Empowering 21st Century Learners through Personal Learning Networks

Empowering 21st Century Learners through Personal Learning Networks

Shannan H. Butler (St. Edward’s University, USA) and Corinne Weisgerber (St. Edward’s University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-347-8.ch014

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“The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships” (Bush, 1945, para. 8).

Hearing Vannevar Bush lament modern society’s struggle to keep up with the ever-accelerating pace of knowledge creation, it is important to remember that this statement was made over half a century ago. It is hard to imagine how Bush might react to today’s world of networked computers, search engines, and social networks. The sheer quantity of information available to us and the speed at which that information is being disseminated might not only feel overwhelming to some, but it also calls into question the adequacy of our current methods of education and is forcing us to rethink the ways in which we engage 21st century students. As Gonzalez (2004) points out, “half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago. The amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months according to the American Society of Training and Documentation. To combat the shrinking half-life of knowledge, organizations have been forced to develop new methods of deploying instruction” (para. 1). With the volume of knowledge exponentially increasing, our ability to acquire the knowledge we need for tomorrow is more important than what we already know today (Siemens 2005. In light of these developments it is likely that we will do a great disservice to coming generations of learners if we do not change our current pedagogical approaches.

Personal Learning Networks

One of the ways that may allow us to handle the onslaught of information and prepare our students for living in such a rapidly changing world is through the development of personal learning networks (PLNs). We define PLNs as deliberately formed networks of people and resources capable of guiding our independent learning goals and professional development needs (Weisgerber & Butler, 2011). By fostering collaboration between educators, professionals, and students, many teachers have already taken the opportunity to break down the metaphorical classroom walls (Parry, 2010). The new generation of digital natives, which now occupies our classrooms, offers an interesting opportunity and conversely poses an equally troubling problem. The discourse surrounding these digital natives and their learning needs often presupposes a level of social media knowledge or savviness that is equal, if not superior, to that of any other generation, including that of their teachers. Although it is undeniable that this new breed of students feels comfortable using social media as an integral part of their wired lives, the assumption that digital immersion results in digital literacy may prevent a whole generation of students from learning how to take advantage of the digital tools they grew up with. As long as this assumption goes unchallenged, the net generation may very well continue navigating this digitally mediated world without ever truly understanding the strategic uses of social media technologies.

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