Three Significant Obstacles to Creating a PLN and an Easy Way to Get Started

Contributed By

Robert Schuetz

Technology Coordinator for Palatine High School, IL

Three Significant Obstacles to Creating a PLN and an Easy Way to Get Started

Posted in Pro Tips | November 20, 2013

Last weekend, after enjoying Joe Morelock's keynote about facing the challenges of rapid change in education, I shared my thoughts on personalized professional development with a group of about twenty eager educators. Midway through our session, I made the mistake of asking the group, "What is your favorite activity, or tool, for engaging with your PLN?"

A few averted pairs of eyes, a few puzzled looks, and a few others choosing to be distracted with mobile electronics (wait time...), and then courageously, Anna asked, "What's a PLN?"

"Hold the phones! Stop the presses! What is a PLN?" I let the question simmer for a few moments.

I swiped back to a previous slide in my presentation—because that is what you do on an iPad—and a few participants took their turns at defining a personal learning network (PLN) and sharing how they personally interact with their own learning communities.

"After learning a bit more about PLNs, how many of you regularly engage with what could be considered a personal learning network?" I asked. Predictably, the same three hands went up.

I wanted to ask, "Why is it beneficial, in this day and age, for educators to engage in a PLN?" Fearing that the conversation would have a strong likelihood of stalling out, I instead asked, "Knowing a bit more about what PLNs are, what are the primary obstacles that are keeping a majority of educators from engaging in a PLN?" (Connected, Semi-connected, & Unconnected Educators - Tom Whitby)

Here are the group's three most prevalent responses, along with their respective takeaways:


Fear of transparent sharing, fear of giving up classroom control, and fear of failure were mentioned by the group members. Several teachers admitted that fear of trying new things was their primary reason for not using social media and web resources, for engaging with a personal learning network.

Even our more experienced, connected educators admitted to feeling anxious about putting themselves and their ideas "out there." Our acknowledgement of these feelings, along with the acknowledgement that we were all DSL ("digital as a second language" - Joe Morelock) learners, seemed to lighten the mood and calm some fears. Several participants created new Twitter accounts during our session.

The Takeaway—Once the concept of failure is positively re-framed, trying new things becomes an exciting exploration instead of a nerve-racking endeavor.


Lack of time was cited as a significant reason for not engaging in a PLN. There is no denying the time intensive commitment that is required of educators. How can teachers be expected to carve out a piece of time from their daily schedules for professional growth and personal learning? Several teachers commented that time demands have increased substantially during the course of their careers, which is a common theme.

The PLN-connected educators helped shift the conversation to a discussion of how PLN support actually saves time. Once again, Twitter was at the center of a conversation that illustrated how small, daily PLN sessions provided helpful suggestions, useful resources, and professional connections promising future assistance. A few teachers agreed that this sounded more efficient and productive than the contrived workshops and professional development opportunities they had grown accustomed to.

The Takeaway—Working largely in isolation is time ineffective. However, crowdsourcing for ideas, resources, and solutions is very time efficient, professionally energizing, and personally validating.


Lack of knowledge, or at least familiarity, was mentioned as another obstacle for engaging with a PLN. A few of our participants discussed not knowing how to get started connecting and collaborating with a personal learning network.

We reviewed the components that make up an effective professional network:

  • Local Community: Professional Learning Communities (PLCs)
  • Global Network: Personal Learning Network (PLN)
  • Bounded Community: Committed Communities of Practice (CoPs)

We also took a look at several types of online tools, and several specific ones, that help educators more effectively share and engage with PLNs (Check out the presentation at the bottom of this post). I shared a short video created by Dr. Jackie Gerstein to help illustrate what it means to be a socially networked learner. We agreed that it was necessary to adopt a learner's mindset in order to reduce ignorance, grow our PLNs, and become models of connected learning for our students.

The Takeaway - Working to leverage the collective knowledge of our networks is more efficient and effective than trying to become the content expert in our classrooms.

 Are there other obstacles to PLN engagement that deserve to be discussed?


A Great Way to Start Building and Expanding Your PLN

One way that educators and students can interact with learning networks while within the protective confines of a "walled garden" is through a learning management system. Schoology, as you may know, does much in the way of helping educators and students connect and collaborate.

Schoology offers direct messaging, discussion boards, and blogs in a completely collaborative way where teachers and students can work on shared documents, organize events, and more. Push notifications can be enabled to remind teachers of calendar events, assignment submissions, or group updates. The platform integrates with TwitterFacebook, Google Drive, and Evernote. These are all very useful features for creating and expanding your PLN.

A good place to start building a PLN is in Schoology’s collection of professional groups, such as “Flipped Classrooms”, that allow educators to share resources, discuss best practice, and help each other grow as professionals. These shared resources can be submitted, sorted, tagged, and rated by teachers. Many Schoology users, like myself, establish contact groups in Schoology that become an integral part of our personal learning network.

In short, platforms like Schoology offer a practice arena for teachers and their students to experience digital literacies first-hand while learning together in a secure and social environment. There’s just one catch: for technologies like this to help you create and expand your PLN, you have to take the leap and use them.

What is your favorite activity or online tool for PLN engagement?

Hungry for more on PLNs and the tools that help them grow? Check out Bob's Slideshare presentation below or download the PDF.

Can't view it? Check your mixed media filter.


Image II by Michael Heiss

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