Hand-crafting a greater role for personal learning networks

Personal learning networks should deepen our humanity.

That’s a half-baked idea, but I think it starts to get at something that has emerged in a few recent conversations I’ve had with a good friend. This all starts because personal learning networks (PLNs) and their impact within workplaces and education spaces raises a set of questions for me that is driving my current work and thinking. The recent conversations have raised the issue (for me at least) about the potential blind spots we have when generally speaking about our professional networks.

So let me start with a few bits about my perspective on PLNs:

  • PLNs exist within the larger network of all of our professional and personal connections. They are a subnetwork.
  • PLNs do not exist because of technology but technology changes the game big time.
  • They are hand-crafted. Or should be. There should be intention behind who is in/out of an individual’s PLN based on that individual’s desire to learn and explore.

It’s that third bullet point that leads me to think about how (if) PLNs deepen our humanity. It’s about intentionality.

A lot of the language regarding professional networks and networking has been co-opted by biz-speak. We should focus on our “brand.” We create social capital. We engage in reputation management. We go to our networks to find new jobs, new business opportunities, resources to answer our business questions, to recruit and hire. In the workplace world, I get this (although the “brand” stuff rubs me entirely the wrong way). The biz-speak language we use does have an instrumental benefit: It really helps translate the value of networks into the workplace world.

But the language also makes us blind to the communities and society we live in. And perhaps more importantly – the communities and social situations that other people live in. Someone please explain to me how the self-absorption required for focusing on our “brand” helps the marginalized members of our communities? It simply doesn’t. Focusing on our brand does not help us become more empathetic or to advocate with more understanding and enthusiasm.

I happen to work down the hall from a small group of researchers and practitioners who are behind the Asset Based Community Development center at Northwestern University. I admire the work they do and have had a little opportunity to chat with them about their insights and their work (their work in communities is deep and extensive). The short version of their approach to community development is this: Rather than look at deficiencies in a community and then “fix them,” they start by looking at strengths that can be brought together so the community creates its own health and well-being.

I am struck by their explicit intention to look at the margins when taking inventory of a community’s capabilities (text in bold is my highlight):

“Each community boasts a unique combination of assets upon which to build its future. A thorough map of those assets would begin with an inventory of the gifts, skills and capacities of the community’s residents. Household by household, building by building, block by block, the capacity mapmakers will discover a vast and often surprising array of individual talents and productive skills, few of which are being mobilized for community-building purposes. This basic truth about the “giftedness” of every individual is particularly important to apply to persons who often find themselves marginalized by communities. It is essential to recognize the capacities, for example, of those who have been labeled mentally handicapped or disabled, or of those who are marginalized because they are too old, or too young, or too poor. In a community whose assets are being fully recognized and mobilized, these people too will be part of the action, not as clients or recipients of aid, but as full contributors to the community-building process.”
(From John P. Kretzmann and John L. McKnight, Building Communities from the Inside Out: A Path Toward Finding and Mobilizing a Community’s Assets, Evanston, IL: Institute for Policy Research 1993).

With respect to PLNs, I am beginning to think we need to take a similar approach in our hand-crafting. How can we be intentional about seeing outside our own professional or institutional borders and be more inclusive of those who have been labeled and marginalized?

I am not not naive enough to think that simply finding a blogger who writes on behalf of the mentally ill or disadvantaged people will solve this problem (“some of my best friends are marginalized people!”).

But PLNs can make us feel connected across a much broader set of communities. A single voice in our network, who maybe has some direct experience outside of our resource-rich world, can perhaps help us build a bit more empathy. And if we have indeed crafted a PLN in which the exchange of know-how and experience is multi-directional, we may even be able to put that network into service. We may be in a better position to speak for those who are at the margins and indeed have something to contribute if only we can see them and listen to what they have to say.

2 thoughts on “Hand-crafting a greater role for personal learning networks

  1. Hi Jeff!
    Really interesting ideas here – and I definitely agree with your thoughts about personal brand language – and even the concept of ‘creating a personal brand’ as something which can dilute and distract from the real value of using social networks to promote authentic communication, learning and connection with other people (not just their ‘brand’). This is something that I definitely started to notice when I started using Twitter and blogging, and became exposed to articles about strategies for promoting your blog, getting more visitors, followers etc etc. Some of which included hiring people to ghost write your blog posts, find and ‘like’ related sites, send and schedule tweets on your behalf…..all of which seem to totally miss the point and real value of social networks, which to me, is personal learning, finding and engaging with people about their ideas, and authentic communication. What’s the point of building a personal brand that is essentially, just a crock, and built by hired minions? The whole exercise just seems to evade logic.
    The other problem I have with this use of social media ruthlessly to promote personal brand is that it necessarily forces you to limit the ideas you openly explore or write about (since the whole point of having a ‘brand’ is something that others can easily identify you with). It seems like this would close you off to some potential – particularly serendipitous – learning opportunities. This is something that I’ve found a tool like Twitter is excellent for – but only if you allow yourself to explore and play with diverse ideas.

    Also – thought the idea behind Asset Based Community Development centre of focusing on the inherent strengths and commonalities within a community is brilliantly simple. I think sometimes we forget that communities are made up of living, breathing and evolving human beings that can find unique ways to connect with each other, given some common ground and perhaps a little structure. Rather than trying to set up communities according to some preconceived notion of what a healthy community should look and act like, focus on the individual, unique strengths of each person and help them to identify ways in which they can contribute.


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