Helping Students Develop Personal Learning Networks

I had a great time this week connecting with people around the world at the Global Education Conference. This free and open online conference is one of best that I’ve seen, including participants and presenters from seemingly every continent.  As part of the event, I had a chance to present on a couple of topics: one about global perspectives on grading and assessment and a second on helping students development personal learning networks. This post is a chance to recap and reflect further on that second topic.

Personal Learning Networks have been around for some time.  The idea of a PLN is simply a network of people and resources through which you learn and grow.  Books like Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education and The Connected Educator: Learning and Leading in a Digital Age both give a helpful introduction to this concept and what it means for educators.

However, there is a smaller and potentially even more significant conversation about personal learning networks that is taking place. That consists of a growing number of us who are looking at the idea of a personal learning network, combining it with the promise and possibility of self-directed learning and starting to think more about how we might empower and encourage students to cultivate their own personal learning networks.

What if learning communities and organizations made student personal learning networks an integral part of the learning experience? As students progress through their schooling years, what if they cultivated a deeper and more substantive global personal learning network? Informed by the idea of connectivism, a student personal learning network is one that helps learners not only learn about a given topic, but also grow in their understanding of how to cultivate and make use of knowledge networks. It is one thing to study world geography out of a textbook. It an entirely different experience to connect with people around the world, learning from each, comparing and contrasting geography in different parts of the world, and building meaningful and sometimes persistent connections with people around the world.

A Little Learning Theory Background 

If we look at some of the trends in education over the past century, we can see them as extensions of four learning theories: behaviorism, cognitivism, constructivism and connectivism. Behaviorism is where we get things like measurable learning objectives in education. This is the body of work that focused upon observable behavior, reward, punishments, classical conditioning and operant conditioning. Behaviorism is often associated with names like Watson, Skinner and Thorndike.

The influence of behaviorism in education can be traced to the early part of the 20th century, but it continues to inform thought and practice today. We see it informing the work of many scholars and educators over the last century, and it can also be seen as a significant influence in the push toward the use of observable and measurable learning objectives. Teachers in the 1960s and 1970s started to be introduced to this idea through books like Robert Mager’s Preparing Instructional Objectives, but by the 1980s use of such objectives became common practice in schools around the United States. If you can’t see it, measure it and document it, then it loses significance from a behaviorist perspective.

Alongside the influence of behaviorism we saw the development of cognitivism.  One of the more well-known educational influences of this movement relates to the idea of developmental psychology, when we discovered that the brain develops in certain stages and we can start to plan learning experiences based upon where people are in these developmental stages.  Where behaviorism focused upon external observable behavior, cognitivism invited attention to the inner workings of brain.

Constructivism emerged amid these two perspectives on learning, adding yet another strand to the conversation.  As the name might suggest, constructivism focused upon the idea that knowledge is not simply something that one person transfers to another, but knowledge is constructed within an individual through experience. For many educators, John Dewey is likely the first name that comes to mind when thinking about such ideas. You may also think of people like Vygotsky, Kolb, and Montessori.

While I represent these three as if they came in a nice and neat chronology, the reality is that they often crossed paths with another. We see amply evidence of them intermingling, especially when we look at educational models and practices over the last century.  Today it is common to find a educators who describe their educational philosophy and practice in a way that seems to relate to all three of these in one way or another.

More recently, even into the 21st century, we find yet another perceptive added to the conversation. George Siemens and Stephen Downes introduced connectivism, which seems to suggest that knowledge is not simply something that exists in our brains.  Instead, knowledge exists in our connections with other people, resources and communities.  This resonates with the experience of many in this digital and information age, as we often find that our connections with others is what enables us to work and flourish.  Medical professionals rely upon complex data systems and other professionals for certain tasks.  Even historians, sometimes thought of as solitary scholars, now share rich data sets on the web and collaborate with one another to carry out research goals and tasks (See the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade Database as an example).

Self-directed Learning

Now allow me to turn our attention to the topic of self-directed learning for a moment.  As I look at learning organizations today, I see two major approaches to teaching and learning.  I will use a fishing analogy for this example. Some schools are set up as fish distribution centers. They are like fish markets where a person is given a fish and can then prepare it and eat it.  Other learning organizations function more like places of fishing lessons.  They don’t just give out the fish.  They teach the people how to fish for themselves.  The first is the school that seems content with distribution as the goal, leaving the learners dependent upon a teacher to grow and learn. The second focuses upon equipping learners with the ability to learn for themselves, allowing them to develop the skills necessary to thrive as a learner for life. From this perspective, the goal of a learning organization is to help students progress toward independence.

In reality, few learning organization are one or the other of these two. They are most often at some point in a spectrum between the two.  Some focus upon content distribution with some opportunity for self-directed learning, while others are heavy on self-directed learning with occasional content distribution. An easy way to think about this is to consider the spectrum of a school based upon four questions (as seen below). One the one side we have a more teacher-directed approach. On the right side, we have a more self-directed approach.  Usually we find schools that vary on the spectrum for the four questions.  Whatever the case, my argument is that our goal is for all learners to eventually be empowered and able to function on the far right side of this chart.

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Self-blended Learning

Allow me to add one more piece to this puzzle before drawing our attention to the final picture of a student personal learning network.  This last piece relates to the concept of self-blended learning.  Blended learning is the mixing of face-to-face and online learning.  Some talk about self-blended learning as a situation where a learner takes online courses and some face-to-face courses.  I suggest that this is too limiting of a definition. Instead, I use self-blended learning to mean any situation where a learner self-blends a learning experience, combining connections in the online and face-to-face world to learn and grow. If this interests you, I provided some examples here. From this perspective, self-blended learning is self-directed learning plus informed blended learning.

Pulling it All Together

This finally brings us back to idea of a student personal learning network, which is a mix of connectivism, self-directed learning and self-blended learning.  As defined at Wikipedia, “A personal learning network is an informal learning network that consists of people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from…” When I ask people to describe their personal learning network, they sometimes start by describing the technologies that they use, tools like Twitter, blogs, YouTube, and Google Hangouts.  That is understandable because these are the tools that allow them to connect with their network. However, I argue that the network is largely the people, communities and resources; not the technologies themselves.  If I showed you a picture of a large public swimming pool full of people and asked you to describe what you saw, you would likely not describe the technology of a swimming pool.  You would instead talk about the people, what they were doing and how they are behaving.  Similarly, a personal learning network is first about our relationships and connections with people and resources. We use the tools to strengthen, lengthen, and make such connections.

A Student Personal Learning Network

A student personal learning network is, therefore, a rich and ever-growing series of connections with people, resources, and communities around the world…connections that allow us to grow in knowledge, skill, ability and perspective. What if we spent more time thinking about the networks that students are building as they go through their schooling years?  What are the tools and technologies that they use and how are they using them?  One of many connections in this network will likely be one or more teachers. It will also include classmates, family members, community members, and others who whom they learn and interact in the physical world.  As it expands, it will also include people far beyond the walls of the home, school and community.

What if we made the building of such a network a central part of the curriculum, inviting students to keep a log or journal of their growing network, and how this network is empowering them to learn, how it is expanding their knowledge and perspective? How are they building a meaningful network? This would genuinely turn schools into places of fishing lessons. Students can interview people around the world, tutor and be tutored, take part in formal and informal learning communities, take part in Twitter chats and Hangouts, learn from and engage in the blogosphere, experience the power of working on a meaningful project in a distributed/virtual team, participate in a massive open online course (or design and teach one), share resources through social bookmarking and other technologies, host and take part in webinars, and build new online and blended learning communities around topics of personal value, need, and interest.

Over time, the students may not only build a personal learning network, but also venture into starting their own personal teaching networks, being agents of change and positive influence in the digital world and beyond.

Practical First Steps

Does this interest you? If so, here are a few simple ways to get started.

1) Introduce students to the idea of a personal learning network and have them create a map of that network using their favorite mind mapping tool. If you have one, share your PLN as an example. Be sure to spend time on the “why” of a PLN.  Then invite students to add to and refine this network over the year.

2) Set aside time for PLN Show and Tell – This is simply a time where students display the visual of their network to others, explaining how they use it and how it helps them.  On occasion, have students explain what is new in their network, how it was added and how it helps them.  This provides a wonderful opportunity for peer-to-peer learning.

3) Create simple challenges where learners find a problem, try to solve it and periodically report back to the group. They will build and leverage their network to solve the problem.  Along the way, they will not only find potential solutions, but they will experience the power of connected learning.

4) If you are working with younger students, consider building a class PLN, where you map it out on the wall, and you collectively add to it throughout the year through Skype sessions, Google Hangouts and other connections with people and groups around the world. When you face a new challenge as a class, ask the students, “Is there anything in our PLN that could help us with this? Do we need to expend or expand our PLN in some way?”

5) Revisit the chart above that contrasts teacher-directed and self-directed learning.  Find places in your course(s) where you can edge one or more activities a bit closer to the self-directed learning side of things. Invite students to use their personal learning networks to find and achieve learning goals.

These are enough to get you started.  As you have interest, try one or more of them and let me know how they work?  Also, feel free to add more suggestions in the comment area.

If you are interested, below is a recording of the full session.