Emergent thinking through conversation: week 2 #xplrpln

What has stood out for me so far in #xplrpln has been the power of participation and conversation.

Coming into this event, I’d already discovered the potential of blogs as a means of connecting with people and exploring ideas – in fact I originally came across Jeff Merrell (one of the event coordinators) through commenting on one of his blog posts. That comment led to our discovering we were interested many similar topics, which eventually led to Jeff tweeting me about this event.

As  result, I’ve been quite intentional about commenting on other people’s blogs, and participating in Google+ and twitter conversations, with the mindset of putting forward, and exploring ‘half baked ideas’ (as inspired by Jeff).

Some of the conversations that have led to new and emergent thinking for me in weeks 1-2 included:

The nature of PLN connections – transience and the impact of f2f connections: Matt Guyan’s O week blog post

Matt's O Week post

Matt’s post and comments on it raised questions around the transience of some PLN connections and how existing personal and face to face relationships might impact interactions your PLN. Emerging threads and questions I found interesting included:

  • What are the factors that influence how PLN relationships develop or evolve? (weak > strong ties and vice versa)
  • Are connections that originate through face to face relationships (or that later involve face to face meetings) qualitatively different to those that originate (and only ever exist) online?

Ownership of PLNs: Maureen Crawford

Maureen Crawford - Ownership of PLNs

The question of ownership of PLNs was another major thread that emerged from Matt’s post, leading to Maureen Crawford (@jmc3ualberta) to question the notion of ownership in networks. The subsequent thoughts on Maureen’s blog changed the way I viewed PLNs – and I’m inclined to agree with Maureen that whilst an individual creates, develops and maintains their PLN, the concept of ‘ownership’ is actually (semantically) irrelevant when we’re talking about a series of relationships.

(….although I’d add that this doesn’t necessarily stop organisations perceiving ownership, or individuals feeling a sense of ownership of PLNs they develop and maintain > and this is where the tensions between individuals and the organisation may emerge in the irritatingly illogical Real World in which we live).

The tension between individual and the organisation (+ the impact of personal connection): Helen Blunden G+ conversation

Helen Blunden G+ convo

I had a really interesting and personally engaging conversation with Helen Blunden in the #xplrpln G+ community off the back of her week 1 #xplrpln post. It started with a comment from Helen on the importance of PLNs a seamless part of an employee’s workflow. This is a thread I picked up on as I also recognise it as critical (but also one of the biggest challenges). In the conversation that ensued, we covered broad ranging themes including organisational openess, trust & transparency, organisational restructure, management support and barriers, the impact of organisational culture and systems on org change, and fear. But – perhaps the best part – in the process, Helen also related some of her personal experiences of open sharing, and the tensions it created between herself and her organisation. Parts of her story did have an emotional impact on me, and perhaps this element of personal connection may have spurred the conversation further than it otherwise might have.

So, (again) from this, I’m considering questions like:

  • How does personal connection impact reciprocity in PLNs?
  • Is personal connection a critical factor for strengthening ties within PLNs?

Reciprocity in PLNs & what motivates people to reciprocate: Ess Garland @essigna twitter convo


This is perhaps my favourite #xplrpln conversation so far – not just because it was one of the most thought provoking conversations I’ve had on twitter, but because it was spontaneous, incidental, serendipitous. It was a Friday evening, and I was going through the #xplrpln twitter chat that had occurred earlier, picking out threads and thoughts that I found interesting, and responding to them. I wasn’t expecting a response – but to my suprise, got one. From @essigna – who hadn’t even been part of the original conversation I’d responded to.

But she picked up on a theme that had been buzzing in the #xplrpln community all week, and one which I was also wrestling to come to a position on: whether reciprocity was a necessary and defining feature of PLNs (e.g. could former authors / influencers be considered part of your PLN? > as suggested by this excellently articulated post by Bruno Winck).

And so Ess and I actually had a thought provoking conversation. Spontaneously. Serendipitously. On twitter. This is pretty significant for me, because although I think twitter is an amazing tool for discovering content and people, I’d never really had more than what I’d describe as simple exchanges.  I don’t really count tweet chats, as these feel more like broadcasting thoughts and reactions. A conversation, for me, is a one-one focused interaction.

I also love that this was pure serendipity; we were simply both in the same (virtual) place at the same time, and the same headspace. Seriously, what are the chances? It certainly doesn’t happen often (as far as I can tell).

And, what’s more, she raised some really interesting points and questions, that are still influencing my thinking, and promoting the emergence of related questions:

  • What motivates people to reciprocate in a PLN?
  • What is the impact of online experiences like MOOCs in developing PLN relationships?
  • Do events like MOOCs act as catalysing events for developing stronger, long term PLN ties?


There are actually many other conversations and interactions that I’ve participated, and blog posts I’ve read in over the first two weeks which have influenced my thinking and had an impact on me.  But in the interests of brevity, these are probably the four that have had the biggest.

Now week three is just about over…it’s actually been a little quieter compared with the first 2 weeks, but certainly no shortage of interesting thoughts emerging. Might save for the next post though…Really gotta get to bed!

Emergent thinking in #xplrpln

One of the most interesting things about participating in #xplrpln is observing how our current thinking evolves and new thinking emerges as a result of engaging with others’ ideas – either through reading and/or commenting on blogs, participating in a discussion forum, chat session, or reading and responding to tweets.

It’s fascinating, this process of wading through the threads of thought, picking and teasing out the threads that you identify with, playing with them,  to work out how they fit in with your own, and – as has happened more often than not over the past 3 weeks – integrating new thought-threads to evolve and tweak your own thinking.

I’m as interested in the process of how learning occurs through participatory open online education experiences like #xplrpln, as I am in the content being covered. One of the things I’d like to do is to observe and describe the interactions and experiences that have the most impact on my learning and thinking as we progress, to try to better understand the open online learning process (more to come on that….)


Post script: Inspiration

This rather short post was inspired by Maureen Crawford’s awesomely poetic suggestion (challenge?) to wite more regularly in order to get out of being too precious about your writing.  Her own thoughts-in-progress style reminded me of the reason I started this blog in the first place: to explore, experiment and reflect on ideas. Narrating thoughts in short regular bursts seem like a perfect way to do this.

So there’s my “try something new” for this week. Thanks Maureen!

Mental break: tdc650

After a couple of weeks of intensely intellectually challenging PLN’ing with #xplrpln, I thought I might take a mental break with DS106 tdc650:

Take a photo that shows a reflection.

I look at TDCs daily but never really know whether I’ll do it or not until I ‘find’ inspiration. Weekends are pretty good because I’m usually out with my 3 year old and open to being inspired. We were going to the beach which I thought would be rife with opportunity for photos with reflections. And it was. Except that once I found some awesome rockpool reflections my phone battery was almost dead and the camera refused to play.

When I got home, I still had it at the back of my mind and the idea of doing something with the reflection of the setting sun seemed promising. But in the mad rush that tends to happen at that time, I missed it.

I was still thinking about it as I was cleaning the pots and the reflection of light in the kitchen sink caught my eye:

Kitchen Sink

This was OK, but a bit boring, and cold.

I headed out to the lounge room but no inspiration there. I remembered I’d always liked the warmth of the light in the hallway. And after I decided this would be the site for my TDC pic, my boy decided to run up and down the hallway like a maniac (as 3 year olds do). Seeing he’d been involved in every other TDC I’d done, I guess it was only appropriate that this be the submission:


#xplrpln: Week 1: try something new

Well, we’re now at the END of week 2 of the ‘Exploring Personal Learning Networks’ open online seminar…and I’ve finally got to getting down a post on week 1 (BlogFail!).  Have been WAY too preoccupied with exploring, commenting and conversing on all of the interesting stuff that others have posted. Which is Good, and kind of the point of this type of (cMOOC) experience, but I recognise it’s also important to leave time for individual reflection and take stock of what I’m learning.

And…since I’m doing this, I might as well start at the begininng.

Why I’m doing this seminar

I was really excited when I saw the overview of this seminar / cMOOC. This was not just because it was on PLNs – something I was interested in exploring further – but because it focused on exploring PLNs from an organisational perspective, and the impact of networks both internal and external to the org.

I immediately saw a link with some of the ideas and themes I was discussing with my supervisor for my Masters research: knowledge creation-sharing- management / organisational learning / innovative teams / open innovation / Communities of Practice. I had an ‘aha’ moment when I realised the external connections in an individual’s PLN could potentially function as sources of open innovation for organisations, and the proposal in my previous post is my initial delve into the academic literature on this.

So: my main motivation in participating in this learning experience is primarily to enhance my understanding of PLNs to inform my Masters research. Another goal is to experience a connectivist MOOC (cMOOC). I’ve had #etmooc envy since reading about Jeff’s experiences on his blog, and been itching to get into one. I’m keen to really explore complex ideas in depth with smart people who have an open attitude to learning (and in doing so, expand my own PLN). So far, it’s certainly shaping up to be exactly this.

Try something new

The theme of week 1 was ‘try something new’. I love this theme. What I love about it is that it introduces spirit of adventure, and invites a mindset of experimentation upfront. It reminds me of the creative headspace that #DS106 encourages. Most of the new things I’ve tried in the last week have been inspired by the #xplrpln community:

  • Exploring and engaging with communities in Google + for the first time (main site of the #xplrpln community)
  • Now using HootSuite to follow twitter streams (now following #cicmooc, #ooe13, #DS106, #ds106dc, #lrnchat!) and to find interesting stuff more easily – thanks to this post by Keeley Sorokti
  • Finally participated in a #lrnchat (something I’ve been intending to do for YEARS, but never seemed to be ‘able’ to make time…until I caught the ‘try something new’ bug)
  • Exploring interesting ideas with a bunch of new people who have totally inspired and stimulated my thinking
  • Used Pinterest for the first time – to chart a narrative of my PLN (or perhaps, more accurately PLE) – see below for more.

A view of my evolving PLN/PLE – on Pinterest

I was quite inspired by the posts from others reflecting on their own PLNs. I liked how some attempted to map their PLNs using mind mapping tools to provide a visual of their network (Kind of like a basic SNA diagram). I was also taken by Helen Blunden’s narrative approach, describing her experience meeting her PLN, using a tool she’d never used previously (Shadowpuppet).

I liked the idea of using this exercise as an opportunity to experiment with a tool I’d never used before. And ever since I read about Jane Bozarth exploring Pinterest to create narratives, I’ve been interested to try this too. So I attempted to map a narrative of my evolving PLN on Pinterest:


Reflections in light of week 2

I started mapping my Pinterest PLN idea last week, and over the week, as we’ve debated and discussed the definition of a PLN in week 2 of #xplrpln, I’ve come to realise that what I mapped last week, was probably more my PLE (Personal Learning Environment), with portions of PLN distributed across this PLE.

Regardless, it was quite a valuable exercise, as it made me reflect on where I learn stuff, who from, how, and the types of things I learn across the various platforms within my PLE. It also raised a number of questions for me, including:

  • What distinguishes a PLN from a PLE? There was a LOT of thought provoking discussion about this over the week. I think I’m leaning towards reciprocity or the potential for reciprocity as the difference between a PLN and PLE.
  • What differentiates a purely social network from a PLN? This is a slippery one for me, as I don’t particularly differentiate personal from professional learning when thinking about my PLN. And I also think, if we’re talking about reciprocity or potential for reciprocity as a defining feature of a PLN, having a social connection is integral to this reciprocity, or potential for reciprocity. So, for example, even though I define my Facebook network as largely a social network, there are people who I connect with (albeit occasionally) to exchange ideas about parenting. Thus they would form part of my PLN.
  • What are the different features and affordances of the various platforms that might make up a PLE, and how does this impact what, how, and who you learn from? For example, in mapping out my own PLE, I realised that my LinkedIn consists largely of a local professional network with whom I mostly learn and share stuff that directly impacts my day to day role (e.g. instructional design, elearning design / dev, training, job opportunities…). Whereas twitter is my connection to the global L&D community to learn about ‘big ideas’ that I’m interested in (innovation, creativity, org learning, change, open ed…).

There are a lot more thoughts and questions that have emerged from other interactions, discussions, blog posts in week 2…but I might save that for my next post!

MA research proposal: PLNs and innovation…the story so far…

A couple of weeks ago, as I emerged from the fog of reading a bunch of research papers to seeing how they might fit together to form a new whole…I saw this in my twitter feed:


It was one of those moments of trippy serendipity when you feel like fate’s just crying out to be believed in. Not that I think my MA research is going to be anywhere near as riveting as a Neil Gaiman story, but his sentiments DID reflect almost exactly what I was feeling at that moment.

While I definitely don’t have all the pieces yet, I think I now have some idea where it might be going. So, here is my draft proposal:

[MA research proposal]

Personal learning networks as sources of innovation in organisations: an exploratory study

This research proposes to explore the nature of Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), and their potential impact on an individual’s innovation in professional practice.

(A) Personal Learning Network refers to the network of people a self directed Learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning needs….often by information and communication technologies.

             Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012)

PLNs’ link to innovation

Recent research by Rajagopal, Verjans, Sloep & Costa (2012) on PLNs suggest a link between PLNs and innovation. In their study of the factors that people consider to be valuable to daily learning from their PLN, they found that the concepts scored most highly were: “different perspectives”, “Values”, “passionate”, “inspirational”, “trust”, “innovative”, “expertise”, “disruption”, “reality check”, “do things differently”, “familiarity”. Many of these relate in some way to innovation, suggesting that people utilise PLNs in some capacity to support innovative practice.

Further, research and theory on strong vs weak ties in communities and networks, suggest that PLNs may have the potential to foster both incremental and radical innovation.

Grabher and Ibert (2008, cited in Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012) propose that personal networks feature three layers with ties of differing strengths: a communality layer (strong ties), a sociality layer (weak ties) and a connectivity layer (very weak ties). Dal Fiori (2007) hypothesises that strong and weak ties propagate different types of innovation, arguing that communities, with strong ties and high degrees of trust, support the exchange of tacit knowledge (Ghoshal, Korine, & Szulansky, 1994; Hansen, 1999; Szulansky, 1996; Uzzi, 1996 – cited by Dal Fiori 2007) to foster linear, incremental innovation. In contrast, networks consisting mostly of weak ties, are sites for boundary-spanning learning which expose people to different perspectives on the same issue. This composition likely supports more combinatorial, radical and breakthrough innovation. Interestingly Dal Fiori goes on to suggest that broad social adoption and diffusion of each type of innovation still require both networks and communities: incremental innovation requires a network to propagate it; and combinatorial innovation needs a community to become socially rooted practice (Dal Fiori 2007).

How might PLNs facilitate innovation in professional practice?

Professional networking can be used to continuously support professionals’ life–long learning in practice (Johnson, 2008 cited in Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012). Personal professional networks, as platforms in which conversations and dialogue can occur, support the type of individual (non–formal) learning (Eraut, 2000 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012) especially prevalent in practice, where tacit knowledge is built through experience and reflection and shared through social interaction with others (Bolhuis and Simons, 2001; Hearn and White, 2009 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012). Having the capacity to obtain support and converse with people when needed also enables knowledge creation in organisational settings (Von Krogh, et al., 2000 cited by Rajagopol,  Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen & Sloep 2012).

Communities of Practice, networks of practice and PLNs

Communities of Practice (CoPs) are ‘groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis’ (Wenger et al. 2002: 4, cited in Murillo 2007). They are composed of strong ties and characterised by direct and sustained mutual engagement between members on shared problems, concerns or topics. Learning is viewed as ‘the process of becoming competent practitioners in an informal community’, and knowledge is embedded in shared practices (Murillo 2011).

‘Networks of practice’ (Brown & Duguid 2000) comprise people who engage in the same or very similar practice, but don’t necessarily work together and may never even know, know of, or come across others in their network (Brown & Duguid 2000, cited in Murillo 2011).

As PLNs comprise of strong, weak and very weak ties it is conceivable that they may contain both embedded CoPs (that foster collaboration between strong ties within the PLN) and networks of practice (comprising of weak ties across the PLN). Therefore, when postulating how PLNs might facilitate innovation in professional practice, it is useful to draw on the body of research and theory on Communities of Practice (Wenger 1998, 2000) and ‘networks of practice’ (Brown & Duguid 2000). And there has been considerable research and theory on CoPs (Wenger 1998, 2000 cited in Murillo 2011) which tie them closely to innovation. For example Murillo (2011) cites studies which present innovation as a defining feature of CoPs (Orr 1990; Brown and Duguid 1991, 2000a; Brown and Grey 1995; Prokesch 1997; Swan et al. 1999; Wenger 2000b; Lesser and Everest 2001; Fontaine and Millen 2004), as well as studies that provide evidence of innovation occurring within CoPs (Anand et al. 2007; Meeuwesen and Berends 2007; Schenkel and Teigland 2008). Networks of practice have also been linked to innovation (e.g. Fleming and Marx 2006, cited in Murillo 2011).

Boundaries as sites of innovation

Innovation in CoPs and networks is thought to occur more often at boundaries: e.g. Wenger (2000, cited in Murillo 2011) describes CoP boundaries as the intersection connecting different CoPs, where radical insights often occur. Sie, Bitter–Rijpkema & Sloep 2011 point to studies which show that connecting to people in other networks (including outside the organisation) promote innovation and creativity (Kratzer & Letl 2008; Perry-Smith 2006).

PLNs – supporting radical, open innovation in organisational practice?

Connections in an individual’s PLN may be both internal and external to the organisation the individual works in. External connections may be seen as connecting individuals to networks outside the boundary of their organisational practice.

PLNs may also include connections not directly associated with an individual’s professional practice (e.g. friends, relatives, acquaintances). These connections may connect individuals to networks and influences outside their professional practice.

Research on boundaries in CoPs and networks suggest that these connections may potentially act as sources of combinatorial, radical innovation in an individual’s organisational and professional practice.

This research aims to explore these potential links.

MA research questions

Possible research questions:

  • Are an individual’s interactions with connections internal to their organisation characteristically different to interactions with those external to their organisation? In what ways? (e.g. tone of conversation, regularity of interaction, types of information shared, tools used….)
  • Are an individual’s interactions with people connected with their professional practice characteristically different to interactions with those who aren’t directly associated with their practice? In what ways? (e.g. tone of conversation, regularity of interaction, types of information shared, tools used….)
  • What types of connections in an individual’s PLN have the biggest influence on the implementation of innovative practice within their organisation?
  • Do connections external to an individual’s organisation and practice support particular types of innovations in an individual’s professional practice?


Brown J.S and Duguid P (1991) Organizational Learning and Communities of Practice: Towards a Unified View of Working, Learning, and Innovation.
Organization Science 1991 2(1): 40-57 http://people.ischool.berkeley.edu/~duguid/SLOFI/Organizational_Learning.htm

Dal Fiore, F (2007) Communities Versus Networks The Implications on Innovation and Social Change. American Behavioral Scientist, March 2007; vol. 50, 7: pp. 857-866.

Murillo, E (2011) Communities of practice in the business and organisation studies literature. Information Research vol 16 (1) http://informationr.net/ir/16-1/paper464.html

Rajagopal K.,  Joosten–ten Brinke D., Van Bruggen J., & Sloep P. (2012) Understanding personal learning networks: their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday 17 (1-2) http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3559/3131

Rajagopal K, Verjans S, Sloep P.B, Costa C (2012) People in Personal Learning Networks: Analysing their Characteristics and Identifying Suitable Tools . Proceedings of the 8th International Conference on Networked Learning 2012, Edited by: Hodgson V, Jones C, de Laat M, McConnell D,Ryberg T & Sloep http://www.lancaster.ac.uk/fss/organisations/netlc/past/nlc2012/abstracts/pdf/rajagopal.pdf

Rory L.L. Sie, Marlies Bitter–Rijpkema and Peter B. Sloep (2011) What’s in it for me? Recommendation of peers in networked innovation.  Journal of Universal Computer Science, volume 17, number 12, pp. 1.659–1.672.


What’s next

I have a whole lot more research to review to refine this proposal. As there doesn’t seem to be that much research specifically on PLNs, I plan to draw on research on networked learning, networks of practice, CoPs, PLEs, & connectivist learning. Also need to review innovation research in the management literature.

The definition of a PLN is very broad and may potentially be difficult to operationalise. I’ll need to specifically define ‘innovation’ / ‘innovative practice’ and operationalise that too.  Looking to draw on Feldman, M. S., and W. J. Orlikowski. “Theorizing Practice and Practicing Theory.” to define from perspective of microdynamics of everyday practice.

Currently participating in the Exploring Personal Learning Networks open online seminar, aiming to get more insights and connect with people on the concept of PLNs and how they are used in organisations.