In education, as in most professions, there is a vernacular of sorts, a common terminology that is supposed to unify educators and help them to meet on common grounds. The problem is that new buzzwords seem to come up very often while others are discarded. It is inherent in education. Everyone has an opinion on education; “experts” come up with new ideas; politicians propose new “reforms.” Most of these seem to add to the chaos, but not to progress. So, it is not surprising if you have not heard this term before.
The term PLN is an acronym that stands for personal learning network. I have heard several variations. Two of the most popular are professional learning network, which seems limiting if you ever want to learn something outside of your immediate profession, and personal learning environment/PLE, which is often used either interchangeably or with a slightly different meaning than PLN.
The idea and value of a PLN has caused more controversy and debate than I believe it merits. Personal learning networks have always existed regardless of the terminology around to identify it as such. The word “network” implies connections; connections can either be to people or resources. The connections are used for learning that applies to you personally. So, in short, your personal learning network is any people or resources that help you to learn.
You already have a personal learning network. We could both teach the same subject and grade, even at the same school, and have completely different personal learning networks. The beauty of it is that we align ourselves and our resources to maximize our own learning. There will obviously be differences in the depth, range, and quality of different people’s personal learning networks. The shift comes when you recognize your network for what it is, analyze its strengths and weaknesses, and then try to make more connections to grow in the areas where your network is not meeting your needs.
In my first year teaching, my personal learning network really only consisted of my mentor teacher for the first few months. There was no one else that I knew to look to for help and really no one that I was contributing to. In the spring semester, I started co-planning and meeting with other teachers in my grade level and subject area regularly. This opened me up to a wide range of resources that I had not had access to. These people, along with a few lesson plan sites and some professional literature, were the network of connections that I was using to become a better educator.
As my second year started, I realized that I was not improving as quickly as I needed to in order to best serve my students. The people in my building were wonderful, but they could not provide everything I needed. It is impossible because their skill set, while varied, did not exactly line up with my needs. It was also often limited to meetings before and after school. So, I started to take action to broaden my network.
I started my own blog and reading the blogs and reflective writing of other educators beyond those in my building. I started following the bookmarks of people in many of the different schools in the district I was in; this way, I had access to many of the great resources they were finding. I started to connect and talk to great teachers and educators all over the world on Twitter and other social networks. I contributed, and still do, as much as I possibly can, but what I got back from the networks was such a great boon. I am a better educator because of it and I continue to improve because of the connections that I have made. The next few sections will show you how to deliberately form these connections and harness the collective power of knowing so many great educators who are willing to share their experience and expertise.