I am skeptical about the prospect of maintaining a new Personal/Professional Learning Network (PLN). While I understand and have experienced the long list of benefits, as well as the benefits of similar networks, I cannot help but think my PLN will meet the demise as many of my other networks have.

When I read Christine Young-Husband’s blog, sift through her twitter feed, and interact with her in a video chat, I am blown away by her energy. She seems truly connected to her colleagues. Her story of establishing her PLN reflects that fact:

I was called to Kelowna for a meeting with TCsquared to brainstorm ways to indigenize some science learning resources. I could have just flown in that morning and fly out that night. I opted to make this one day meeting into a micro-professional-development-field-trip. I had a great meeting with those who participated in the TCsquared session and I enjoyed that I was somewhat embedded into Tracy’s daily family routines. The next day, I spend the day with my other friend Des who teaches at UBCO. I met Des on the Math K-9 Curriculum Development Team and I am grateful that she invites me along her edu-adventures. We spent the day at UBCO working on the FNESC Math Teacher Resource.

My last day in Kelowna, I went to Tracy’s school. I had the chance to observe her class, meet some of her colleagues, and briefly observe an SD23 Learning Community. It was all very interesting to me. I really enjoyed chatting with some of the EA’s, teachers, and administrators at her school. These are really informal conversations, but really I was more curious about what they were doing and why.

Younghusband was able to develop a meaningful, physical connection in her network, and it led to a sudden array of professional development opportunities. It also allowed her to explore the opportunity of future interactions like this, fueling her motivation to continue expanding her network.

My doubt rests in availability and energy investment. That is to say, if the professionals in a learning network remain committed, collegial, and active in their network, then it will thrive. However, if a critical mass of them do not, the network fades away. Furthermore, as a teacher, I lack the opportunity to travel to my electronic colleagues’ places of work; I have a job to do which I must be physically present for, five days a week. When I draw on my own experience in both personal and professional networks, my experiences confirm these two deficiencies. I will reflect on three specific experiences.

The first, oddly coming up for the second time in my graduate studies, was my experience with World of Warcraft (WoW), a massively multiplayer video game requiring up to teams of 40 to accomplish tasks. One might dismiss this as irrelevant/juvenile but I would ask for one’s indulgence so that I may demonstrate an important parallel in learning networks.

In WoW, there are thousands of players playing in a dedicated world at the same time. Players form clubs, called ‘guilds’, which number from a minimum of five to the hundreds in membership. Active guilds embark on raids – adventures to conquer the biggest enemies.

But defeating these enemies is not so simple. They are strong, sometimes unpredictable, and have vast arsenals to defeat the human controlled players. It would require a group of 40 players to defeat such an enemy. The players would plan, read, and converse on the strategies for victory. Multiple (multiple) attempts would have to be made, meaning players would spend many hours refining and practicing their strategies, sometimes over several days. Furthermore, different specializations were required. Some players took the hits, others were support, others were offense. Said sub-groups would enter their own chat rooms and discuss what they themselves would have to do before re-entering the main room to commence the whole attack.

The player interface in a ‘raid’. Every dialogue box provided information about your teammates during the encounter. Teamwork, skills, timing, and communication are the key to success!

I was part of a group called Tempest. Several of the members were from Victoria, but the guild was comprised of members up and down the west coast, plus a member from the U.K. Most of us had never seen each other. We had spent years problem solving and improving with each other, but we had never been in the same physical space. One of our members organized a trip. Starting in Los Angeles, A few members began to drive north up the I-5 and 101, having others join the caravan. By the time the group arrived in Victoria, there was thirty of us together for the first time. Obviously, we spent much of our time talking about the game, but we also spent much time talking about each others lives; professions, family, hobbies, interests. We felt like we actually ‘met for the first time’.

Shortly after this event, members began starting families, more intensive post-secondary programs, or moved on from the game. Slowly, but inevitably, members fell out of contact and the group fell apart. Although we ‘worked’ together for years, I have not spoke to one out-of-town member for a decade.

This example is not professional, I know this. However, the dynamic and result is the same as some professional networks I have been a part of. In my P.P.D.P. at UVic, I generated very close ties with a group of people which were forged in the discussions, arguments, and shared endeavors relating to a specialized passion we shared. Our cohort created a secret Facebook group (a guild, if you will) where we could share anything. One could seek feedback on our plans, seek advice for individual problems confirmation of criteria for work, vent frustrations, or practice ‘dry-runs’ of our lessons. The feeling of togetherness of the cohort was strong. I had experienced this feeling before; it was the same as my cohort in the video-game. Once we graduated, the group stuck together, for a time. It still exists, but is inactive. We new teachers “went our separate ways” as new professionals do, and the network, which was our hub for quite some time, died.

The last post in our group was in late 2017.

My last example is from after I had been hired by the Greater Victoria School District as a teacher-on-call. I was invited to join a Facebook group called “New Teachers Sharing Information”. The group came through on its description; there were many new teachers sharing a wealth of lesson plans, units, and ideas. I asked some questions and added some material, but soon myself unmotivated, drained of any effort to contribute. As I gained more experience, I was not a ‘new’ teacher anymore. I had out-grown the premise of the group, nor did I require its support any longer. I am sure I could have continued to contribute, but that would have been of no gain to myself. Engaging in means without an end seemed pointless.

To me, all three experiences are one of the same. The context of each network was varied, but the investment of my individuality and time was not. The common thread I can grasp in these experiences is the motivation problem. When professionals (or persons as per my first example) are part of a network which educates, challenges, and entertains them, they’ll want to interact with their network. But for myself, it is a phase. I would argue based on my experience on observations, others go through the phases as well. The motivation to continue tending to our PLNs has to be an evolving desire. It seems that when a network is created with a specific end in mind, it will eventually run its course.

What does a PLN need to keep us locked in? How does Chrstine Younghusband stay invested and motivated in the #bcedchat community on Twitter? Perhaps it is indeed the presence of opportunity. Younghusband writes the her PLN has “become an opportunity to make “real” connections face-to-face, sans the social formalities, and jumping right into a professional and collegial friendship”.

For now, I’m left with two questions.

  1. Is any electronic network of people, whether it is personal or professional, destined for the same fate when there is a defined goal or milestone the network’s members all share?
  2. How will I, as an individual, buy-in to a PLN?

Both questions inform my skepticism in that my grad school PLN will survive past my graduation. My pessimistic answers are thus:

  1. The PLN I curate will be a means to an end (my success in the program) and then I will ignore it.
  2. I cannot truly appreciate a PLN when I know #1 to be true.

But I have to consider how Younghusband’s PLN is different than what I have experienced. Hers has no goal, no milestone. It is simply mean to continue.

The success of my new PLN, #TIEGrad 2.0,

may rest on finding what it will allow me to explore rather than achieve.