You don’t have a strong PLN (Personal Learning Network) the moment you show up at the right group, even if it is the perfect fit for your particular interest. Admittedly, finding a group of folks who share your passions can offer support, guidance and quick tips for simple challenges. For example, finding the right quilting group for a lone quilter can be a dream come true.
But what if your passions are not so neatly contained? What if your interests are broad and interdisciplinary? Specifically, what if you just can’t find a group that shares your varied interests? You could join different groups for your different interests or even create a new one. That works fine for discrete fields, that is, until you start to ask cross-cultural questions no one else in that group is interested in.
A strong PLN is not just a group of people, any more than a strong college education is the particular college you went to. A friend of mine had this to say of his Harvard degree: “The classes I took were not what made my education so valuable. It was more about the friendships I made and the radically different world view I acquired while there. Things I used to think impossible became matter-of-fact, almost mundane.”
Sure, choosing a good fitting network can be invaluable. But the quality of your learning journey rests largely upon the quality of your relationships. The skills required to build strong connections do not come naturally to most people. They must be learned, refined and practiced in order to build a strong PLN. The strength of your PLN rests more on your skills than on the people you surround yourself with.
So, what abilities would we want to develop in order to grow a strong PLN, one which feeds our need for learning and embraces our unique contributions?
Some people define competencies as merely skills, something which the person has practiced to reasonable proficiency. I prefer the larger, more encompassing definition which includes attitudes, habits and perspective. Competencies are not just what a person can do, but rather includes what they are inclined to do and even to notice.
For example, I have the smarts, skills and experience to become a good computer programmer. However, after learning the basics of over ten computer languages, it is clear to me that I’ll never be an outstanding programmer. Why? Because I don’t have the discipline to maintain my focus for that long, nor do I have the memory required. In short, while I’m moderately proficient at my hobby, I lack the competencies to do well professionally in the field. The question is, can competencies be developed to at least proficiency levels? I believe they can … through training, coaching and rehearsal.
The following list is more descriptive than prescriptive. The actual development of such skills and habits is the focus of a course I am designing.
- Contribution: We need to learn which online behaviors actually contribute to another’s journey, as well as which are neutral and what is in fact a request. Sometimes our “gifts” may be asking a lot of the other. It is not always obvious. Critical feedback, for example, is abhorred by some, tolerated by others and warmly welcome by a few. Having learned what makes for great contributions, we then need to build habits and reliably add value to the discussions we follow. This includes comments, coaching, creating content and connecting people.
- Great Questions: They don’t come easily. For simple requests, it hardly matters. “What’s a good site for online security for kids and parents?” But even simple questions can be worded in a such a way as to make them difficult to answer. “What’s the best web host?” That’s a weak question. Best for what? Without a context and clear criteria, such questions are easily dismissed. The more people have to ask clarifying questions, the harder you made it for them to answer.
- Feedback: The ability to offer, collect and make effective use of feedback is critical to any success. Why? Because practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. It actually takes good feedback to make the effective course corrections for consistent improvements.
- Evaluation: In an ever-expanding sea of social media sites and web apps, the ability to quickly evaluate new products is crucial. We need to determine how well it might serve our intended usage and user population. A great product which is too complex or buggy for the experience level of our users is a waste of time. We need to know when to say, “Next!”
- Humble Boldness: Newbies to social media are usually so concerned about looking bad that they do far more “lurking” than participating. While you should listen to the tone of a discussion before you comment, at some point you just have to jump in. We need to learn how to step in with humility, to offer our help, perspective and support, knowing full well we will bumble some of it. That’s the price of entry. And we need to be quick to ask the questions that will support our quest, without worrying about burdening people or looking dumb. Hiding does not play well in social media.
- Basic Computer Skills: You need to know how to do things like copy and paste, how to download and install programs, and how to create text files. Without these kinds of skills, life is just harder online.
- Celebrating Aloud: I think of gratefulness as an internal feeling and thankfulness as the external expression of that feeling. How you feel inside does not matter to your online network unless you tell them. They don’t see the unspoken cues they might get in person. In addition to thanking individuals, there is also thanking your lucky stars. Tell the world when you feel fortunate, blessed, lucky. Celebrate the achievements, contributions and milestones of others. People want to feel that what they do matters, especially online, where feedback may be so sparse for newbies.
- Remixing: Reworking the things you’re exploring improves learning. Remix, repurpose, reuse, curate. The real challenge is to take what exists and make it better. Make it easier for others to use and understand.
- Leaving the Virtual: Sometimes you just have to get offline. You have to know when and how to leave the virtual world of online connections and pick up the phone (or Skype). You need balance or your learning will get scrambled. This might include play, time with friends and family and even walking the dog.
These are what I consider to be some of the basic competencies of social media for building a strong PLN. I chose them because they are doable, measurable and coachable. It’s easy to build meaningful tasks around them and they draw in other skills. What have I left out? How might we construct exercises that would help refine these skills?
Extra Notes on Competencies and Literacies
Competencies and literacies are fairly new constructs in learning theory, and not yet well agreed upon, not even on Wikipedia. The Washington State Department of Personnel defines competencies as, “the measurable or observable knowledge, skills, abilities, and behaviors (KSABs) critical to successful job performance.” I like acronyms. And Microsoft offers a dizzying array of competencies here, with rubrics for measuring Basic, Intermediate, Advanced and Expert Proficiency Level on each. It seems that competencies have more to do with actions, and literacies have more to do with thinking and understanding. Rita Kop cites research that people might not necessarily have the critical literacies (thinking skills) required to learn and search independently, suggesting the need for some level of training or coaching. Here are Howard Rheingold‘s 5 Literacies: Attention, participation, evaluating credibility or critical consumption or “crap detection”, cooperation or collaboration and network awareness. He defines literacies as skills plus community (social media). He says, ”An RSS reader is not a queue; it’s a flow. You need to learn to sample the flow.” In a SlideShare called Digital Tribes and the Social Web, Steve Wheeler identifies what he calls the Digital Literacies: Social Networking, Transliteracy, Privacy Maintenance, Identity Management, Creating content, Organizing content, Reusing/Repurposing content, Filtering and selecting, Self presenting. Others include taxonomies, social tagging, and collaboration.
“All learning begins when our comfortable ideas turn out to be inadequate.” – John Dewey
MOOC: Massive Open Online Course
PLENK2010: A MOOC to study PLE’s PLN’s and PKN. For more information, see my earlier post.