What’s a PLN, and why do I need one?

Photo by Daria Shevtsova via Unsplash


In January at FETC I’ll be sharing all about the power of personal/professional learning networks, and I hope you’ll join me! (Thursday, 1/26, at 4:20 PM) From the session description:

What’s a PLN, and why do I need one? This session will explore the power of networked learning for educators and administrators and how, through the use of digital technologies, there are numerous opportunities for educators to engage in professional learning with colleagues from around the world. Teachers and administrators congregate in powerful learning communities using tools such as Twitter, Google+, Instagram, and more to share resources, support and inspire, and challenge thinking to help us move forward as professionals. This session will explore the power of connected learning, how to begin establishing practices that will help you connect, and the ways in which connected educators transform teaching and learning for themselves and their students.

I’ve had the opportunity to talk with educators about the value in developing their own learning networks on several occasions. At Educon a few years ago Andy Marcinek and I delved deep into the topic of making sure your PLN is as relevant as possible and the need to reinvent your network. And on the local level, I’ve been advocating for (wait, begging) my fellow administrators to start connecting to surround themselves with supportive resources and colleagues around the world. I’ve written about how easy connecting can be and how it looks different for each educator. I’ve shared how my PLN has evolved over the years and how connecting isn’t the same now as it was “back then.”

Sometimes in our quest to get more educators connected we neglect to delve into the fundamentals of network development and learning, which I share throughout the chapter I authored in Learning Forward’s Powerful Designs for Professional Learning on the use of social media and educator learning. Read my chapter here. If you’re new to the ideas of connectivism and personal learning networks, I encourage you to read the works of George Siemens (also very much enjoyed My personal learning network is the awesomest thing ever!!), Stephen Downes (I especially appreciate his distinction between personal and personalized learning), and Dave Cormier (get to know and love and/or become extremely uncomfortable with rhizomatic learning), who I referenced in addition to other connected learning pioneers throughout my chapter.

It’s been important for me to share my process, how I started, the tools that helped me connect, and the challenges I’ve faced. When I work with educators who are new to networking in the digital age, I make sure to tell them that it takes time and it takes effort to build a quality network.  I share this post (I still use some of the tools mentioned, others have been replaced) and explain why online communities such as our instructional technology coaches’ community on Google+ can be powerful places of learning. I also share the ideas of Harold Jarche through his personal knowledge mastery framework.

I’ve been a “connected educator” since 2009, when I first started my blog and sharing via Twitter. The spaces have evolved over the years, the conversations have shifted. The voices have become more prevalent, and my network has become more diverse. My participation in these spaces has changed as well. This is a good thing, for the most part. The echo chamber is a very real and concerning effect of surrounding yourself with like-minded individuals, and it’s for that reason that educators in these spaces need to celebrate differences and promote equity. Don’t add to the noise. Share something that will help others make meaning and the world a better place. Make it a priority to think about what you’re sharing, who it might impact and how, and why you’re sharing it.

What advice do you have to those looking to establish a viable network to promote learning? Share in the comments here or send me a tweet. Hope to see you at FETC!

Sidenote: This blog has been hosted for many years using Bluehost. Due to its outrageous comparative costs and frequent outages, I’ve made the switch to Reclaim Hosting and couldn’t be happier. The transition was seamless and personal communication and support unrivaled.  If you’re a blogger, you should check it out. Like now.

“Why do I need to reinvent my PLN?”

Participants discuss digital learning communities in our #educon session.

At Educon this weekend, my friend and colleague Andrew Marcinek and I wanted to talk PLNs. Personal learning networks. Professional learning networks. In conversations together over the past year or so, it had become apparent to us that it was time for a change. Anyone who has participated in learning networks for a significant period of time has likely noticed the “echo chamber” effect or have perhaps found the seemingly identical streams of tweets and links shared on a daily basis relentlessly ungratifying. We felt compelled to discuss how to critically examine, deconstruct, and reinvent your PLN in order to become and remain contributing members of meaningful learning networks.

I was inspired to develop a conversation around this topic by many posts regarding the demise of Twitter, specifically this work shared by Bonnie Stewart about all that is “rotten” in the state of Twitter and one of my favorite posts in recent years from George Siemens who declared his PLN “the most awesomest thing ever!“, asking us to truly think about the ways in which we engage in learning in digital spaces.

The session was live-streamed, so our attentive SLA student assistant, Miriam, kept us posted about the backchannel conversations emerging in the streamed space. One of the earliest questions was from Lisa Durff, who quite frankly inquired at the start of our session:

“Why do I need to reinvent my PLN?”

Andy summarized the highlights of our session in his reflective post here, so I will spare you that account from my perspective, however I’d like to share some of my own reflections and struggles with PLNs and the strategies I will use to be a more engaged participant in my networks. This, perhaps, will help answer the “why” posed above.

I need to think critically about who I follow, and why.

One of our participants asked me how I keep up with the stream of information since I follow 3,000 or so Twitter users. Simple: I don’t keep up with it. Early in my connected experience I was told, you will never read every tweet that comes through your stream, so don’t even bother trying. While I’m not at the point where I will reset my account to “Following Zero” as I know others have done, I will take some time to weed through my following list and unfollow accounts that aren’t adding anything to my learning. Because, as Scott McLeod reflects after Tony Baldasaro’s choice to unfollow folks:

Tony’s post reminds us that social networks are like gardens (thank you, David Warlick). They require some nurturing and, yes, some pruning now and then. Sometimes they may even be like prairies, requiring a full burn to nurture new, positive growth.

Twitter, Google+, Facebook… who I add to my circles, who I connect with, how and with whom I engage in conversations… these are the decisions that will have great impact on my learning. There are people who, when I first followed, seemed to share a lot of information relevant to my work. I now see them as posting mostly self-promotional material and/or pie-in-the-sky quotes and things that honestly make me cringe. I seek to engage with a more diverse network, with a group of people that question and challenge my assumptions, and who inspire me on a daily basis.

I need to consider which platform will help meet both my needs and those of the engaged audience. 

Do I tweet a request for help? RT someone’s shared link? Start a new post in Google+? Use a service like IFTT to cross-post to all of my spaces? Since delving into our comprehensive Google+ tech coaches community for questions, answers, and to share ideas and resources, I can honestly say I’d recommend new users make a relevant Google+ community a major component of their PLN. In fact, during our Educon session, while social media services were not an intended focus, many of the participants wanted to learn more about workflow options, tools like Tweetdeck to make organization of the info a bit easier, and the benefits of using Google+. We somewhat veered from our planned discussion topics at that point, but it’s what the learners wanted to learn.

I need to acknowledge that there are educators brand new to “connecting,” and that my advice to blow up your PLN may not be applicable to newbs. 

I hear that. But, I would be doing those new users a disservice if I wasn’t frank about the time commitment involved in developing a strong PLN, or the truth that inevitably, they will need to reinvent the ways in which they engage. It is important not to sugarcoat this experience because someone just sent out their first tweet. I don’t want new users to be deluded into thinking their PLN will a) grow quickly and effectively and require little effort to get started b) last forever exactly as is and c) offer the same quality of resources and support day in and day out. It’s not going to happen. If your engagement with your PLN is exactly the same as it was three years ago- if your relationships with those in your network haven’t evolved or the platforms you use haven’t caused you to reconsider how you contribute and when – then kudos to you, you don’t need to reinvent your PLN. I don’t think many of us can claim that’s true. So while I will continue to support and hopefully inspire those new to the experience, I will also be honest about what lies ahead, the good and the bad.

How about you? What challenges do you face as a connected educator, learning in networked spaces? The more we discuss the dilemmas surrounding quality participation in learning networks, the more meaningful our contributions can be for one another. Thanks for learning with me.

Connect to win.


A little birdie told me it’s Connected Educator Month. If you’re reading this, and if you’re new to “connecting,” you might be curious about a day in the life of a “connected” educator. About how we find the time. About the tools we use to connect. About the time we spend communicating with others. About how we manage to do anything other than tweet, blog, and Hangout. You may be apprehensive about connecting and sharing digitally.

Let me start this post by saying I truly believe there’s no right or wrong way to connect. Many folks are skilled collaborators within their local schools and districts. That’s important. One of our teachers started a writing club this year to discuss and explore best practices with teachers in our elementary schools. They meet face-to-face each month.

Those teachers are connected educators.

I’m going to make an appearance at one of their sessions and discuss blogging, its benefits, and how it can amplify the shared ideas of teachers and students alike. I’m going to push those locally connected educators to stretch a little further. Expand their reach. Encourage them to share their wisdom with others. But without the initial face-to-face connections this group has established, the opportunity to share about blogging would not have as easily presented itself.

Connected educators are vulnerable. They make their learning transparent and therefore are open to critique and criticism. They ask questions, they challenge assumptions, they create things and ideas, they get messy, they remix, and they support one another and their kids. It’s hard to put yourself out there. The good news is, you’re not alone.

A connected educator is never alone!

In our school district, have teachers who tweet. We have far fewer administrators who tweet. We have one former administrator who tweets a lot. We have kids who blog, parents who comment on blogs, schools that post news to blogs, and a superintendent who’s looking to expand our district’s use of social media to share the wonderful experiences and learning of our students and school community.

Fact: You can be a connected educator without using Twitter and without reading or writing a blog.

But the tools are available. Many are free. Most are easy to use. They bring ideas your way. They help you forge relationships with exceptional educators. They help you add nodes to your networks.

And they will broaden the scope of your influence.

On a typical day, I wake up early. After some quick mommy math, I calculate I’ll have approximately one hour of uninterrupted time before waking-up-baby needs snuggling.

What’s a connected educator to do?

Coffee. iPhone alerts. Facebook friends, tweets, and emails. Respond to a teacher’s concern about not being able to print a document. Mobile connectivity is key for me.

Twitter. Use Tweetdeck to check the #cpchat stream for articles and posts I can pin to the Connected Leadership board.

Feedly. Take the time to do something I don’t do enough: comment on a blog post. This one from Pernille Ripp, questioning, Where are all the connected female educators? 

LOL reading John Spencer’s post, How many teachers  does it take to change a lightbulb? Share to Facebook, because sometimes my teacher friends are really down on themselves about the state of our profession and they need a good chuckle.

More Feedly. This looks interesting. Save to Pocket. Share out later after reading.

Collaborate with a district and county colleague via Twitter, devise a new hashtag to organize what we share with our tech integrators group.

Baby awake. Family time. Get ready for work.

Long commute. Sirius XM, talk radio, and time with my thoughts.

Help teachers get set up using a math website with students, reference the tutorials on our Elementary Instructional Technology blog. Discuss administrivia with a colleague. Set up a new Twitter account for the district. Check out the latest being shared in our Instructional Technology Integrators and Coaches Google+ community and approve membership requests. Jump into a CEM event led by Scott McLeod for a few minutes. Work with third graders and help them sign into Google Apps for the first time.  Collaborate on a document together. Best practices in design. Google presentations. Communication with a connected colleague, Rachel (whom I met through our Ed Leadership in the Digital Age eCourse through PLP) about a Skype-in session later in the week. Kidblog tasks. Problem solving. Brainstorming. Comment on student work shared with me through GAFE. Create a tutorial to help out a teacher. Eat food. Check out the tweets being shared from #masscue2013. Think about the app a neighboring district created and how useful it is and how we want one. Contact the district for more info. Read the school app resources Eric Sheninger shared with me yesterday via Twitter. Share cyberbullying lesson resources from iSafe and Common Sense Media with district guidance counselors. Finalize elementary technology curriculum drafts. Start working on the new district Facebook page. Consult Diigo for my bookmarks on digital storytelling to share with a teacher looking for more information. Smile at as many kids as possible.

Long commute home.

Family time.

Evening now, baby asleep, finishing this blog post. Going to try to engage with #cpchat tonight which has been a source of inspiration throughout #ce13.

I could read some more feeds. I could tweet. I could check work email. I could pin tasty-looking recipes, get lost in a bunch of nonsensical Facebook posts.  I could install Mavericks.

Instead, I think I’ll play Dots. It’s pretty addicting. And it’s very simple.

Connect the dots.

Stronger, wiser, more numerous connections yield better outcomes.

Connect to win.