Building PLN defintion in the ambiguity sandbox

Stylin' in his Sandcastle by timsackton
Stylin’ in his Sandcastle, a photo by timsackton on Flickr.

This week’s readings have had us explore a wonderful melee of PLN definitions. Add all of the ideas emerging in our discussions and the confusion is now reaching a delightfully productive level.

Our task this week is to come up with a generic definition of PLN and recast this definition in language relevant to our own professional/organisational context. This is of course the first natural step towards completing our summative task for this seminar – an artifact to convince our CEO (or equivalent) who has become enamored with the idea of implementing PLNs that this is in fact either a great or a foolish idea for our organisation.

As Jeff Merrell pointed out during the live session this week – unless we have a general definition we will not be able to tell if the PLNs and organisations are in “structural conflict with each other”. Nor will we be able to determine the kind of changes required in the organisation to effectively incorporate the PLNs to create a business advantage.

So do I believe that PLNs definitions are absolutely “personal” or do I find some commonalities which form “clear defining attributes”? And can I think of disadvantages or barriers to introduction of PLN thinking into organisations?

I largely agree with the list of attributes presented by Jeff in the live session:

  • It is all about relationships/connections. For me this does set PLN apart from the related concepts of Personal Learning Environment (PLE) which is a toolset and Jarche’s Personal Knowledge management (PKM) which is a set of processes. Jeff asks which relationships – how do we differentiate social from professional for example? Others asked about requirement for reciprocity and even mutual awareness (I for one follow many on Twitter or blogs that would not know I even exist – although they can find out if they wanted to!). Perhaps we should not think of PLN as a uniform creature. I like Jarche’s conceptualisation of it as a continuum of relationships – ranging from strong social ties required for collaboration typical for work teams in organisations (needed to get things done), to weak and diverse ties of informal social networks focused on cooperation (needed for innovation/getting fresh ideas). He also neatly sneaks in Communities of Practice (CoP) – another professional network-related concept. The importance and differentiation between strong and weak ties is echoed in Rajagopal et. al. who attribute the concept to Grabher and Ibert (2008). In real life the model can become more messily dynamic – in a productive PLN the weak ties have a tendency to turn into collaborative projects, in defiance of institutional or even CoP boundaries – a wonderful example of this arising from #etmooc participation was shared by Janet Webster in her #xplrpln blog post today.

Both collaborative behaviours (working together for a common goal) and cooperative behaviours (sharing freely without any quid pro quo) are needed in the network era

Jarshe’s model of social links in PKM
  • PLNs require networking AND toolset skills. Rajagopal et al. define networking skills as “an ability to identify and understand other people’s work in relation to one’s own, and to assess the value of the connection with these others for potential future work” . To fully capitalise on the potential of online connections – Alison Seaman points out that “both technical skills and an understanding of the social elements of the Web […] are required for productive social networks—and Personal Learning Networks (PLNs)”. These are often referred to as digital literacies. I think that Alison mentions another important skill – “capacity for self-direction, which requires higher level of learning maturity“. Indeed, Rajagopal et al ‘s study confirmed that it is the mature learners who “reflect on their work and learning in a broader perspective than their day–to–day practice” who develop the proactive attitude required for effective PLN-building.
  • PLNs are driven by attitude and intention. This is well illustrated in the Rajagopal et al. networking model. They think that attitude to learning and working that sees “each contact as a person to learn from or collaborate with”. I think in this sense this is close to what Alison refers to as “understanding the social elements of the web” – as it is this open attitude to learning and creating WITH others which is a key to success in use of online social media for this purpose. The attitude leads to “a professional who intentionally builds, maintains and activates her strong, weak and very weak ties with contacts within her personal network for the purpose of improving her learning”. To the proactive attitude and intention of leading to behaviours “activating” your network for help – I would add here the willingness to “share” – a key component of Harold Jarsch’s PKM. One important point here is that the workplace culture must support such self-direction and the openness to asking for advice/admission of need for help. An oppeness to sharing not just between departments within an institution and especially outside of the institution may be a real – and very legitimate – issue for many organisations.

I would like to add one key point to this – which for me embodies the essence of “personal” aspect of PLN:

  • Control and ownership. For PLN approach to be fruitful “learners need to have a high level of control on tools they use and the way they use them” according to  Rajagopal et al. I would think this also goes for choice of the relationships to develop. Harold Jarsch aregues in Knowledge Sharing Paradox that “people will freely share their knowledge if they remain in control of it.” Ownership of the network and its artifacts allows the learner to make it truly personal – but more often than not large chunks of PLNs remain locked up in the institutional enterprise systems to be left behind as soon as the links with the institution are severed (is it surprising that students make no more than a token effort on their institutional portfolios? Gardner Campbell speaks of this more than eloquently in his piece on personal cyberinfrustructure within HE context). The choice of the audience for sharing by going beyond institutional walls can also motivate an extra effort – just look at the heartwarming story of incredible improvement in children’s literacy at a deprived-area school in Point England, New Zealand, when they increased their audience from one teacher for in-class assignments to the whole world for their blogs! In agreement with Harold Jarsch I see the issue of control and ownership as a point of highest structural tension between institutional and PLNs.

And two minor points (my last gasp – promise;):

  • It takes time, effort and trust (not just between people in the network but also from the employer to workers and vice versa!). The time and effort often invested in building of trust and reputation, trimming the reshaping the network but also sharing with others. Again – institutions tend to be project focused and may not see the value of real long term investment in PLNs.
  • PLNs span the ‘down the hallway’ AND online worlds. Most of our readings specify PLNs to be purely online creatures. But the concept itself arose in the late 1990s, before the internet world domination (one possible source is Dori Digenti’s work). To me the offline PLNs are equally important – a feeling shared by at least one other PLN Explorer, Mitra Emad. We should not repeat the mistake that educational institutions made by separating elearning from face-to-face learning. They are now trying to frantically fix the damage by applying a blended learning idea. Well – for me it all is just learning, using a different toolkits, each with its own set of advantages and problems. Just like it is all just plain PLN. Surely, internet has made it easier to connect and share at a distance. And perhaps social media promoted more open, contributory and networked approach. But because learning or networks are more visible online it does not mean they are more valuable than those in the analogue world. Perhaps we should add ability to blend the online with offline to the skillset of an efficient PLN-er?

Gosh – I think this is rather enough. It has turned into a monster of a post – and rather theoretical. But rather useful in digesting the ideas…

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6 thoughts on “Building PLN defintion in the ambiguity sandbox”

  1. Great synthesis of the readings and your thoughts about how they all fit together. Very useful! I agree that separating PLNs from the tools and processes used to create them makes it easier to distinguish between PLNs and PLEs and PKM. Thank you for sharing.

  2. “In real life the model can become more messily dynamic”
    Thank you for referencing my blog post! I think the PLN projects are more decentralized than “messily dynamic” where perhaps the center, if there is one at all, is constantly shifting depending on who is doing or learning what. The work flow is not hierarchical as found in most institutions which is why it may be difficult to ‘pitch’ a PLN- based project to any organization.

  3. This is the first time I’ve seen a link to readings. I had asked in the twitterchat and the video conference, and classmates referred me to the blogs that others had written. Now that I know there are readings, I’ll go back to review them. I enjoyed your analysis here. I didn’t know about PKMs or PLEs prior to the video chat, and I’m learning more and more lingo. I wonder if a PLN might encompass all of these “networking-type” ideas? Or, does a PLN form inside of the PKM or PLE?

  4. I loved reading this blog, and how it pulled together a lot of things. I also liked that in the comments I got to hear Maureen use the phrase ‘ecology of learning’. I’m on the same page with that one. And that, like me, Janlynn is thinking it might be a tough shout to pitch a PLN based initiative to an organization. I’m also glad to know (from your previous post) that I’m already part of your PLN. Like a Matt Guyan says in his post – with PLNs it’s not like you send out invitations or joining instructions.Great learning from you here. Thanks for sharing. Helen

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