John Ward, my High School Math Teacher

John Ward, RIP

 

This post discusses how to build your own Personal (or Professional) Learning Network. Instead of starting by telling you which tools to use, I want to talk about why you would do this in the first place….

This is a photo of my high school math teacher, Coach John Ward, who recently passed away after a long career of distinguished service at Bishop Diego High School in Santa Barbara. He took me from being a hopelessly poor math student to a very capable one in three years of instruction, despite my deep and abiding dislike of the subject. He did this by consistently providing me with high quality materials, challenging problems to solve, and then expecting me to put in the work– or “plug and chug” as he would say.

 

Think of your favorite teachers over the years– they presented you with challenging, thought-provoking material and then asked you to think about it, question it, master the skills, and respond in a thoughtful way. By the time we’re in college, we get used to writing thoughtful essays about challenging ideas several times a week. When we leave formal education, many of us get out of this familiar rhythm, and instead focus on “getting things done”. When we’re in this frenzied state, we are not taking the time to reflect on new information and experiences we get from our work.

The process of taking information in, meshing it with what you know, and breathing it out again forms something of a “learning loop” that fits with a Constructivist idea (ed theory, sorry laypeople) of what high quality learning looks like.

You can think of building your own Personal Learning Network as an attempt to create this “learning loop” for yourself using the tools at your disposal. Instead of a bunch of teachers selecting challenging information for you, the Internet gives you access to a world of bloggers, tweeters, speakers, photographers, videographers, and colleagues who will teach you anything you want for nothing more than the price of your time and attention. All they ask of you is to think about it, question it, master the skills, and respond in a thoughtful way. You can participate in this conversation by writing your own blog, tweeting, organizing sources, speaking, and teaching others in the way that works best for you. This is all part of what we educators call “Life-Wide Learning“, where you are continuously gaining knowledge and building skills that help you stay professionally competitive, personally empowered, and connected with a community of people who share your interests– even after you leave formal education.

 

A Game of Inputs and Outputs

You can think of building your PLN as a game of Inputs and Outputs. You need to find and organize information that will teach you, challenge your ideas, and help you stay on top of interesting new developments in your areas of interest. You also need to get in the habit of “adding value” to the information that comes in to you in whatever way works for you. That could mean writing your reactions to an interesting article you read, making lists of bookmarks you find to make it easier for others to find relevant information, video yourself demonstrating a skill you learned, or sharing resources with people you think could benefit from them. What you do is as unique as your skills and interests are, but the focus should be on sharing your learning with others who could benefit from it. Though this practice can benefit you and your business, think of it as doing well by doing good first. Most people don’t like being marketed to, but everybody likes getting free, relevant information about things they care about.

My Inputs and Outputs

To give you an idea of what my PLN looks like, I included an incomplete list of my inputs and outputs. Take a look. Next, I’ll show you how information flows from my inputs, through my brain, and out my outputs.

 

Inputs

  • Social Media
    • Google Reader
    • Podcasts
    • Blogs
    • Google Alerts
    • Twitter
    • Recommendation Engines
      • GReader Recommendations
      • Twitter Recommendations
  • IRL (“in real life”)
    • Meetups
    • In-Person Connections
    • Conferences & Trade Shows
    • Professional Organizations
    • Events/Parties
  • Outputs
    • Your Blog
    • Tumblelog/ Buzz
    • Status Updates
    • Bookmark!
    • Videoblogging
    • SlideShare
    • Present in Conferences or Trade Shows
    • Podcasts

Inputs and Outputs: A Workflow

Inputs

A first step towards forming a PLN is to start getting good quality information flowing in to you in an organized way so you can easily consume it at your convenience. My favorite tool for this job is Google’s free RSS reader, titled simple “Google Reader“. Reader allows me to collect RSS feeds (think of them as real-time updates from several different news sites, blogs, and other continuously updated websites) in a simple digest format. It enables me to quickly scan over headlines about anything I’m interested in, read what I feel like reading, and skip the rest. It takes the place of a newspaper for me– in fact, it’s a paperless newspaper where I’m the managing editor who decides what I’ll see! You can choose to include a mixture of “established” news sites (like the New York Times or the BBC) alongside updates from less established sites like your neighborhood activities committee, an industry-insider blog, or vegandad.blogspot.com. You can also organize them into folders like I have so you can switch between your many interests quickly.

Over the years I have collected RSS feeds from major thought leaders, news blogs, and even wiki site updates about information in my field, and this makes sure that if it’s happening in education technology, I’ll see an update in my Reader. I can honestly say that the time I have spent building my Reader into a well-rounded reflection of my interests has made me a more marketable and able worker, and a more empowered individual.

Enough sales pitch– let’s get started!

  1. Get a Google Account.
  2. Go to Google Reader.
  3. follow the steps in the video “Welcome to Google Reader“.

 

After those steps, you should have a Google Reader with at least a few feeds in it. You might also want to check out these celebrity GReader reading lists by popular bloggers and intelligentsia types that you can simply add to your Reader.

From this point, you can be on the lookout for RSS feeds on your favorite websites, blogs and wikis. The RSS symbol

will appear in your browser’s address bar whenever you are on a website that features RSS feeds. Just click it and it will help you add updates from that page to your Google Reader!

Podcasts

Podcasts are basically RSS-powered blogs which contain audio and video files and are usually consumed on an iPod or smartphone. They are another very important part of my information intake every week. Just like my blogs, I line them up in a podcast player for when I’m ready to hear them (driving, walking the dog, etc.) and I don’t worry about it if I miss them. It’s like a DVR for interesting audio and video shows on a whole range of topics.

Most people subscribe to podcasts in iTunes, and then let iTunes sync the media to their player. I recently discovered that my Android phone’s Google Listen podcast player can actually use a Google Reader folder as its podcast subscriptions folder and download podcasts over the air! Here’s my list of favorite podcasts– all organized by Google Reader. If you prefer listening to news rather than reading it (or a mix of both), check into the top 50 podcasts on PodCast Alley.

 

Twitter

Twitter is another very valuable place where I can queue up challenging and entertaining ideas from the world’s best and brightest until I’m ready to read them. Some people dismiss Twitter as a frivolous medium– saying “it’s only people talking about what they had for lunch”. I’ve found it to be a vibrant community of smart people in my field giving real-time updates and discussions about newsworthy links, reactions to the news, and thoughtful quotes.

If you’re interested in Twitter, don’t concern yourself with what you’ll write first. Unfortunately, people do tend to write about lunch before they’ve had a chance to see what can be done in Twitter. The best thing to do with Twitter (at first) is to search it. Ask Twitter what’s going on with a topic you care about, and I think you’ll be surprised to find a compelling mix of formal and informal perspectives that you can’t find anywhere else. I watched Obama’s 2008 election on Twitter, and I saw a mix of people from all over the world giving their reactions to that historic event.

As you start to find people whose perspectives and voices you get some benefit from, follow them. It’s a great way to form relationships with people you can learn a lot from. (It might also inspire you to contribute your own voice to the conversation!)

Twitter organizes conversations around topic tags called #hashtags. You can make any word into a hashtag by adding a pound sign to the beginning. Twitter turns these into links to all of the postings on that topic. Website Whatthetrend.com can help you find conversation topics that are relevant to your interests.

To learn more about Twitter, check out the great Twitter Guide Book from Mashable.

It’s worth noting that Google Buzz, the Twitter-like thingy from Google, can subscribe you to updates from your friends in Twitter and/or Google Reader so you can see both in one stream. After you get to this point, take a look in Google Buzz and see if it shows a good mix of news for you.

 

Next Step: Outputs

In Part II of this post, I will discuss the “Outputs” stage, where you can show off your learning and use it to connect with other like-minded individuals.

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