PLNs, or personal learning networks, are trusted digital networks of people (experts and peers) and resources (websites, apps and tools) which serve as sources of support and information, and which may be enriched by reciprocal sharing. They often involve analogue (real world) connections (such as colleagues you meet face-to-face) and resources (such as a library of books) alongside digital connections and resources, but it is worth remembering that digital tools, platforms and apps give users access to much wider potential networks than what is available to them in their face-to-face settings. For this reason, the concept of PLNs has become much more prominent with the arrival of the digital era.
PLNs can play an important role in continuing professional development and lifelong learning. In recent years, it has been suggested that educational institutions have a role to play in helping students set up rich and diverse PLNs, on which they can continue to build in their future lives and careers.
A PLE, or personal learning environment, can be a subset of an individual’s wider PLN in which focused learning occurs at a particular time, usually during a course of study. Like PLEs, PLNs are centred around a single individual. Again like PLEs, they don’t depend on any particular digital tools, platforms or apps, but often involve a mixture of web 2.0, or social media, tools, many of which are easily accessible on mobile devices. Sometimes the different tools are tied together through an aggregator platform.
In a 2008 survey of teachers, reported in Listen to the Wisdom of Your Network, Sue Waters found that the most commonly platforms used in their PLNs were the microblogging service Twitter, the folksonomy services del.icio.us and Diigo, RSS aggregators, and blogs. In a 2013 survey of educators, Nik Peachey found that the tools shown below were the most popular based on the number of respondents who mentioned each one (as graphed from publicly available results by Mark Pegrum). The microblogging service Twitter, the aggregator service Scoop.it (see the microblogging page for more details), and the social networking site Facebook were in the lead. Overall, there was considerable common ground between these two snapshots of PLNs from five years apart, even if changing trends were also evident.
Nowadays, many of the same services remain popular, accompanied by some newer services. Teachers commonly make use of microblogging services like Twitter, social (and/or professional) networking services like Facebook and LinkedIn, and social sharing services like Pinterest and Instagram.
In practice, a PLN often consists of overlapping networks on different services, which are linked into a single network by the individual at their centre. Technological platforms for linking different services together include automated aggregators like Symbaloo, also listed on the PLEs page.
To assess the extent of your own personal learning network, and to get ideas for expanding it, see Lisa Nielsen’s interactive blog post You might also like to check out these video guides to PLNs:
- What is a PLN? [Video] (Marc-André Lalande, 2012)
- How Strong Is Your Personal Learning Network? [Blog post + quiz] (Lisa Nielsen, 2013; note that some services have changed since the writing of the embedded quiz, but other services which run on similar principles remain or have become available)
- What’s a PLN? And 3 Ways Teachers Can Get Connected [Video] (Common Sense Education, 2017)
- How to Get a PLN [Blog post] (Kelly Nelson-Danley/TeachHub, 2020)
- Building a PLN [Short course] (The Teacher Challenge, 2021)
- What is a Personal Learning Network? [Video + webpage] (FutureLearn, n.d.)
More references on this topic are available on the Publications on Digital Learning page.
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