Students’ PLNs: Great social media use!

Why it’s great for students – anyone – to have a personal learning network and how to develop one

By Anne Collier

This is what it’s all about: young people using social media to their intellectual and professional advantage well before they’re out of school – and with school helping them with that! What’s the “this” I’m referring to? A USATODAY story about teachers, librarians, and media specialists helping students develop their own personal learning networks, using Twitter as the most common tool (this is also one way students learn and practice new media literacy and digital citizenship – see this). The researchers of the Digital Youth Project call this “interest-driven social networking” (see their book here).

True individualized learning

The USATODAY article leads off with the story of Julia Albaugh, a high school student in Iowa who wanted to learn about marketing and public relations, but her school didn’t have any courses on the subject. So her school’s thoughtful librarian helped her develop her PLN with Twitter, which helped her connect with Liz H. Kelly, “a Santa Monica, Calif., author and marketing consultant who offered her career advice.” I think the reporter’s new to the subject because he doesn’t explain how PLNs work on Twitter very well, but he does helpfully report that there’s “a loose consortium of teachers that now numbers nearly 9,700” – teachers who have or participate in PLNs (sometimes also referred to as professional learning networks) which they use “to match experts with students who otherwise wouldn’t be able to find specialized instruction, help or advice.”

That sounds more formal than my own experience (and I think many Twitter users’ experiences) in growing a PLN, but I doubt that it is. Using Twitter to develop a personal learning network is about who you are and what your goals are; it’s very individual. People use Twitter for many reasons, including PLNs: marketing oneself, one’s ideas, or one’s business; celebrity watch; personalized news; and keeping in touch with a closed network, such as extended family. For most people, it takes time and a bit of trial and error to develop a PLN – to find the right people to follow and develop a following.

Your interest community

You’re in the process of becoming part of an interest community. It helps to have a little sense of playfulness about it, engage in a bit of trial and error (follow and unfollow, as you learn how much value people you follow bring to you, and vice versa, knowing that people aren’t informed when you unfollow them). And as you’re figuring that out, you’re learning how to use the tool effectively for you while the value of your network is growing, as is your value to it. It’s a mutual thing – if you approach it that way, of course. People can tell if you do after a while; you get more value if you deliver some too.

What do I mean by value? That’s individual too. For student Julia Albaugh it was connecting to experts in her field. It’s very similar to me, but for their personal and professional insights rather than career help. People “tweet” or post (in 140-character messages) their thoughts, links to their blog posts, or links to others’ blog posts and other content they’ve found on the Web – posts that are meaningful to them, which makes them important for me to see.

How I started my own PLN

I got started in 2008, when long-time friend and colleague Anne Bubnic, then an educator with the California [schools’] Technology Assistance Project in San Rafael, suggested that for starters I just follow everybody she followed (to do this, you just click on people’s thumbnail photos or graphics (called “avatars”) on a friend’s Twitter profile, which takes you to their profiles, where you simply click on the “Follow” button). That worked for me, because Anne followed a whole lot of other tech educators, and this was the group whose wisdom I particularly wanted to tap into. There were a few other really interesting people I followed too – fellow journalists, professors, researchers, tech analysts, etc. – who have kept my PLN stew rich and well-seasoned.

This is not the Twitter we typically hear about either in the news or from otherwise very smart pundits who are new to Twitter. There’s nothing narcissistic about it. It’s a wealth of collective mentoring and crowd sourcing that keeps the follower growing. Of course not all of what the people in your network tweet is deep or consequential, but who would want that? We’re all people, after all, and it’s nice to be reminded of that (see the “Twitter in the classroom” part of this post).

Inspiration overload?

If one tried to read all the tweets and click on all the links offered by the people s/he followed, one could feel overwhelmed. But what I’ve learned from thinker, author, and educator Howard Rheingold, who I follow, is that one’s PLN on Twitter is like a spring which constantly flows – you just dip into the flow. And you “dip” at the frequency that works for you and what you have on your plate any given day (look under his subhead “Critical consumption” in Rheingold’s article at What an opportunity this is for our children! And it’s ok if it’s celebrity watch for a while; it’s probably not exclusively that, and – even if it is – it’ll undoubtedly become more than that as they grow. Because their (and our) social media use is a reflection of us and our everyday lives.


Related links

* “Online sometimes ‘alone together’ in a room”
* “A (digital) return to village life?”
* “Dave Letterman’s view of Twitter”

Leave a comment