnings has become a true representation of the fruit, and Miriam and I are willing Persephones, who tasted of the seeds and have found ourselves in a new home.

Dramatic metaphor aside, the blog really has been a doorway for us into the amazing and endless support system available online.  In terms of my own personal experience, it was in my attempts to build the blog and find a forum for the blog that I began to discover the power of online learning.

Most of us have attended great conferences, full of great people who have great ideas, where we spend hours not only attending sessions that help us focus our attention on methodologies, activities, and research, but talking, really talking with others and expanding concepts that might have just been a flitter otherwise.  For me, the conversations are the best part of conferences, the places where I honestly learn the most.  It's instantaneous idea transfer, innovation and feedback, in a pure format that a formal session just can't replicate.

On the internet, on Twitter, Google+, and some other sources, those kinds of conversations are taking place.  They're taking place right now, and I'm taking part in a couple as I type this post.  That's the power of a Personal Learning Network.  It's personal.  I have chosen people to be part of my network whom I respect and want to learn from, who have great ideas, know new and useful (and free) tech, and/or can offer me viewpoints I haven't yet considered.  Some of my connections are Latin teachers, some are language teachers, some are teachers of other subjects, and some aren't teachers at all, but they still teach me things.

PLN for the Beginner: Watch and Learn

You don't have to write a blog to build a Personal Learning Network.  You don't have to write anything to build a PLN.  You can simply find people who write things you find useful and read their stuff.  The best part?  If you don't have spare time, you don't have to participate.  Choose a few blogs to read, some great people to follow on Twitter, and call it good!  Get online when you have a moment, see what people have to say, check out a few ideas, and move on.  

Gathering Blogs
Since you're reading this, it means you probably already have started doing this.  This is where I began.  I read a few other blogs regularly, and I can be a fickle blog reader--if I don't feel like I'm getting my time's worth, I'll stop reading a blog quickly.  Because, like you, I don't have huge amounts of time on my hands.  

Some EduBlogs I currently read that are aimed at educators in general:
  1. Hack Education: Audrey Watters writes honestly and helpfully about all kinds of educational technology and educational technology concerns.
  2. Educational Technology Guy: This is not as thorough as Hack Education, but it is prolific.  Once in a while it has something I'm interested in.
  3. SpeEdChange: Some very thought-provoking ideas here that keep you mindful of how many different types of learners and learning there are.
  4. The Nerdy Teacher: Often uses free technology and always offers new ideas.
Of course, I also follow blogs that are specific to my subject area, such as The Everyday Language Learner and techna virumque cano.

Twitter
The most surprising thing I found in my beginning PLN was how useful Twitter is.  I originally opened an account because I was told it was a good way to promote our blog, and since I wanted interaction enough to make the blog useful, I did what I was told.  
Then I did some research.

I learned how to effectively use hashtags and which hashtags were worth following as an educator (my favorites are #edchat, #edtech, #langchat, and #latinteach).  I found a couple of Latin teachers to follow via the traditional search.  Then I got clever (not especially clever, just cleverer than I was before) and looked to see who those people were following.  I grabbed several people that way, and soon had around 30 people to follow on my Twitter feed.  That will seem like very few to some of you, and a lot to others.  It was a great starting place for me.  

I still only follow 76 people, but I find my 76 people post useful information to my feed: links to new tech, articles over methodology, Latin facts I could use in class, etc.  I have custom-built a resource, and have a constant stream of useful information that I only have to tap into when I feel ready.

More Advanced PLNing (yes, it's a verb now)

Of course, I am not very good at just watching and not participating.  I was the annoying kid in school that always raised her hand when the teacher asked "Does anyone have any questions?" (though in college I learned to let my questions wait until after class).  I like being part of a discussion.

The easiest way to join the discussion is to, well, join!  Comment on people's blog posts (that's how I got the incredible chance to write a guest post on Aaron Myer's blog!), tweet great articles you read or cool resources you find that you think other teachers might appreciate.  Chances are, we do appreciate the things you have to share.  At the very least, there won't be any pointing and laughing in the digital world.

Google+
Okay, you've heard the hype.  There is an amazing anti-Google+ publicity campaign out there, generally accusing G+ of having no users.  There are also 4 million plus users who generally pass the publicity around and laugh at it (fine, some pointing and laughing happens in the digital world, but not at teachers sharing information and resources).  

The real deal about Google+ is that it is not another Facebook.  That's what makes it so valuable.  It's something between a blog and a social network, and if you choose your "circles" (a.k.a. groups of friends) wisely, you can spark conversations that are as addictive as they are informative.  

Like Twitter, you don't have to be a contributor to get something out of Google+.  Just choose people to follow who write about things that interest you and read what they have to say.  Or read what others say to them.  I grew my G+ network by friending ("circling"?) one person (a Latin teacher) and then friending people who made intelligent comments on her posts.  Again, you have control over your information flow here, and if I don't like what someone posts, or they post too many things that don't interest me, I don't have to continue following that person.

However, I would recommend posting there.  The possibility for real conversation is probably largest in the Google+ community because of its unique format (and because you aren't limited to 140 characters).  You can set up your groups of friends ("circles") wisely and choose who can see each post.  I generally make mine public--because I want open discussion--except personal things like pictures of my son (which I limit to my circle of "friends and family").

Other PLN Sources
Twitter, blogs, and Google+ are my three top must-have picks for building a PLN.  That said, there are several other possible sources and resources out there.  I have already posted about using Pinterest, and I also have created a scoop.it account where I follow the posts of other teachers and curate my own topic.  Miriam has posted about using Diigo and I have played around with Storify as well. 

Most importantly, find things that help you and help you learn.  This year I have had the most rich learning experience I have ever known as a teacher--I am constantly being fed a near-plethora of ideas and tools.  My hope in sharing this information is that others can find something similar.  Feel free to comment, ask questions, or recommend other resources!  I am always glad to learn something new.