behind the scenes

Behind the Scenes: Building a PLN, Part 2

Last time we took a look at some behind the scenes steps to building a Personal Learning Network, aka PLN. This time we’ll take a look at some more steps to get a fuller look at what truly goes into building a PLN.

1.      Active participation: A PLN won’t just build itself once it’s been set up. In order for a PLN to flourish and grow, it needs you to actively be involved with it. For example, if you’re using Twitter, you’ll probably want to be tweeting at least once a week, and reading through tweets of those that you follow. If you’re a blogger, you’ll want to make sure you’re posting somewhat consistently. If you’re reading blogs or sites, make sure you set aside time in order to do so.

It’s easy to let things fall to the side. I’m just as guilty of doing it myself. Sometimes things just happen or life gets busy. I’ve made sure to set aside time so that I may focus on my PLN. It’s easier to start with one day a week at first, and if need be, add more time as your schedule fits. I may check Twitter throughout the day, but by evening, I’m rarely checking it, unless I get a notice about someone sending something my way. When it comes to reading blogs, I’ll try to catch up on my reading at least once a day. This doesn’t take too long because I only follow certain blogs, and they don’t always update each day. As for writing my own blogs, I write down my ideas on a Word document when I think of them. I aim to post one piece of content a week. I write when I am inspired and have the time. If I can write more than one post in a setting, I will. I’ll simply set it to post on a future date in my blog. This particular post was written in May, but it won’t have posted until sometime this summer.

Since most people will only start with one tool, they only need to sit down and determine how much time they want to sit aside to engage with the tool. It doesn’t have to be a lot at first, and probably won’t for awhile. As you become more comfortable with the tool, increase engagement as necessary.

2.      Give and take of information: Building a PLN works best when you’re engaged in finding new information AND sharing your own information at the same time. At first, you may feel as though you don’t have very much to give at all, but in time, you’ll find that there’s a lot of information that you can share. Don’t feel obligated to share right from the start if you’re just getting used to how to use the tool in the first place. Give it some time, and then jump right in!

For example, when educators look at others who blog, they might wonder how they can do it, or if they’d ever have anything worth sharing. The answer is yes. From class updates to reflections to lesson plans to opinions about what is going on in education today, educators will find they do have plenty to say.

Many educators find they get the most out of their network when they can discuss or talk with others in that network. This can spark impromptu discussions on topics and allow educators to see how others might feel about a particular topic.

3.      Using Tools to Build Smarter: Tools can help make managing a professional learning network easier. After all the saying goes “work smarter, not harder”. Twitter is an easy tool to keep up with at first…until you have a lot of people you’re following, or an edchat running. There are tools that allow users to break Twitter down into more manageable chunks.

TweetDeck is a great tool to use on Twitter. It allows users to create columns for certain users, hashtags, topics, and more. I can add the people I follow to lists. For example, I may choose to have a list of people who mostly tweet about Minecraft, and another who tweet about edtech. I might follow the hashtag for #stem at the same time. Tweetdeck allows users to customize to their heart’s content, making it much easier to sort through large amounts of data.

Another way your professional network can get out of hand occurs when one follows blogs. It’s easy to keep up with one or two at first, if you bookmark the site and remember to check every site that is bookmarked each day. Once you add more blogs though, it can be hard to remember to keep up with every single one. A good tool to utilize here is an RSS Reader. RSS stands for “rich site summary”, but is also known as “really simple syndication”. An RSS Reader allows a user to gather content from multiple sources into one location. Instead of me checking each blog individually, I simply add them to my RSS Reader, and then sync the reader each day. If new posts are up, they will appear in my reader immediately.

There are many RSS Readers out there, and which is best is all going to depend on personal preference, and the device being used. I use Feedly’s website to set up my Reader, and then use Newsify on my iPad because it syncs with Feedly. I like the layout that Newsify uses, so I stick with it. A quick Google search will provide many results, so make sure to narrow down your searches by using “RSS readers android”, “RSS readers iOS”, and so on. Try out a few options and then stick with the one that works best for you.

Now that we’ve gone through a look at some of the behind the scenes work, you’ll see that it takes work to build up a successful Personal Learning Network. It isn’t something that can be done quickly, or that will be successful right away. However, with the right amount of time and effort, it can grow and be successful.

Behind the Scenes: Building a PLN

Personal Learning Network. It’s a term you hear more and more often these days. Colleagues speak about it. Articles online speak about it. It’s toted as a great and wonderful tool that can connect educators and network them with others around the world. Others speak of their connections and how easy it is to connect with someone when they need to bounce ideas. It sounds so amazing that you go home, sit down, and begin setting up your network. Over the next few days, you find that it’s not as exciting or revolutionary as the presenter made it out to be. What gives? Did they lie?

The short answer: No.

When you’re attending a session on benefits of building a PLN, you’re not seeing the work that went into building it. What you’re seeing is the “final” product. I say “final” because one is never really done building their network, but it does get to a point where things are very active, and usually on the upswing. At the time of the presentation, the presenter has many examples to provide or people that they connect with. So what really goes on “behind the scenes”? What affects how your network prospers?

1.      Time and Effort: Nothing is going to ever be successful in just a few days. Your PLN is the same way. A good question to ask the presenter is how long it took them to get to a point where they felt their PLN was successful. It has taken me a year to really get to the point where I feel that my network is active and beneficial to me. During that time, I didn’t always work on building it. In fact, I would say that once I actively started, it took me 9 months to get to that point. I didn’t do everything I do now all at once either. I started slowly and added on as I could handle more items.

When building a PLN, you must realize that it will take time. Keep that in mind as you work, and make sure to put in the effort needed to build it. It won’t grow if you don’t do anything to help or keep it going. If your PLN is stagnant after a few months, step back and see what you could do to improve. Talk to others or research online.

2.      Key influencers: Key influencers are often some of the first people you follow or look up online. These are usually going to be popular names in your field, or someone you’ve heard colleagues talking about. Are they blogging? Are they using Twitter? How do they communicate with others online? To be very honest, my own network started out small, and I wanted to use Twitter as my focus. I only used key influencers that I knew from talking about our state’s edchat. Once I followed them, I looked for others that participated in the edchat, as well as who my influencers followed.

Once I had this set up, I was now able to read conversations being held between my influencers and other people. For a time, this was all I did so I could get a feel of the wide world of Twitter. After I became comfortable though, I then started looking at the hashtags that my influencers were using. I would check them out if they intrigued me, and I learned to search for my own as well.

From here, I began getting involved in edchats. Edchats on Twitter are conversations held between groups of people, using the same hashtag so everything is easily found. Usually there is some kind of moderator, and a list of questions that will be asked during the
session. Participants respond and discussion ensues. I started with the edchat for my state, as that was the one most of my key influencers participated in. From there I added a second one. I have yet to add any more, but it is something I plan to do in the future.

3.      Exploring avenues, one at a time: There isn’t just one right way to build a professional learning network. Some educators use tools that other educators don’t. It all depends on the needs and comfort levels of the educator. The important thing is that you build slowly. Trying to incorporate a variety of tools all at once will be overwhelming and spell disaster. Just as with anything else, try one thing at a time.

First, determine the different options that interest you, and what would be easiest for you to start with. Also note the options that you are interested in, but may need some assistance in learning how to use. Many educators start with Twitter because it’s a very easy way to get in touch with other educators. However, it can be hard to learn if you’ve
never used it before. Other educators will start with blogging. They will either seek out blogs in their content areas that interest them, or they will begin writing their own experiences and ideas into a blog. Some educators seek out teacher friendly groups on Facebook, and others look for websites that include forums or message boards.

Once you’ve figured out the tools you’d like to start with, it’s time to jump right in. Pick one tool to start with. Of course, it’s easier if you can get assistance from someone you know, but oftentimes, you’ll have to research the tool and how to use it on your own. Once you’ve figured out how to use the tool, it’s a good idea to also research how other educators use the tool as well. There may be a chance that others have thought of something that you haven’t.

In the next blog post, we’ll take a look at 3 more steps that go on behind the scenes when building a personal learning network. AS you can see from where we just started, there’s more than meets the eye!