Understanding Personal Learning Networks: Foundations to Linking, Stretching and Amplifying

Written by Kay Oddone

In Australia and beyond, the educational landscape is being challenged and disrupted. Social technologies are reshaping the way we understand and experience communication, knowledge and learning. In response to this constant change, educators are seeking new ways to stay abreast of best practice through ongoing professional learning.

What is a PLN?

A PLN, or Personal Learning Network, is a flexible, personalised and multi-faceted approach to professional learning that may meet the needs of contemporary educators, and particularly teacher librarians, who are often the digital and information leaders within schools. A PLN is a support network created by an individual, who has initiated connections usually across different social media platforms, for the purposes of extending and enhancing their professional knowledge (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011; Trust, Krutka, & Carpenter, 2016).

The concept of a PLN is nothing new. Educators have been networking for years to share, discuss and give feedback on ideas and strategies for learning and teaching. However, social technologies have given rise to the ability to connect with colleagues and subject matter experts from far beyond the four walls of the classroom.

My recent PhD research examined the phenomenon of the PLN, as I explored the experiences of teachers who engage with their PLNs for professional learning. What I discovered was that the learning that occurs through a PLN is highly personal according to each teachers' professional learning requirements, context and capacities. In my conference presentation at the National Education Summit in Brisbane, I will share with you some of my research findings. These will give insight into how educators, and particularly teacher librarians, can identify strategies and online spaces that most closely align with their learning needs and goals, to create opportunities for transformative pedagogical, personal and public professional learning.  To make the most of that presentation, an understanding of what a PLN is will be useful. Therefore, this blog post focuses on explaining what a PLN is, by breaking down the term into its constituent parts. 

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Every PLN is created by an autonomous individual, who drives their own learning according to their interests, passions and learning needs. The network is formed over time, shaped not only by what is learned, but by what is shared. Some connections come through serendipitous encounters, while others are created in response to a learning need. New connections are made through shared experiences or shared opinions, and other connections are lost as people move on or change focus.

A PLN will change according to the amount of time each teacher spends engaging, and this itself may vary from day to day. In times of change, such as when a new curriculum is developed or a new appointment is taken up, interactivity may rise dramatically as many questions are asked and new resources are sought – and then this activity may fade, as personal lives take the fore-front.

The PLN has low barriers to entry – once internet access is established, the PLN may be developed using platforms and applications chosen from an almost unlimited array. Tools may be as familiar and ‘easy’ to use as email, Facebook or Pinterest. Developing levels of social network literacy and a growing understanding of networked learning can enable individuals to connect and contribute using a wider range of tools should they wish – the PLN is not limited to any particular platform or tool. Teachers can make short sharp contributions via Twitter, take photos of practice and share on Instagram, engage in complex and ongoing conversations via web forums or construct their own webspace via a blogging or website development tool. Voice may be preferenced in podcasts, artistic expressions shared on Tumblr or controversial opinions courted on Mastodon. The options are many, and each teacher can find their niche, learning when, where and about whatever they choose.

A PLN is about LEARNING.

The type of learning that occurs through a PLN is social learning. Social learning acknowledges that there exists far too much knowledge for any one person to hold in their head at any one time. An individual's cognitive capacity is limited in comparison to the amount of content that is available. Learning through a PLN recognises that knowledge is distributed and socially constructed. What this means is that the network is made up of many nodes -usually people– acting as ‘knowledge holders’ – who in turn connect to other learners. The nodes may not always be people; sometimes they are a repository of information, such as a book, or a website, or a curated list; but somewhere, behind this, generally still remains a person or group of people.

Learning happens when a connection is made between these nodes; when the flow of knowledge is accessed and applied to the situation at hand. Having access to a rich PLN means that the learner is able to quickly and efficiently access the knowledge they need at the time they require it; or draw on several nodes of knowledge to create a new understanding.

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The word network is used all of the time in everyday speech, however it is important to understand what a network actually is and how connections form and are maintained, so that a truly effective PLN may be developed.

A lot of the time learning communities and learning networks are treated as the same thing and yet they are quite different. Generally, a Learning Community is formed intentionally by a group of people who know each other. This means they have strong ties, which is another way of saying that they interact regularly and that there is a level of trust between them. Because most members of a community will know each other, when one shares something with the group, it is more likely that this will be reciprocated and others will acknowledge this. The membership of the learning community is known – even if members don’t know each other well there is generally a sense that everyone is working together towards a shared goal such as the completion of a course or task.

Learning networks can include members of a community, but networks tend to be more organic, undefined and have both strong and weak ties. This means that there will be some members of the network who are known to each other and others who may be unknown. The membership of a network is far more flexible and usually changing all of the time. The goals are personal to each individual, and while members might work together, they may be working towards different goals.

The PLN is mediated by social technologies

The personal learning network is the social learning space that is supported and extended through social technologies – platforms including Twitter, Facebook, Pinterest, Blogs, Reddit etc. These online tools offer spaces where people can connect with others, interact and access a wide range of information. Individuals can develop strong connections which offer them support and validation, and they also can connect with people from diverse backgrounds who they may not know as well, but who might contribute new exciting and innovative perspectives.

A PLN is formulated around the learners’ own context, professional interests and personal learning goals. Leveraging the connectivity of social technologies, the PLN allows learning that overcomes barriers of time and space.

If this post has whetted your appetite for informal, connected professional learning, you can read more on my blog at http://www.linkinglearning.com.au/develop-your-pln/ and join me at the Capacity Building School Libraries conference at the National Education Summit in Brisbane where I will be presenting. I look forward to meeting you and continuing the conversation!

Richardson, W., & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks: Using the power of connections to transform education. Moorabbin, Australia: Hawker Brownlow.

Trust, T., Krutka, D. G., & Carpenter, J. P. (2016). “Together we are better”: Professional learning networks for teachers. Computers & Education, 102, 15-34. doi:https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.06.007

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