If you dont have a PLN, you don't know what you are missing

Recently I had the most thrilling experience! I met, in person, some members of my Personal Learning Network (PLN)!

In between shared handshakes, hugs, giggles - gasps could be heard:
"Wow - you're so tall!"
"Your hair isn't as red as I thought it'd be!"
"You're just like I imagined!"
"I can't believe I'm finally meeting you!"
"You look just like your avatar!"

So who are these people? How did they become so significant in my life? Why on earth should the bonds connecting us feel so strong? How was this train of events set in place?

When I started out on my learning journey nearly two years ago, I expected to increase my knowledge and learn some more about the technology that had baffled me for so many years. What I didn't expect was that I would have the opportunity to meet and mix - virtually - with the amazing bunch of people who are now firmly entrenched as members of my PLN.

My PLN is comprised of a range of professionals that stretch across Australia and the world, many more than the half dozen members I recently met in person. Establishing links with them has been exciting and exhilarating. Having a support group on which to lean, to question, to learn from and to share with has been not only professionally enriching, but life changing. I get so excited when I talk about the value of my PLN, and my impulse is to share my experience in the hope that it may be a source of inspiration to others to 'get out there' and start developing their own!

What is a PLN?

The simplest definition is that a PLN is a group of people with whom one connects, communicates and collaborates in the sharing and exchanging of information and ideas, and through whom one increases one's knowledge and understanding of topics of interest. Depending on your own interests, members of your PLN may be known or unknown to each other and may have a set of disparate or similar interests or ideas. Most often, they are an extended community of people which stretches across the globe. A key feature is that members of your PLN meet your specific needs for information, knowledge and ideas.

Members of a PLN need not be constant in fact, a PLN is nebulous. It has no structure; there is nothing definite about it. This undefined structure is indeed another of its features - albeit a hidden feature - which reveals itself more clearly as time goes by. A PLN grows and develops over an extended period of time. Members of a PLN are 'out there' wandering through cyberspace. You can expect to bump into them every now and then in any one or all of your 'communication' spots: your email inbox or any one of the range of social networking platforms in which you engage.

The communication tools used by members of a PLN make it easy to locate, connect, engage and interact with a range of peers, experts, or anyone with similar interests. PLNs enable us to engage in global learning and sharing, and to facilitate our ability to reflect on the thoughts of others as a means of bolstering our own learning.

How can a PLN differ from other support?

In short - a PLN allows you to learn anything, anytime, anywhere with anybody you choose!

You can learn anything you like. Rather than face the restrictions of course offerings or conference proceedings, a PLN allows you to decide for yourself what you want to learn or focus on. The choices of what you learn are, in fact, limitless. They may connect to absolutely any aspect of your job, or you may even decide that time spent pursuing an esoteric subject you've always wanted to study may just be the way you want to develop yourself, your knowledge and your skills.

You can learn anytime you like: day, night, weekday or weekend; working year or holiday time. The choice is yours and yours alone. The freedom to meet up with members of your PLN via any one of the social networking platforms available - Twitter, Facebook, Google + or even via traditional email - allows you to balance the time of your learning with your many other commitments.

And just imagine having the freedom to pursue learning anywhere - lounging around the house on a Sunday morning in your PJs or late at night after the kids are securely tucked away in bed. Or perhaps sitting in the backyard with the family on a Sunday afternoon is a better time to pursue that new thought, idea or interaction with a mentor, an expert, or a teacher in Barcelona, Miami or Paris. Imagine attending a virtual conference where you can take part in events in Europe, Asia or the Americas. The decision is yours!

And finally, imagine the value of being able to chat or exchange ideas, thoughts and best practice with anybody in the world. No longer are you restricted to work colleagues in your school or your region - you can reach out to anyone in your state, your country or the world. Meet up with experts in your field, share with the principals of other schools from anywhere in the world, with professors from leading universities, or with academics who have written the books you use; the world is your oyster. Social networking platforms allow us to interact with others in ways that were unknown just a few short years ago. Taking advantage of this opportunity opens doors you could never have previously imagined.

A PLN turns each of us into active learners who decide what it is we want to learn, and when, where and how we do it. It enables us to take control of our own learning. Just like the students in our classes, we too learn best when given the opportunity to select topics that are of interest to us. Being able to select with whom to learn is far more powerful than being forced or randomly cast into a group with a set activity, topic or issue. Being able to set our own pace, to learn as quickly or as slowly as we like or need or have time for today or this week really means that we are in control of our learning and set our own limits. Being able to find other likeminded people who share your interests and to explore with and through them is very satisfying. Knowing that you are contributing to the PLN of another and that others are interested in your knowledge, experience and expertise is in turn very empowering.

Getting started is the challenge

The delineating factor of my PLN was the nature of its inception. Having enrolled in an online program to develop my knowledge and use of Web 2.0 tools, I met fellow participants. As we played and experimented, explored and learned, we shared ideas and thoughts with each other through a Ning - an online platform in which people create their own social network. As the course required us to create a blog, it was not long before we started to read and then leave comments on each other's blog posts. As the course invited us to explore a range of social networking platforms, these too became locations where we could meet and mingle, chat and share, and question and support each other on our ongoing learning journey. As new communication channels became established and embedded in our daily routines, each of us saw our PLN grow in size and strength. And without a doubt, the greater the sharing, the stronger the bonds between us grew.

While I highly recommend everyone to enrol in an online learning program, as it can give the initial impetus to getting started, to focusing and to maintaining a commitment to ongoing learning, it is not, by any means, a prerequisite to developing a PLN.

Connect, communicate and collaborate with other teachers in your state, county or anywhere in the world by signing up to any one of the social networking platforms that are out there. Together with Web 2.0 tools, social networking has transformed the way in which we collect and share resources, ideas, methodologies and best practice.

Select any one of the blog publishing tools available, such as Wordpress, Edublogs or Blogger, and start publishing your own ideas and thoughts. Locate the blogs of others so that you can read and delve into their thoughts - ask other people for recommendations, and share your recommendations with others. Use RSS feeders to help you stay abreast of new posts. And be sure to participate by leaving comments. Apart from enriching your experience, this is a way for people to build a collective store of thought and knowledge.

Explore a range of social networking platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Google+. Select one as a way of communicating instantly and regularly with members of your PLN. Ask others for recommendations of who to follow, then look at who those people are following and start following them too. Contribute useful information and thoughts, and you will soon find that others will be keen to follow you. Also consider exploring Nings -- there are a large number of special interest Nings from which to choose, and these will provide you with an instant group of likeminded people with whom to communicate with and learn from.

Explore bookmarking tools such as Diigo or video storing tools such as VodPod, as well as book reading tools such as GoodReads. Apart from storing and sorting, these tools have social networking features that enable the sharing of both the resources and any comments made about those resources. This can be another powerful way to link with other likeminded people.

Initially, you may feel as though you are fumbling with new and unexplored tools such as Blogs, Nings and social networking tools. But one of the side benefits of a PLN is the development of a group of people with whom you can learn and develop new skills. Feeling secure and comfortable within a group will allow you the confidence to ask questions and experiment. Knowing that there is a friendly voice out there to assist you is so much better than 'going it alone'.

Tackle one new tool at a time. Start small and keep it simple. Choose that which meets your needs, the time you have available and your skill level. Take time to reflect and digest all that you experience and learn. Share your experience with others and they will value your thoughts as much as you value theirs.

So what's to be gained from a PLN?

A PLN contributes a great deal to us as individuals, as well as furthering the impetus for global learning as we link hands across the oceans. The value of a PLN is best described visually:

Diagram created by Bev Novak appears in her blog NovaNews,

Diagram created by Bev Novak appears in her blog NovaNews
Published here with permission. Further distribution with acknowledgement is permitted.

And remember! Developing a PLN is totally free. All you need to get started is a computer, internet access and a desire to learn. Be transported to a new way of learning. Feel engaged, inspired, empowered and challenged as you link up with others. Know that as you gain from your PLN others will gain from you. Never underestimate the knowledge, insights and experience you have to contribute to others. Feel empowered! Read more about PLNs from sites listed in this!

Start developing your Personal Learning Network today and discover the joy of lifelong learning.

Bev Novak


Bev is currently working as a Teacher librarian at Mentone Grammar, Victoria, and is a former Head of Library at two independent schools.

Include Bev's blog NovaNews and Twitter @novanews19 in your PLN.