You may not call yours a PLE (personal learning environment) but I guarantee you have one. If you want to prepare that meal that your mom used to make. What do you do? If you want to gain new skills in order to get a promotion. What do you do? If you want to learn to speak a foreign language. What do you do? Each person’s answers may vary but probably include things like, ask my mom for the recipe or take a class. And there you go, you have a network of family or friends or colleagues or classmates.
Whether you learning to cook mom’s recipe by being in the kitchen or reading the recipe online, and whether you take the class online or watch YouTube videos or discussion questions through social media, the learning takes place within an environment which may utilize any number of tools. The point is your PLE is whomever you turn to and whatever tools and resources you use when you want to know something, get advice and suggestions for resources, learn how to do something or get support to improve how you are doing something. The only real difference between just interacting with your network and a full-fledged PLE is that you are purposefully and consciously determining the scope and components of your network and looking for ways to grow and nurture it.
So here’s an activity that you can do to start to develop your PLE. It comes in two parts.
Activity Part 1
Sketch out your PLE as it currently exists. Here’s a copy of mine that I started. It is by no means complete but it gives you an idea. Think about all of the people and tools you use to learn things both at work and at home. Write them all down. Or make a sort of mind map like I did to help lump items together.
Don’t limit yourself. Put down people at work, your kids, Facebook, the television news, the local librarian, whatever and whomever. Think about formal learning you have access to and less formal means like learning on the job. In this digitally connected world, don’t forget about the old school analog methods. The point is to start realizing that learning can happen in many ways and is happening all the time, whether you have been realizing it or not.
Activity Part 2
Below there are ten suggestions for developing your PLE. Commit to doing at least one of the things on the list below each month, or bi-weekly or weekly if you are feeling really motivated. I suggest spacing them out because you want to give yourself time to see how these things integrate with your day-to-day activities. If you try to pile on too much at once, you won’t be able to fully appreciate which fit best into your PLE. Every resource and method isn’t right for everyone. And PLEs at their core are personal.
- Pick 5 new blogs to follow. Blogs can be a great way to see what others in your field are thinking and doing and a quickly Google Search will no doubt find you a bunch to choose from. Look at them with a critical eye as some will be better than others and some better for you than others. But don’t pass up one with whom you don’t agree completely. You want to have a balance of opinions in your collection since those will help you challenge and rethink ideas. Some blogs can be signed up for and delivered right to your inbox. But you may want to collect them in an RSS reader where you can create categories and folders to organize them as you expand your collection. Sadly Google Reader will soon be discontinued but there are many other good news aggregators out there.
- Sign up for Twitter. I know Twitter can be brain scrambling for many people at first. And some have notions of Twitter only through celebrity tweets that make the news, but Twitter may very well have a place in your PLE. Like blogs, it is a great way to find others in your field or with similar interests, many of whom are willing to share information with you and answer your questions. Twitter is also being using increasingly for backchannel at conferences and webinars. When you see those hashtags (that’s those words and phrases preceded by a hash mark #) you can use those to find tweets relating to a particular event or topic. For more about getting started with hashtags, check this out.
- Connect with an industry association or attend a conference. What better way to network than to be right in the thick of things at a conference or at an association event. Even if you can’t travel to one, check out what might be available near you or online. More conferences are offering virtual experiences where you can at least sign up for selected keynotes or sessions online. There are also often resources available on association and conference websites such as white papers, discussion forums, job boards, etc.
- Communicate with someone new, on the phone, in person, by email, social media. OK, maybe you can’t go to a conference but you can definitely interact with new people and they don’t have to be specifically related to your present job. Go talk to someone in another department. Email someone you met at a conference or online to share an interesting article you found or ask a question. The point here is to connect with people and nurture relationships. People will be much more likely to help those with whom they have a relationship, even if it is only virtual.
- Join a LinkedIn group. Much like the association suggestion above, you will find there are groups forming around all sorts of industry focus and specific topics. Once you join (some require a moderator to accept your request to join) you can start viewing the discussion threads. After you get your bearings, start to comment or ask questions. Again this is about relationship building. You would appreciate if others answered your questions or posted additional information on your threads.
- Read a book. Which book? Any book actually. In fact, it might be best if it isn’t about your current work. Maybe some fiction. You’d be amazed how many ideas come from unexpected sources. Reading gets the brain working and making new connections that could help you in unexpected ways. The brain doesn’t separate reading about something from actually experiencing it so fiction can act as a simulator of social constructs in a manner similar to computer simulators’ treatment of things like flying an airplane says Dr. Keith Oatley in a New York Times article on neuroscience of the brain. And if you want to read more about how your brain is working and learning, you may want to check out Brain Rules by Dr. John Medina. In between novels that is.
- Comment on a blog. We’ve touched on this already in other items but lurking is fine at first but eventually, if you want to really swim you have to get in the water. Online forums are intended to be collaborative. Few people post blogs just for themselves. They want attention and interaction. So if someone writes something that helped you or made you think or got you curious about something or about which you have some useful information to add, do it. If you disagree, that’s OK too as long as you present your comments respectfully. One thing that we all have to be mindful of with any written electronic communications is that tone and humor don’t “read” the same way online as they do in person, when we can see body language and facial expressions.
- Share your experiences. This could take many forms. Volunteer to mentor someone. There is no better way to really learn something than to teach it to someone else. Look for opportunities to share your expertise. Maybe your kid’s school has a career day or your local community center needs speakers for meetings. Or you want to start your own blog. Just as you receive information in dozens of ways, there are dozens of ways to give back. Find one that works for you, that meets your needs and level of experience.
- Try a new tool. There are countless web applications out there. Or go low-tech. Based on your interests find a new tool. I happen to spend of a lot of my professional life online so I am always looking for new applications that will make my life and my colleagues’ lives more productive, easier, and fun. This year I am participating in Jane Hart’s 10 Tools Challenge. By the end of the year I will have tried 10 new tools and reported my experiences. Will I keep using them all? No. Will I learn a whole lot from both those I like and those I don’t. You bet I will.
- Try something new. Finally, I would encourage everyone to do this one, even if you don’t go through this activity and do any of the other things. The brain loves and thrives on novelty. It makes new pathways and connections that can lead to all sorts of creative and innovative thoughts. Don’t believe me, well how about Steve Jobs. I bet you’ve heard of him and think he was pretty innovative. In his 2005 commencement address at Stanford he tells a story about taking a calligraphy class that seemed to have absolutely nothing to do with anything he was working on or would need. Well calligraphy studies affected his understanding of fonts, which of course we all use on our computers. As he pointed out: “you can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something—your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. This approach has never let me down, and it has made all the difference in my life.” So go out and try something new.