Personal Learning Network (PLN) Benefits, Tools, and Tactics
A personal learning network (PLN) is a group of colleagues, mentors, and professionals that you connect with to enhance your learning and take charge of your own professional development. It's a global, online community that allows you tap into a broad wealth of knowledge and focus on what you consider most important to your learning. PLNs are especially valuable, as new information and ideas are changing the world at a much faster pace than ever before.
The Difference Between PLNs and PLCs
While often confused with PLNs, professional learning communities, or PLCs, are formal collaborations of educators working together to solve problems, build capacity, and ultimately help their students perform better. These groups are often formed under the auspices of a school or even mandated for educators to join, and the group process is highly structured.
PLNs, on the other hand, are informal and designed completely by individuals or groups. A PLN is your network, which can be as simple as following a group of educators on Twitter or joining a chat group that maintains a Pinterest board of useful resources. Your participation in a PLN is voluntary, and you can interact as much or as little as you like.
Characteristics of a Personal Learning Network
To understand the value of a PLN, it's important to know what it is—and what it isn't.
A PLN Is ...
- Open collaboration without limits
- An opportunity to share ideas, resources, and learning materials with educators anywhere in the world
- A way to gain perspective on your practice
- Maintained on personal social media accounts like Facebook or Twitter
- Enhanced by following useful blogs and video content on sites like YouTube
- A way to share your knowledge with others
- Created by an individual teacher or administrator to meet personal goals
A PLN Is Not ...
- A meeting or series of workshops
- Mandated by school officials
- The result of attending a workshop
- Required professional development programming
For many educators, the freedom that PLNs offer is refreshing. In a field in which professional learning is often measured by participation hours and isn't always easily tailored to individual needs and interests, PLNs provide an opportunity to explore topics and get information to make substantive change in your personal practice.
The Benefits of Personal Learning Networks
Though most people tend to think of PLNs as being support systems for classroom teachers, all educators can benefit from sharing with and learning from others. In particular, PLNs offer the following benefits:
A PLN allows you to personalize your learning. You get to choose your topic of focus, whether it's picking up better technology skills or learning to differentiate instruction for a particular group of students you're struggling to reach.
Once you've met your personal goals, you can shift the focus of your PLN to embrace a new topic or to "level up" to more complex areas within a topic of interest. You also get to decide when and how often to connect with your online community, which allows learning to happen when it works best for you.
Unlike traditional professional development, you're not simply receiving information when you participate in your PLN. You can ask questions of and get valuable resources from peers and mentors. But as with any healthy relationship, there's a give and take.
You can (and should) share what has worked well for you. Share resources you've build or found, and share those you received from your PLN and enhanced.
Collaborating to enhance ideas and content is the kind of activity that can make a good PLN great. Also, learning by teaching others is a great way to solidify your knowledge and force you to confront what you don't quite understand, so the benefits of these personal relationships are twofold.
Because a PLN allows to you make professional connections electronically, you have the entire world at your fingertips. The information you crave can be accessed as soon as other teachers and professionals post research, lesson ideas, and more.
Your PLN is always working for you, and their expertise is readily available at your convenience. This 24/7 access lets you get what you need to solve a problem right away, as well as explore topics of less pressing interest.
Personal Learning Network Tools and Tactics
With so much useful information out there and so many talented educators to connect with, it can be difficult to know where to start when it comes to assembling your first PLN. Try these tactics to find and engage with other like-minded professionals.
Open a Twitter Account
If you don't already tweet, sign up for a free Twitter account and follow educators you admire. They're likely to post interesting articles and information to check out, and you can engage by responding with questions and connecting with people who comment.
Because Twitter is global, and therefore 24/7, it's a great tool for getting just-in-time resources fast. It also provides unrivaled access to many of the most prominent thought leaders in education. When you ask a question, you never know who will respond.
Start Blogging Your Own Ideas
Writing a blog from your own perspective as an educator isn't just cathartic—it also helps you solidify your thinking and connect with a broader community of teachers. Tell your stories, share effective lesson plans and strategies, or explore hot-button current events.
Make sure you have the ability to comment turned on. Comments turn a blog into a conversation and can be helpful in getting new ideas and making connections.
Create a Social Media Group
You can build your own community by starting a group page on Google+, Facebook, or LinkedIn. Invite colleagues you admire and know personally as well as your newest online connections.
Build engagement by posting questions or articles that promote discussion and that you think your connections will find useful. If they share it, you've suddenly expanded your own PLN by tapping into theirs.
Take Advantage of Educational Tools with Built-In Communities
Many school districts already use platforms, such as learning management systems (LMSs), that have social and collaborative components built in. Take advantage of the tools at your disposal to connect with colleagues to share ideas tailor-made for your learning community.
Note: If you use Schoology, make sure to tap into the public groups that connect hundreds of thousands of education professionals worldwide. Learn more in this Help Center article.
Devote Time to Your Learning
Once you've got your PLN set up, plan to spend about 20 minutes each day interacting with your connections. This could be as simple as scanning Twitter, commenting on Facebook posts, or reading a thought-provoking article provided by an online connection.
And while many of you might be tempted to be more of a passive observer in the network, remember two things—1) PLNs are only valuable if people contribute, and 2) you'll never find the exact insights you need if you don't try.