Defining Personal Learning Networks

Week 2 of the Exploring Personal Networks (PLNs) online seminar has us looking towards defining a PLN.  At first glance this seems quite straightforward – in fact I’ve already defined a PLN in my previous post as “the people I come in contact with, both in person and virtually from whom I can learn”.  But is this definition enough?

My definition could equally apply to a Community of Practice (CoP) so how can we differentiate between the two?  Etienne-Wagner(1) defines a Communities of Practice as “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.”.  There is certainly an overlap between CoPs and PLNs, but for me the crucial difference, is the intentionality behind the coming together of a CoP, and the incidental nature that often characterises a PLN for me.  My PLN consists of people across a variety of interests from Maths to Programming to teaching to technology in education to ….. just the general thought provoking people you spot in passing.    The incidental, accidental learning that happens, as you spot ideas from one domain which could have a positive impact in another domain, is why I love the many interactions that the virtual world facilitates.  Sometimes we tend to apply a set of blinkers, which prohibits breaking down barriers, when we narrow the focus to people we know share a common interest.  In my previous post I referred to the cross-pollination of ideas across the levels in twitter chats like #edchatie.  For me this is such a powerful interaction that allows people to see outside the “box” they find themselves in, whether it be primary, secondary or third-level.

The next overlap which is interesting to examine is that between Personal Learning Environments (PLEs) and Personal Learning Networks (PLNs).  It’s difficult to find a universally recognised definition of a PLE, but there seems to be a consensus that a PLE refers to the the technological tools or environment which facilitates the connection.  In my reseach on this topic I came across Joyce Seitzinger’s graphic


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I like this idea of a PLE as a subset of PLN.  It fits best with my own views about PLN’s which places people at its very core.  A graphic posted by Catherine Cronin to the 1 pic a day Flickr group that I am also a part of really caught my attention earlier this year


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I love this idea of connecting to think together.   The very real friendships that develop among people who “know” each other virtually before they meet in person is a testament to the depth of the connections which are forged through a sense of shared values. Of course meeting face to face is not obligatory, but I do find that some level of face to face contact does help to grow and sustain the connections.

So where does this leave me in regards to defining a PLN?   I started my previous post and this one with a definition of a Personal Learning Network as “the people I come in contact with, both in person and virtually from whom I can learn” and I’m sticking with that for now 🙂  But maybe I should redefine it as a Passionate Learning Network a la Shelly Terrell …

PLN Sign

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6 responses to “Defining Personal Learning Networks

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  5. Hi Pam, enjoyed reading your post, and many of the ideas you’ve put forward echo what I’ve been thinking over the past few weeks in #xplrpln – there is definitely something about the incidental, serendipity that seems to characterise PLNs – and part of the distinction also between PLNs and CoPs is the individual vs group focus; and also as a result, diversity vs consensus.

    I’ve also been quite fascinated by the dynamic between relationships that originate face to face vs virtually, and the process of forming closer ties with a PLN (how it happens), and role that events like MOOCs play by generating a really unique environment of mutual engagement.

    • Thanks Tanya, glad you enjoyed the post. For me my PLN is all about the serendipitous connections that change over time. I do love the virtual connections but I love backing it up with face to face contact, however brief or fleeting, when possible.
      I’m really enjoying mulling over these ideas in the Exploring PLNs seminar although I’ve been frustrated at my inability to give it more time. I really haven’t fully gotten into it as much as I would have liked.

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