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Innovation, Service Design, Technology

Gen Z Should Network Its Education. Now. Here’s How.

Boston 12.07.15, 05:23AM by Ken Gordon

A while back, I had a job helping school employees assemble personal learning networks or PLNs. I encouraged them to dive into online communication, for the purposes of taking control of their own professional development. I told them to be audacious and introduce themselves to the authors whose books they read. Those who did, deepened their pool of colleagues and created opportunities that wouldn’t have existed otherwise.

Now it’s 2015, and CoGen Z Network Learningntinuum, the global innovation design firm where I work, has just joined Boston’s High School Redesign project—and I see that PLN planning is totally applicable to today’s students. Applicable? It’s necessary. The collegiate and work futures for many young people today are uncertain. What is certain: Making strong connections and staying up-to-date with contemporary thinking are perquisites for thriving in any given field. It is, therefore, up to Generation Z to grab the virtual reins and start networking their education. Why wait for teachers or administrators or parents to set them up in partnership programs, when they can take action for themselves, and personalize the process, right now, with the online tools they use every day? By doing so, they make learning more dynamic and engaging.

Connecting with Wise and Influential People—let’s call ‘em, acronymically, WIPs—who make real things happen in our students’ areas of interest, will help burst the confines of the classroom and textbook to create new learning and work paths. Such connections will educate the whole person and integrate work, life, and learning. As Tony Wagner and Ted Dintersmith write in Most Likely to Succeed: Preparing our Kids for the Innovaiton Era: “The primary goal of education at all levels should be to expose students to a wide array of pursuits and help them find what they love spending time on.” Here are six things Gen Z should keep in mind while building networks:

Find relevant WIPs online, listen, and learn. Students must start by identifying the professional authorities with whom they’d like to partner. Some dedicated online research will turn up stories about the proper WIPs (local business people they’d like to work for, subject-matter authors, academic experts). WIPs often have personal websites or list their emails on a university or company site. Even if they aren’t clearly listed, this information can usually be shaken out of Google. Many blog or tweet regularly. Students should locate relevant WIPs, and read all they stuff they post. Carefully. By paying attention to the WIPs’ public comments, students will soon pick up the terms they favor and understand their various points of view on important professional issues.

Interact. Yes, students should follow their WIPs online, but being a mere follower won’t itself weld a connection. Young PLN builders must be brave enough to enter into a mature dialogue with WIPs. Smart conversations can lead to real relationships which can, over time, evolve into informational interviews, internships, co-ops, recommendation letters, even jobs. But it begins with showing WIPs that they are curious and confident.

Talk the talk. When students use the WIPs’ own language—ideally by citing parts of their books, articles, or blog posts back to them—they signal that they are serious. But quoting is only the first step. The second requires students to apply the WIPs’ words to their own educational and/or work experience and ask some good, focused questions. The communication they put out should play back the same rigor show in the WIPs’ work.

Remember that the PLN should be expansive. Interaction should not be limited to a single conversation, or even a series of conversations, with a single WIP. The PLN is a community, an active evolving one. Diversity matters, as does regularity. Students should always think of deepening conversations and finding new people to add into their PLNs.

Be patient. This one can be tough for Gen Z. WIPs are, in general, busy people and students are, in general, unused to dealing with, say, over-scheduled executives. The kids who will forge strong PLNs are those who understand that this process might take a while. Or that some experts might never even respond. A certain element of resilience is required.

Pay attention to details. Students need to treat their PLN communications as seriously as they treat papers in their English classes. Actually, they need to treat them better than that. The emails and tweets and comments they offer to WIPs could be transformational. They must therefore be carefully constructed and proofread. Students who want to sound like colleagues, not kids, will take great care.



Image by Tony Alter from Newport News, USACC/by-sa/2.0




  1. Cale Birk says:

    Thanks for this post, Ken.

    When I met you at BIF this year, I learned from you that being a participator in my learning network is different than being the spectator (or ‘broadcaster’, as many people seem to want to do) that I often tend to be in my own PLN. While I am only dipping my toe in the pool with getting more directly in contact with WIPs, I completely concur with what you have written: I have yet to find a WIP who will not get involved in a rich and thoughtful discussion when you invite them to do so or ask them a question.

    Thanks again for pushing me in this direction–being a participator by interacting with WIPs is truly invigorating, and makes my thinking and work much more meaningful than it ever has been.

    All the best.


  2. Ken Gordon says:

    Tremendously exciting to get your response, Cale. You are one of the many terrific thinkers and doers I met at #BIF2015

    –and I’m glad to hear about the developments in your own PLN life.

    My general sense is that we all need to shift our mental models and see that social media can be very much about *communal learning.*

    There are kids who understand this–they teach themselves all kinds of things via YouTube tutorial–but I’m not sure they understand that social learning can be a lifelong event, or this it can be a form of self-directed professional development.

    In any case, let’s keep this conversation rolling along…



  3. Hyun Seung Kang says:

    Hi, Hyun Seung from Seoul checking in.

    I agree that personalizing one’s education and enhancing it through PLNs is so important to learners in a world where the dominant education system is becoming more and more obsolete to their diverse needs. It might even close the economic gap between rich and poor students because finding one’s interest on Google and emailing relevant WIPs is so cheap! I applaud your efforts to install an environment where students can do that from early on.

    Now the question is, how do we promote such learning when most of the learners, especially teenage students, are so occupied with preexisting commitments like school, homework, and jobs that they don’t have time to discover their interests and create PLNs accordingly? It sounds like Boston might be making a top-down initiative but many governing bodies for education are reluctant to deviate from their status quos.

    In Republic of Korea, where I’m from, there is a surprising number of people wanting to see a drastic change in the education system, but the Ministry of Education and most schools are moving too slowly. One argument against incorporating PLNs might be that this learning style will require so much individual attention from teachers that it will raise educations fees and the poor will not be able to afford it.

    Thanks for sharing your ideas and I would love to hear your thoughts on how to incorporate PLNs to already busy learners at a cheap cost (w/o having to give so much attention to individual students)!

    Hyun Seung

    • Ken Gordon says:

      Hi, Hyun Seung.

      Just saw your thoughtful response. Thanks for writing–it’s clear that you’ve given networked learning some careful consideration.

      I think we can promote PLN-based learning by encouraging teachers to incorporate students into the process. There are many ways of building networked learning into the curriculum. I’ve actually written about this before:

      Another thought: The idea of combining professional development for teachers AND networked learning for students might be a way to address the issues of time and attention. Teachers would, at first, model good, respectful, creative behavior online–and students would learn from this. Imagine a whole class reaching out, via social media, to an author they were studying! As things progress, students would follow the teacher and join into the conversation. If it works well, a valuable conversation–many such conversations–could well appear.

      I wish you luck transforming your own educational system–and I invite you to join me in conversation on Twitter: @quickmuse.



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