Sherry Turkle famously argues technology has begun to overtake our attention and time, which has led to increased physical isolation and shallow online interaction. She contends, in a community-starved world, we need to disconnect from our smartphones and other Information and Communications Technology (ICT)-enabling devices in order to create greater balance: “We think constant connection will make us feel less lonely. The opposite is true … If we don’t teach our children to be alone, they will know only how to be lonely”. Detractors such as David Banks, Nathan Jurgenson and others counter that Turkle’s assessment of alienation creates a digital dualism. As David Banks at Cyborgology suggests, it may be more appropriate instead to consider our techniquehow we use technology.

Surely, online interactions can be shallow, but it’s no certainty. I’ve spent over a decade in different online spaces—primarily as a member of various web fora where sub-communities exist—and I cannot say that what I’ve witnessed and experienced was anything less than a human desire to connect with others. Sometimes these online spaces offered, for those who felt lonely or isolated by their interests in their physical environments, a place to belong. In other words, for many people I’ve encountered, these are not places for leading a shallow existence.

What can lead to isolation is a lack of both technical skills and an understanding of the social elements of the Web, both of which are required for productive social networks—and Personal Learning Networks (PLNs). It takes time and a level of humility to come to terms with the idea that knowledge is no longer contained solely “in [our] skulls, books, and libraries” and is instead constructed from knowledge distributed across networks and on the Web. Supportive learning environments—such as connectivist MOOCs (cMOOCs) or assistive guides for self-directed learners—work to develop the fluency required to succeed in these spaces.

Undeniably, as the ever-growing Internet economy and the rise of the virtual workplace—with their corresponding technologically-intensive competency requirements for knowledge workers—have shown, knowing—and the ability to learn—how to participate and share knowledge competently in online spaces has become a necessity. The Internet’s capacity to store information and to facilitate networked communication has also led to an exponential rise in the amount of data, information, knowledge and wisdom that is readily available and accessible to the general public. Social networks have been proposed as a solution to manage the rapid flow of this information. As citizens become increasingly present online—connecting on social networking sites and across virtual workscapes—knowing how to engage in these virtual spaces has become crucial for full participation.

We are beginning to see the benefits ICT can have for our everyday lives and society. Technology-enabled connections and communication have improved lives across the globe by providing a number of benefits, ranging from, but not limited to: providing spaces to offer up-to-date information to the masses during crises, to coordinating relief efforts and providing a means to connect with others to give and receive comfort and support. This relatively new role became evident throughout Hurricane Sandy. During the superstorm, mobile phone access to Twitter and Instagram transformed those platforms into key channels of communication despite the existence of some user-spread misinformation. Following Sandy, tools such as Storify and gift registries, which were promoted and disseminated through social media sites like Twitter and Facebook, acted as lifelines to provide information and to coordinate supplies to affected individuals. Outside of immediate crisis situations, there is also evidence suggesting social communication strengthens human relationships, particularly for introverts, and has benefitted families, youth and businesses around the world. Smartphones have also been shown to help homeless citizens to find support and stay connected to society. As we become more reliant on networks to support many facets of our everyday lives, we must also ensure that we can collectively function—to share and learn together as PLNs—in these new networked spaces.

Shelly Terrell, a connected educator and co-founder of the Twitter stream #edchat describes a PLN as “the people you choose to connect with and learn from.” Though inconclusive, the term PLN first emerged as early as 1998 as part of Organizational Development specialist Dori Digenti’s vision for the extension of organizational collaborative learning online. Digenti predicted—as did David Weinberger and others over the following decade—that the Internet would rapidly increase the speed at which knowledge accumulates. This could only be managed by interdependent networks of learners, or knowledge workers. According to Digenti:

The PLN consists of relationships between individuals where the goal is
enhancement of mutual learning. The currency of the PLN is learning in the form of feedback, insights, documentation, new contacts, or new business opportunities. It is based on reciprocity and a level of trust that each party is actively seeking value-added information for the other.

This definition has essentially held true, despite some debate over both the PLN’s relationship to earlier definitions of learning communities and the distinction between the network connections among individuals and the means by which they manage their own learning via the Web. There appears to be some agreement, however, that the term PLN has often been ascribed to networked learning online.

Underlying the development of a PLN is the need for individual learners to be able to have the capacity for self-direction, which requires a higher level of learning maturity—an absence of which may represent a barrier for a percentage of adults to learn in this way. Also crucially important for networked learning is the level of development of individuals’ digital and web literacies in order for members to optimally filter out ‘noise’ and contribute to the health of the network. Although approaches to and experiences when establishing a PLN may vary, individuals seeking to build one may wish to first self-assess their own abilities to learn and share within networks before seeking out others with similar interests.

Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) that facilitate Personal Knowledge Management (PKM) play an important role in creating richness within a PLN, too. Learners who store important information in Web 2.0 tools such as wikis, blogs, microblogs, social bookmarking and on other platforms create quickly accessible resources. With such resources at their disposal, they ‘know how to act‘ when faced with the need to create immediate connections to topics arising during discussions, and can provide content or insight for others needed to grow knowledge.

It’s also important to include a range of voices in a PLN. Incorporating individuals with diverse opinions avoids the risk of the network becoming an ‘echo chamber’, where dominant opinions are ‘echoed’ back to network members. This can obscure alternate viewpoints and prevent learning from taking place.

There is, however, some debate over how an individual best fosters such a learning environment. Although some suggest observation and trial and error may be the best way to learn how to do so, facilitated, networked learning appears to play a large role in developing broader capacity to learn in networks for those who require a supportive space. To that end, cMOOC models have succeeded in encouraging experienced mentors to coach and guide learners who are new to networks. For more independent learners, Howard Rheingold recently published a collaborative ‘peeragogy’ handbook for self-organized learning.

Despite Sherry Turkle’s claims about the isolating nature of digital space, there is growing evidence that increased access to Information and Communications Technology (ICT)—and by extension increased connections to others—holds the potential to greatly improve individual lives. I’ve seen and experienced this myself. As the online economy continues to grow, more individuals and organisations will establish virtual presences. Under these circumstances, as in the past, education can become an important vehicle to help others to develop an understanding of what it means to participate in what appears to be becoming a new public sphere.

Ideas for Starting to Build a PLN Using Twitter: 
Dave Cormier, Alexander McAuley, George Siemens and Bonnie Stewart developed very useful steps for achieving success in cMOOCs, which are suitable for any learning on the Web. The following advice is based on my own experience and presupposes a certain level of comfort in one’s PLE but a limited declared presence on Twitter.

  • Determine what you’d like to learn.
  • Find Twitter hashtags associated with the topic you’d like to learn. Seek out other Twitter users who have curated lists of others on that topic and follow them. Determine whether you see value in developing a relationship with those you’ve found (question to ask yourself: What role(s) can this person play in my learning?).
  • Read and comment on the blogs of those you follow, when possible, and promote their work to others when you really appreciate something they’ve done. Essentially, the idea is to help others when your interests intersect by sharing with them what you’re reading and learning.
  • Don’t forget to share a little about yourself, your thoughts and your life sometimes, too—it helps build trust when others feel they ‘know’ you.
  • Most of all, though, spend time watching those who navigate this space well and learn from what they do.

Acknowledgement: I want to thank my PLN for their generosity over the past year. This article could not have been written without the support and guidance from numerous members of my learning network. Much of the work and ideas they’ve openly shared are represented throughout this piece.

[Photo by Wetsun]