In this blog post I would like to focus on my own Personal Learning Networks – what they look like and how they could be taken further.

A network could be described as a group, of varying size, and the group members all have different characters. In real life I often tend to take the role of a team-player in groups, trying to make sure that everyone is feeling acknowledged and valuable. But when it comes to online networks, I am one of the Hattifnattarna. Hattifnattar (Hattivatti) are creatures in the tales of the Moomin trolls (by Tove Jansson), and occurs almost exclusively in groups. They are small, white ghost-like creatures that can neither speak nor hear but have very good sensibility. Hattifnattarna are constantly traveling in their boats, staring wide-eyed at the distance, hoping that their goals will manifest themselves, so that the journey finally ends, something that unfortunately never happens. During the journey they never talk to each other; it is at all questionable if they possess this ability for communication. They probably also lack conversation topics. This is so sad, please, let’s talk about something else than me!

A Personal Learning Network (PLN) can be defined as an informal group of likeminded people, sharing their knowledge, providing resources and advice to guide each other in independent learning experiences in digital spaces (Tour, 2015). The digital spaces are common for informal learning, where people learn something quite unintentional by interacting with others. This learning usually comes from everyday practices that are meaningful and relevant to people, which formal learning in institutions might lack. Some of my networks on Facebook, Linked In and Research Gate could be seen as PLNs. I have joined these networks because of a specific interest shared within the group, and occasionally I learn something. However, learning through digital media can also have a direction and intention, even if it is not a formal learning situation arranged by an institution. For example, Tour (2015) found that teachers’ self-initiated learning was driven by specific educational objectives and they were actively seeking relevant learning experiences on channels like Twitter, blogs, YouTube and Google Reader. I can relate to this as well. I commonly use YouTube quite intentionally, to learn choreographies or specific steps for my dance classes (yes, besides teaching at the university I also lead a dance class on the gym).

To further understand learning in digital spaces, we can use the theoretical framework connectivism. This framework emphasizes that seeking and constructing knowledge online, is most often accomplished through interactions and dialogue. Therefore, connectivity and collaborations is an essential element in online learning spaces (Siemens, 2005). The benefits of collaborative learning include lots of things, such as development of critical thinking skills, self-reflection, co-creation of knowledge and meaning (Brindley et al. 2009). This is great, but I am puzzled. Like I said, I am engaged in networks online, but are they really learning networks? Remember that I compared my online-self with the non-communicative Hattifnattarna, that ‘constantly traveling in their boats, staring wide-eyed at the distance, hoping that their goals will manifest themselves’. I lack both interaction and direction, it seems.

Scrutinizing my feeble contributions to the networks I’ve joined, I realized that the problem was not lack of contributions, that I am one silent Hattifnatt. The problem was the reason why I had joined the groups in the first place. My reasons were to ‘keep up’ with things, facilitate practical communication such as setting dates for activities or to ‘show of’ my research (like an ad). I had not realized that I could use the networks for intentional, goal-directed learning. Maybe if I change my intentions, and by that change the way I communicate and interact through the networks, at least some of them could operate as sources of learning, sharing and creating new knowledge. Please, notice that I say some of the networks. Cummings et al. (2006) describe that the motivation of sharing could also be linked to relations. Human relationships within online networks include bringing, bonding, and linking social capital. Trust and reciprocity are very important for the knowledge sharing in some online networks. It is possible that successful networks have a foundation based on a small group of individuals, who have developed reciprocal trust and even friendships over a period of years (Cummings et al., 2006). I also believe that smaller groups where the members have a realistic chance to get to know one another have the greatest potential of being true collaborative, learning networks. As an example, the ONL community is sort of a PLN, but in the PBL-groups of the community are more like think tanks where the true action takes place.

Sharing and collaborating implies an exchange between the individuals’ unique contributions. Therefore, the experience of the collective is forever larger than that of the individual persons. Popcorn in the sunset is always better together with a friend. (Photo: P Hellström, private)

Cummings, S., Heeks, R. & Huysman, M. (2006). Knowledge and learning in online networks in development: a social-capital perspective, Development in Practice,16(6):570-586.  DOI: 10.1080/09614520600958215

Brindley, J., Blaschke, L. M. & Walti, C. (2009). Creating effective collaborative learning groups in an online environment. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 10(3).

Tour, E. (2017). Teachers’ self-initiated professional learning through Personal Learning Networks. Technology, Pedagogy and Education, 26:2, 179-192, DOI:10.1080/1475939X.2016.1196236
Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism:  Learning theory for the digital age.  International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, 2(1).

Hello? Is it anyone out there?