When I started using Twitter for my professional growth and development, I didn’t realize that I was also starting to build my personal learning network. I simply found myself tweeting at a learning and development conference using its hashtag and others began connecting with me. After the conference, I discovered Twitter chats and began participating in them regularly. I hadn’t yet recognized the value of connectedness, but knew immediately that I was learning from each of these encounters. I even gave it my own name: “On-fire learning.”
By the time I heard the phrase, “Personal Learning Network,” or PLN, I’d already begun developing and maintaining professional relationships through social media. I had more than a dozen individuals I interacted with regularly, and we would discuss thoughts, ideas, and plans related to one or more aspects of learning and development. I’d also started writing here, and several people would discuss those thoughts with me. At the same time, I followed others I considered leaders in my primary field. I was pleasantly surprised to find them giving and willing to share ideas. I then started “branching out” to connect with people in fields that were tangential, but still relevant, to learning and development.
Since I had no idea what formally made up a PLN, I did some research. Much of what I found I now consider useless or completely wrong. Several sources referred to PLNs as networks focused on learning about a given topic. Still others were from the perspective of the educational community and how PLNs can replace formal education. I even came across articles about designing a PLN; I believe they’re much more organic than designed. There was even one prominent source that described a PLN as a community of practice, which it clearly is not. A community of practice is a group of people who share a profession or field of practice. You can join a community and might then learn within that group, primarily in your shared field of practice. A network, by definition, is quite different. It’s made up of individual connections between individuals; you may join an existing network, but you’re really connecting with one or more individuals who are already connected to others.
I came to understand a PLN as something different. In the context of a network consisting of individual connections between people, put in place one relationship at a time, I saw my PLN as a subset of my larger professional network. I recently came across this description, which fits well:
“A PLN is an aspect of (the larger professional network), where the individual has a group of people within his or her virtual professional network, and the relationship with each is based upon a common interest, collaborative project or research.1“
This encompasses several key aspects of a PLN from my perspective:
- The real purpose of my PLN is not learning; it’s to improve work and performance.
- Learning happens naturally as I engage with others in my professional network across a variety of social media. Recognizing this learning and making good use of it requires effective personal knowledge management practices.
- Having an open mind and exercising critical thinking skills leads to serendipitous discoveries and new thinking.
- Each direct connection in my PLN was added for a specific reason. That might be a shared professional interest, a single interesting conversation, or consistent contributions as a leader in a field of interest, among others.
- Virtually every individual in my network has a variety of interests, talents, and areas of expertise. My PLN is therefore not focused on one topic.
- Because it’s my personal network, and because I have a variety of professional interests, I deliberately seek out new people to connect with and learn from. Diversity, not uniformity, is important to me.
My belief in the importance of a Personal Learning Network is mostly self-evident from this list above, so I asked a few others for their perspective:
Having a PLN means that you’re not necessarily working alone. The deliverables may remain yours, but you have a potentially global sounding board for ideas and problem solving. Combine that with #showyourwork and #workoutloud and a solo practitioner can still have a supporting cast of thousands.
~ Mark Sheppard
For knowledge workers in different fields, we have an awful lot to keep up with (wide and deep), and this is becoming increasingly impossible, especially at the increasing rate of change. What this means for most of us is that we need to select what we can and will keep up with (wide/breadth and deep/depth) and then count on our PLN to help you with the areas that you no longer can keep up with.
A single person can choose to maintain expertise in a single or a few deep subjects or a breadth of more shallow subjects. And it also depends on whether you need to be more strategic or tactical. Having a PLN with people at different levels and in different fields can help you make sense of the system level implications of your work so you can see and make sense of implications that you might not see otherwise. And it also helps you prepare to move into the future more quickly. That’s a more critical skill today than it was in the past.
~ Patti Shank
Over the past several years my PLN has grown to become one of the most important aspects of my career in L&D. Before joining Twitter in 2009 (and really starting to use it in 2011), my PLN was limited to those I had worked with or perhaps saw once a month at a SIG meeting. Since then my PLN has grown to include L&D professionals in 7 different countries. We challenge each other, share what we have learned, and most importantly we support each other.
~ Andrea May
My PLN has proven invaluable to me in many ways, but perhaps the most important highlights its personal nature. Members of my PLN are always there for for camaraderie, a five-minute break from work to recharge the batteries, or to support one another through some of the most difficult times. I can’t imagine working without a personal learning network. It’s not just an important tool in the toolbox, it’s more like the hardware store that has all the tools I could possibly need.
Thanks for reading!
- How to Create a Robust and Meaningful Personal Learning Network [PLN]. The author originally used the phrase, “Personal Learning Environment (PLE),” based on the theory of connectivism conceptualized by George Siemens and Stephen Downes.
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