In Cultivate Your Personal Learning Network Part I, you learned 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. The second part of the Learning Loop is the “Outputs” stage. Here you will 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-ing 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 professionally, think of it as doing well by doing good first. This post will look at why you might do this and how you can do it easily without adding a lot of extra work for yourself.
Outputs: Showing What you Know
Not too long ago, I got an appointment with a new doctor, showed up, and was asked to wait in his office for several minutes before he could see me. I noticed that he had many objects in his office that were meant to reassure patients that “he knows his stuff”– his med school diploma and professional awards hung proudly above a bookshelf packed full of thick medical textbooks and antique decorative doctor’s instruments. As I looked closer, I saw that the med school textbooks were dated from the early 1980s and looked like they hadn’t been opened (or dusted) in years. The last of his professional awards was received last century, as the fading ink read 1996 on the yellowing paper. It made me wonder if this doctor was keeping his skills current or if he’s just been going through the motions since the mid- ’90s. Are those antique doctor’s instruments just for decoration or does he still use those?!? I grew more doubtful as my eyes scanned the dinghy artifacts. I realized that even though he had all these symbols of learning, there was no way for me to see what he really knows. I’m just expected to see those items and trust that he learned everything he needed to know to keep me healthy.
Your resume (or your school transcript) isn’t too different from that doctor’s office– they tell others where you got your experience and when, but they don’t show what you really learned from those experiences. This is why many educators are recommending students compile ePortfolios, a culmination of their best work over the course of their educational careers. With an ePortfolio, people can actually look at the very best work you have produced and they can see the quality of thinking for themselves. You can use an ePortfolio to continually develop your ideas over time and engage others in a public discussion about the things you are interested in learning. As you may imagine, this is also good practice for professionals who have left formal education, so they can demonstrate that their understanding of their field is current, complete, and sophisticated. If that doctor had a blog discussing new developments in medicine or showing off the articles he reads, it would have gone a long way towards reassuring me that I would be in good hands under his care.
A personal blog is the perfect tool for an ePortfolio because it allows you to easily post almost any kind of work that you do– writing, videos, audio, photos and more. This gives your readers a clear picture of what you’re working on so they can see for themselves the quality of your work. Blogs also feature tools to help you organize your writing by categories, tags, and pages so your readers can easily find content that interests them. A blog can also be a place where your other outputs– like twitter tweets, bookmarks, RSS feeds, and flickr photos– all come together to demonstrate your many learning pursuits.
Make it Easy
Many of the tools we use for getting new information allow us to create a digital “trail” for others to follow without any extra effort. Google Reader, which we discussed last time, has a Share button that allows you to publish interesting posts to your followers as you read. Articles you share go up onto a special public page (here’s mine) which has its own RSS feed so you can feed your shared links into other tools. MY Google Reader list feeds into a widget on the right hand side of TedCurran.net so people can see what I’ve been reading. I also use the sidebar of my blog to show off my most recent twitter tweet, my Diigo bookmark collection, and the podcasts I listen to. I share these because the people who appreciate my writing would probably also appreciate the other articles I’ve been reading on similar subjects. By reading through and picking out the “best of the best” among my inputs, I’m sharing my perspective on what’s important with my readers without actually doing all that writing and reviewing myself. This helps me provide a valuable experience to my readers in a way that doesn’t add extra work for me.
I recommend this method to small business owners working in competitive fields (I do a little web design on the side) so they can demonstrate their expertise to potential clients. It also becomes a tool to educate your ongoing clients around issues that will help them get more out of the services you provide.
I did this as a classroom teacher too– I used a tool called Google Notebook (RIP) to clip little snippets of information that I would find as I was researching new lessons or units for my students. Sometimes I would clip articles expressly for them to read as assignments, but other times I would just add interesting readings to the feed for them to explore independently. Often they were readings that had informed my understanding of our projects but that I couldn’t find a way to work into the flow of our daily assignments. (If you’re interested in this sort of workflow, I’d recommend using Diigo for Educators nowadays).
Using these little tricks means that showing what you know does not require doing a lot of extra work– if you can’t find the time to write periodic blog posts, think about just sharing a steady stream of interesting articles with your chosen audience. Next, I’ll talk about another tool that helps make showing what you know easy.
Shareaholic is a great little browser plugin for most major browsers that makes it easy to share webpages on almost any social network you can think of. If you’re like me you have different types of friends on each social network– professional contacts on LinkedIn, close friends and family on Facebook, work colleagues on Diigo, and those people who still only do email– and Shareaholic makes it easy to share content on whichever “output” works for you. This way, you can create several different “channels” of information that can be customized to the different audiences and social networks that make up your Personal Learning Network.
Engaging with Your Networks
One mistake that many people make with social media is that they try to use it as a megaphone– to post in as many different social networks as possible in the hopes of reaching more people. Tools like Shareaholic and another favorite, Ping.fm, make it easy to blast your tweets into every social network at the same time, but I was surprised to find that this doesn’t translate into increased traffic. The same way you shouldn’t trust SEO gurus who will promise to get you to the top of Google searches in a week, you simply can’t game social networks to promote your content. The Internet has a way of rewarding content that is actually relevant and useful to people, so you have to put in the work to find out how your ideas fit into the larger conversation.
The best way to get people to pay attention to your blog is to genuinely engage in conversations with other people. Most of the traffic that comes into my blog now comes from comments I’ve made on other people’s posts– posts that are on the same topic as mine, where my blog can serve as part of the larger conversation on this topic. Finding like-minded people who are writing and tweeting about your topics of interest and asking questions, sharing ideas, and moving ideas forward is at the heart of building your Personal Learning Network. It has the added benefit of driving web traffic towards your work– traffic that you can then figure out how to turn into dollars and cents.
Please Share Back Your Experiences!
I have been very heartened and grateful at the way Part I of this post has spread across Twitter and the personal blogs of many of my own heroes on this subject. I’d love to hear your reactions as you try these techniques or compare my ideas to your own ways of managing your PLN. Feel free to use the comments below (which can cross-post to your favorite social networks as well).
- Using Twitter and Other Social Media for Professional Development (shawnurban.wordpress.com)
- Cultivate your Personal Learning Network (downes.ca)
- Professional Learning Network Plans (maysayparn.wordpress.com)
- The importance of choice: Reflections on ePortfolios (ictenhancedlearningandteaching.wordpress.com)
- Teaching and Learning with Technology Blog: E-portfolios for Learning (teachlearntechblog.blogspot.com)
- Strategies for renewing eLearning environments – Melbourne University (slideshare.net)
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