What is a PLN, anyway?
A good friend (and a great teacher) e-mailed me after my last post. “Great links,” she said. “But what’s a PLN?”
A good reminder about why I try to avoid acronyms and jargon in my writing.
PLN is an acronym for Personal Learning Network. The acronym is relatively new, but the idea is not. Teachers have always had learning networks—people we learn from and share with. Teachers are information junkies. We’re also social. Put the two together and you have a personal learning network.
The structure of my PLN has changed since I first started teaching.
The pre-Internet 80s
Yes, there was an internet of sorts in the 80s, but I wasn’t on it. Teachers at my school made up the core of my PLN. Network central was wherever we gathered between and after classes. Most of the information we shared came from articles or books we’d read, conferences or workshops we attended. Books came from the bookstore, information from conferences came home in suitcases. The good stuff was photocopied and filed for future reference.
My PLN was very small—the teachers in my school, a few colleagues from graduate school, workshop presenters. Most information was shared face to face.
The e-mail 90s
I sent my first e-mail message in 1995. I could find information about books online, but had to buy them in a store (or, ask someone in the US to buy them in a store and ship them to me). I saved bookmarks for websites I liked, but still printed out pages for my files, and still shared information face to face.
My PLN got a little bigger in the 90s. I could use the Internet to look for infomation, and I could use e-mail to communicate with people after I met them at conferences. However, the people in my PLN were still mostly teachers I had met face to face.
The social 2000s
For information junkies, this decade has been amazing. Not only can I order books online and have them shipped to me in Japan, I can order books and download them to my computer. I access most journals and newspapers the same way. Information is waiting for me each morning in my inbox from discussion groups. The sheer volume of information available can be overwhelming at times.
The biggest change has been in the way I meet and communicate with people in my PLN.
First, there is Twitter, which is like a big noisy teacher’s lounge. Everyone is talking (texting) at once. I might share a conversation with one or two teachers in the lounge, and catch fragments of other conversations around me. As I read the newspapers and group digests in my inbox, I share the good bits by sending short messages to other teachers on Twitter. Since they do the same, there are a lot of good bits being shared.
Most of the resources are in the form of links—to websites, to e-books, to blogs, or to activities. Rather than printing out copies for my files, I save the links on a social bookmarking site, like Delicious. Because I use tags instead of file folders, I can easily search for specific items. And because teachers can look through each other’s bookmarks, it’s easy to share.
Discussion groups (like JALT’s Teaching Children SIG or IATEFL’s Young Learners and Teenagers SIG) are like conference breakout sessions, where teachers have extended, and topic-oriented conversations.
Nings are like subject area resource rooms in a large school. They’re social networks connecting teachers with common interests. In addition to discussion forums, members keep blogs, share resources, and plan group activities. EFL teachers might belong to EFL Classroom 2.0 or English Companion, or both.
I attended more conferences than ever before, but travel much less. I still prefer to physically attend a conference, but online sessions and summaries allow me to be there in spirit even when it’s impossible to be there in body. For example, the IATEFL conference this year broadcast plenary and workshop sessions (and then archived the videos available on the website), Twitter allowed workshop participants to share updates and allowed teachers not at the conference (like me) to ask questions during panel discussions. Issues raised during the presentations were discussed in online forums.
The kinds of discussions I have, and information I share with my PLN hasn’t changed all that much over the years–what works in class, how students learn, how to become a better teacher. How I meet other teachers, where we discuss ideas, and how we share information has changed. Significantly. My PLN now includes teachers who live quite far from me—in Asia, Australia, the Americas, Europe and Africa. I meet them online. I learn from them online. I share with them online.
The teachers in my Personal Learning Network are some of the best friends I’ll never meet.