So Just What is a PLN?

One of the ongoing questions when I was in Denver at the ISTE conference was “What is a PLN? ” and “What is its value?” The conversation started on Saturday with a discussion about what does it mean to say that you have or are part of a PLN. What is “personal” or “professional” about it? Are people who use the term actually “learning”? And what does it mean to say that it is a “network”? This conversation was followed up by one  on how Twitter is used by educators. He is looking at the different Tweets and whether or not they are social or professional, and whether or not they are valid and informative. All of which got me to thinking about what PLN means to me.

I use Twitter almost daily to listen to the conversation and to share my ideas. In my experience, it started out simply as a forum for learning. I used it as a means of professional development. I found educators to follow who were sharing resources that I would never have seen. When I read an article that was informative or insightful, I retweeted it, sending it on to the people who followed me. I have Google Reader set up, but I do not use it anywhere as much as I use Twitter. That is partly because my Reader is more intimidating – even though I am the one who set it up! There are always more articles there than I can face reading. On Twitter, I can just pause for what grabs my eye. I know that this means that I am in charge of my learning, rather than having it be more objective, but I find that I am reading more than I ever was before from professional resources. I think that many people start on Twitter for this reason. They want to learn and grow in an ever-changing world, and Twitter is a known resource for helping that growth.

Is it truly professional? Past of the discussion was that much of what happens on Twitter is social, rather than professional. While I initially questioned that, I am beginning to understand what he means. After two years or so on Twitter, there are many people that I interact with there who have become my friends. They are not simply small Twitter photos but are unique individuals, many of whom I have now met and shared face-to-face conversations. Those that I have not met face-to-face are people whose ideas I could easily identify. I care about them as people, rather than as simply sources for my own learning. This has turned my time on Twitter into a social experience. I am still learning from it, but I am learning from people that I consider colleagues, not simply people to follow. It has changed my sense of my time on Twitter, adding weight to what I learn there. I know who I trust the most among the people I follow. (When I have time, I will actually take the time to review whom I follow.)

The final issue was about the use of the word “network.” Is it a network or is it a community? “Network” was being used to describe an impersonal connection that simply was based in professional interactions. For me, that is exactly what Twitter was when I started. I went there simply for my own growth and took from it whatever interested me. It was not about developing relationships. Over time, however, those relationships grew. There were people who responded to me and shared their ideas and work with me. Through those exchanges, we made tentative and then deep connections. They responded when I asked a question, and I responded when they did. Impersonal connections turned into relationships, which are at the heart of community. Some of those are still very slight, but there are others that have become rich and deep.

While some of the conversations about what a PLN is were simply about semantics, it is worth the time to consider what it is that we are talking about when we use the term. Are we using it in a way that will draw others in or simply to make them feel left out? Do we want to open our community or keep it exclusive? When we talk about Twitter, are we opening doors or making ourselves look exclusive, part of a slightly odd “In Crowd”? That part of the conversation is very important, if we believe that the best education for our students comes from reaching beyond the walls of our classrooms and interacting with educators around the world. We need to make the doors to this group wide open and inviting. Are we doing that?

11 responses to “So Just What is a PLN?

  1. For me it is about widening the circle of ideas that i have access to geographically. The social piece has been an added bonus. I still used Facebook for my closest “friends” and I use Twitter professionally. People who don’t “get” Twitter laugh at that statement. The idea of a PLN seems foreign to many. Thanks for your post, hope you don’t mind if I use it as a jumping off spot for a blog I write about PLNs, I’d like to reference back to your post through our Colorado Association of Middle Level Educaton blog if I can…

    • Feel free to use it! That is one of the joys of having people that we connect with. I too basically use Facebook for personal and Twitter for professional, though the more I get to know the people I communicate with on Twitter, the more that line is becoming blurred…which I actually think is a good thing.

  2. This is a great post and I have had some of the same questions posed to me when I discuss PLN with others. The social aspect seems to put some teachers I know off. They think that because your friendly on social networks, actual learning cannot take place. I tell them that we cannot share ideas anymore because we are friends. 🙂 That doesn’t solve their issue, but it forces them to think about the connections made on social media.

    I think that PLNs will continue to grow and evolve over time and it can become whatever anybody wants it to be for them. I think that is what makes PLNs so great.

  3. Hadley,

    I suspect that I was in the same conversation as you on Saturday — at EduBloggerCon? I think that the realization that I walked away with is that I would never start to explain to a teacher what a PLN is by saying, “You need a PLN!” I start by explaining how educators are learning by connecting to other educators and other experts and to sources of content that help them do their jobs, and here are ways they are doing it (blogs, Twitter, RSS, Flickr, etc.) and by the way, a lot of people call this their Personal Learning Network.

    Also, concerning whether it’s a network or a community, I don’t think it it has to be one or the other. It can be both. It behaves like a community to a great degree. But one of the most important aspects of a PLN is that it is personal. You shape to to your needs. You prune it from time to time. You grow it when you have more time to read and prune it back when you have less. This is difficult to do with a community. However, a network is something that you can control. It’s all syntax, but I thought I’d share my own notions of the words…

    Great luck to you!

    ~ dave

    • Yes, we were in the same session. I love your comment about never starting a conversation with “You need a PLN.” It truly is the connections and the interactions that are at the heart of what can be built using Twitter, or nings, or blogs. It can be about building community, if that is what a teacher wants from it, or it can simply be about learning independently. For me, I love the growing community that I have found here. It challenges and encourages me to reach beyond where I thought the boundaries were.

      Thanks for the comment!

  4. Great post! I love the mention of the exclusivity of it. I met a lot of people from my PLN at Denver. Almost all of them were wonderful (though somewhat smaller than I envisioned 🙂 one in particular seemed very unfriendly, bordering on snobbish. I wasn’t expecting this at all, and it threw off my game a bit. Since I’ve been home, I’ve been wondering about the dynamics and whether or not others feel excluded. Thoughts?

    (I’m half expecting the following comment to start with “HEY LOSER” j/k lol)

    • I have to smile. When I first met the people in my PLN, the comment was “You’re so much taller than I thought.” I think that we make assumptions all the time about people, especially when we only know them online. Many of them prove to be true – great teacher, wonderful educator, etc. Every now and then, there is a lemon in the bunch, but my experience has been that mostly the people who are really spending time learning and sharing together are an amazing bunch! I am grateful to and for so many of them.

  5. This is a great post and one to which I can relate. I found myself nodding in agreement at each point you made. Thanks for sharing.

  6. PLN is certainly a semantical acronym, as it is seemingly preferred to PLE these days. I suppose Network refers to the connections made with others while Environment seems to be a tool focussed. And reading your post brought back some memories, handily archived on the web, about a discussion a few educators had a while back about the difference between community and networks. It is worth the read and following of links, even if my own ideas are muddled in there somewhere. Also, I put together this presentation (with audio!!) that sort of ties in a whole bunch of concepts arising out of that online networked conversation – I’d be interested to see if you think that it still holds merit three years later.

  7. Hi Hadley,
    I found it interesting to come across this blog, especially since I was asking myself the exact same question. Like you, I joined Twitter to see what it was “all about”. Since that time, I’ve followed other educators, mainly primary teachers who use technology in the classroom. It’s a wonderful way to share and learn about what others are doing around the world.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts. Like the person above, I found myself agreeing with your points and realizing that what I thought at PLN to be, was true.

    Thank you

  8. Ashley Johnson

    Great Post! I thought your blog about PLN’s was very interesting. You made some really great points. I agree that a PLN can be about building a community. It is what you want it to be. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

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