Wednesday, April 10, 2013

The Personal Learning Network - What's Up With That?

Thinking about the term 'personal learning network' (PLN) in a little more depth...

Let's take a look at each of the three words in turn. And let's start with the noun, network. This word has a reasonably firm meaning in contemporary usage. A network is a set of entities that are connected by some form of tangible links. That, is each entity in the set is connected to one or more of the other entities by a link.

The nature of the entities and the links can vary widely. The concept is a useful one and it has been widely applied. In the contemporary world we can recognize, for instance, networks of television stations, computer networks, and ecological networks in natural communities. In human social relations we often speak of a network of friends or a support network. One's support network is commonly understood to be a group of people that provide support, in terms of things like advice, sympathy, understanding, or financial assistance, during times of stress or simply coping with the everyday challenges of personal and professional life.

Then comes the adjective, learning. The concept of a learning network is easily seen to have direct parallels with a support network. A group of learners is connected by some sort of communication channels, and from time-to-time one in the group learns from another. In support mode, one member may assist another with understanding. Hopefully sometimes two or more members of a learning network even build some knowledge or understanding together. But how far can we extend the parallel between a support network and a learning network?

One aspect of human social networks that is seldom considered is reciprocity. In various forms of physical network, the concept of reciprocity is implicit. In a computer network, it is not sufficient to note that all of the computers can exchange information with a single computer. Instead it is understood that each of the computers in the network can exchange information with each of the other computers. Each of the links supports a two-way flow of information, that is, reciprocal exchange.

But the commonly understood notion of a human support network is that a single individual calls upon a diverse group of other individuals for support in a variety of different situations. The individual seeking support may occasionally provide support to one of the others in the network, but that is not part of the support network definition. This understanding of the term network is me-centric. Reciprocity is not implicit.

So what about a learning network? As soon as we add the modifier 'personal,' it comes to seem like a me-centric support network, in existence simply to satisfy the needs of the individual at the center.  In contrast, we would expect a learning network to incorporate, by definition, the commitment that as my fellow learners support me when they can, so I will support them when I am able as well. It will be most powerful when the energies of all members are combined in achieving learning goals.

It seems, as a consequence, that use of the term personal learning network may tend to send the wrong message at least some of the time. A better term, perhaps, one that more clearly expresses the intention of learning networks, is mutual learning network.

Having dealt with terminology, let us turn to more practical questions surrounding the concept. Does a mutual learning network (MLN) ever exist? When did we humans first experience an MLN, and has the concept changed over time? To the first, I think, many of us can say, "Yes." Most of us have experienced a period, often short, when we were engaged in mutual learning. Probably not in a classroom, but maybe as members of a professional group dedicated to professional development for its members. The phenomenon even occurs in the workplace when office gossip serves to inform everyone in the company about the details of some impending change that has not been revealed or clearly explained by management.

When might this type of mutual support group have originated? Presumably mutual learning was one of the behaviours that gave early humans the edge when we co-existed in hunting groups or tribes. The first communication channel was speech. The faster everyone learned the latest tricks for capturing food or avoiding predators, the higher the fitness of the group. But MLNs probably became less pervasive, we might speculate, as socisl groups became larger and social structure or hierarchy was introduced. In complex societies, competition, it would seem, may well have supplanted mutual support as a strategy for success.

Yet mutual learning continues to crop up even today in special circumstances. It becomes particularly important for those who see life as demanding continually evolving reponses to a continually changing environment. These individuals will seek the ability to learn continuously over the course of a lifetime, the state of life-long learning. The age of computers and information overload has seemed to make learning ever more challenging in the twenty-first century because of the sheer volume of new knowledge being created every year. But at the same time digital technologies have provided many broad channels for information exchange with very low entry thresholds. Mutual learning networks are easier than ever to establish today, and they seem to offer one powerful solution to the challenge of sustaining life-long learning.

My conclusion is that although mutual learning networks have been with us almost since the dawn of human existence, they have undergone substantial change over the millennia. The communication channels that act as links between members of the network have changed, and the personal needs of members have evolved as well. Today's digital communications allow for ever larger networks and more frictionless delivery of support.

But digital communication has not solved the newest concern for MLNs. If they are to support life-long learning, how is membership to be sustained after the network is first created? What are the mechanisms for keeping members committed and involved over time? How can new members be recruited as old ones slip away to focus on other interests? There is still some important work to be done in finding answers to these questions.

[This posting is for Activity 16 (Week 4) of the OpenU course on Open Education H817open. All text and graphics are released under a Creative Commons Attribution license.]