One of the ongoing questions when I was in Denver at the ISTE conference was “What is a PLN? ” and “What is its value?” The conversation started on Saturday with a discussion about what does it mean to say that you have or are part of a PLN. What is “personal” or “professional” about it? Are people who use the term actually “learning”? And what does it mean to say that it is a “network”? This conversation was followed up by one on how Twitter is used by educators. He is looking at the different Tweets and whether or not they are social or professional, and whether or not they are valid and informative. All of which got me to thinking about what PLN means to me.
I use Twitter almost daily to listen to the conversation and to share my ideas. In my experience, it started out simply as a forum for learning. I used it as a means of professional development. I found educators to follow who were sharing resources that I would never have seen. When I read an article that was informative or insightful, I retweeted it, sending it on to the people who followed me. I have Google Reader set up, but I do not use it anywhere as much as I use Twitter. That is partly because my Reader is more intimidating – even though I am the one who set it up! There are always more articles there than I can face reading. On Twitter, I can just pause for what grabs my eye. I know that this means that I am in charge of my learning, rather than having it be more objective, but I find that I am reading more than I ever was before from professional resources. I think that many people start on Twitter for this reason. They want to learn and grow in an ever-changing world, and Twitter is a known resource for helping that growth.
Is it truly professional? Past of the discussion was that much of what happens on Twitter is social, rather than professional. While I initially questioned that, I am beginning to understand what he means. After two years or so on Twitter, there are many people that I interact with there who have become my friends. They are not simply small Twitter photos but are unique individuals, many of whom I have now met and shared face-to-face conversations. Those that I have not met face-to-face are people whose ideas I could easily identify. I care about them as people, rather than as simply sources for my own learning. This has turned my time on Twitter into a social experience. I am still learning from it, but I am learning from people that I consider colleagues, not simply people to follow. It has changed my sense of my time on Twitter, adding weight to what I learn there. I know who I trust the most among the people I follow. (When I have time, I will actually take the time to review whom I follow.)
The final issue was about the use of the word “network.” Is it a network or is it a community? “Network” was being used to describe an impersonal connection that simply was based in professional interactions. For me, that is exactly what Twitter was when I started. I went there simply for my own growth and took from it whatever interested me. It was not about developing relationships. Over time, however, those relationships grew. There were people who responded to me and shared their ideas and work with me. Through those exchanges, we made tentative and then deep connections. They responded when I asked a question, and I responded when they did. Impersonal connections turned into relationships, which are at the heart of community. Some of those are still very slight, but there are others that have become rich and deep.
While some of the conversations about what a PLN is were simply about semantics, it is worth the time to consider what it is that we are talking about when we use the term. Are we using it in a way that will draw others in or simply to make them feel left out? Do we want to open our community or keep it exclusive? When we talk about Twitter, are we opening doors or making ourselves look exclusive, part of a slightly odd “In Crowd”? That part of the conversation is very important, if we believe that the best education for our students comes from reaching beyond the walls of our classrooms and interacting with educators around the world. We need to make the doors to this group wide open and inviting. Are we doing that?