Reflecting on the PLN concept: what is it?

It’s been some time since I last put pen to paper (so to speak) about the concept of a personal learning network (PLN). I came across the term about three years ago when it was just starting to gain momentum and earn ‘buzzword’ status. I thought it might be time to revisit my thoughts to see if anything has changed.

Why was I writing about personal learning networks three years ago? I was in my second year of the LIS Masters course when I started to venture more into the Twittersphere. I was a newbie librarian, dipping the toes in for the first time. I was (and still am) motivated to learn everything I possibly could, and so Twitter fast became my ‘go to’ platform to access information relevant to the information profession and where I made my first online connections with others in the community. A research project, which I did with some guidance and encouragement, looking into how a personal learning network develops for a newbie was actually one of the reasons for starting this blog. During this research project I documented my experience in establishing and building a personal learning network and presented my learning at the 5th New Librarians’ Symposium in September 2011. If you’re super keen, you can read these blog posts under the ‘PLN Project’ category.

At the time of the research project I did a literature review and since then have presented on the topic of PLNs. Has the concept of a PLN changed? No, not really. How people understand what they are, appears to have moved forward, which I believe is a good thing as we can now better understand the value and benefits of a PLN. There is more distinction between understanding the PLN and what is a PLE, or personal learning environment. Your PLN resides in the learning environment you create for yourself. Your PLN is made up of the people you connect with. And you use the tools chosen to be a part of your PLE in order to connect, interact and converse with your PLN.

A definition for a PLN I presented at NLS5 is a mish-mash of a number of definitions that didn’t seem to fit in isolation.

“a group of people with whom you connect to interact and exchange information resources; share knowledge, experience and ideas, collectively creating an informed guide to professional development opportunities and continual learning

(Klingensmith 2009; Berge & McElvaney 2009; Tobin 1998)

While I continue to agree with this definition, there are a few things missing that I’ve come to understand about personal learning networks. I may have implied or meant this with the definition but two words immediately come to mind that belong here – ‘support’ and ‘conversation’. There is definitely a ‘support’ element within personal learning networks. I remember I may have used the term ‘cheerleading squad’ in my NLS5 presentation to demonstrate this. But the word ‘support’ should be included in the definition, I think. Support doesn’t need to be in the professional sense, particularly as experienced in the library and information online professional community. Support can also be more personal and be related to non-professional interests and life happenings. This is perhaps one of the library and information community’s greatest strengths. And building a strong network means faster connections between each other’s professional knowledge when its needed.

Now, conversation. ‘Interact’ might be a more formal word to convey that a personal learning network – building, maintaining, participating in one, comprises of ongoing conversation. Serendipitous connections to people, information and knowledge happen with conversation. Following someone on Twitter or finding a re-tweet pop up from someone you follow, can lead to others aligned with a professional interest or field. A diverse network will have conversations about different things. A network doesn’t expand or strengthen without diversity. Conversations then, are an integral part to a thriving personal learning network.

I guess one thing which strikes me from this reflection is how informal a personal learning network has become for me. This is possibly a sign of having become comfy with the concept and the spaces in which I participate. It could also be a sign that since finishing my Masters I’ve realised there are other parts of my life (needing attention) I wish to share and so I’m better able to let go of the professional stuff from time to time and participate in other conversations.

What I think a personal learning network is geared towards and perhaps the reason for being, is the continual learning. Participants in personal learning networks are motivated, lifelong learners. This is what binds us and enables us to be big sharers of information and knowledge, but also big givers of support. A personal learning network then needs three things – conversation, mutual support and information to go around, which spur us on our own journeys and pathways in the pursuit of continual learning.

Building a career path….with Lego

Courtesy of Phillie Casablanca (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic) -

Courtesy of Phillie Casablanca (CC Attribution 2.0 Generic)

Okay, not quite. But using Lego as some kind of analogy will help me to explain one of the biggest challenges I’ve come across as I’ve progressed through my library and information science Masters course. I remember, back in the days of starting out, thinking I had a fairly good idea of my career path. I thought I knew the kinds of building blocks I needed to: -
1. develop my knowledge, and
2. ensure I made an informed decision and/or confirm aspirations for my career path.

Little did I know I was actually thinking of big building blocks, like Duplo. I thought I could put a few Duplo together (areas of professional knowledge) and construct the necessary knowledge and experience together to establish a career.

My career construction now seems a whole lot harder. It’s intricate. It’s like playing with Lego and working out how all the pieces will fit together to build the kind of career I see for myself. I have no doubt some, not all, LIS students and new information professionals will also feel this way at one point or another early on in their career. Here’s why.

Perhaps like me, you’ve entered the LIS course thinking you’ve got it figured out. Why else would you have chosen to do the course unless you had a fairly good idea where you’d like to end up? That’s not to say I wasn’t open to other possibilities but I’m a person who doesn’t make these kinds of decisions lightly, and so I like to have solid justification for investing my time. Maybe you thought, ‘I’m going to work in academic libraries. I want to be a Liaison Librarian’. Sure, okay.

Then this happens…..all this cool stuff comes along. The difficult thing is, there’s so much cool stuff in this profession, so many avenues, so much to learn about. More than once I have felt like I’ve fallen down a rabbit hole of wonders and the possibilities are endless! Don’t get me wrong, I’m incredibly grateful for the exposure my lecturers and others in my network have provided me throughout the course. It hit me the first time, probably a couple of years ago. Oh jolly crap. Crappity-crap…..crap.

All that reading you do during the LIS course and beyond, following everything and anything that catches your eye? How on Earth can you process it all, put the pieces together, when you’re pulled in all directions and exposed to a treasure trove of knowledge?!

Suddenly Duplo isn’t what you’re playing with anymore. Bits and pieces of information have become little pieces of Lego. All those articles, blog posts, reports, etc are small increments of information, which make sense on their own, but putting it all together to develop a working knowledge of an area takes time. The LIS course can only fit in so much. To become proficient in an area of professional interest or area relevant to a career direction worthy of exploring, takes much longer than any one subject. It takes more than a simple prescription of readings and assignments. There’s no way a career, a Lego structure, can come together all at once. The structure, the career you (and I) want, will need to be broken down into smaller bits, and themselves needing constructing with smaller pieces of Lego.

I’ve come up with a few suggestions, more like ideas as I don’t know if they work, but nonetheless I’d like to share to those who may be experiencing something similar. I write these tonight as ideas for both myself and anyone else needing them. I also need to write these out to convince myself that all is, and will be, okay. I’ll try these suggestions as well. I’m not just preaching here.

1. Relax, be patient.

Patience is not my forte. I can be patient with many things, but not with acquiring knowledge. I can’t process and build my knowledge fast enough. Relax. Yes, I need to do that. Chill. Rome wasn’t built in a day.

2. Talk to people, get a mentor.

You’re not alone. I strongly suggest participating in professional development and networking events, and getting involved with your chosen professional association or event committees. Being a NewGrads coordinator has assisted with my developing a network of peers and getting in touch with experience professionals. Participating in conversation on Twitter has eased the ‘isolation factor’ and has enabled me to establish a professional voice. I signed up for a peer mentoring scheme in my first year of the course, and to this day, I still catch up with her now and then. My mentor has been fabulous for guidance and bouncing ideas around, I honestly cannot thank her enough.

3. Target your reading and exploration or define little research projects.

I have a long list of areas of interest. In my experience, it’s all become jumbled up and I’ve ended up maybe confusing myself. It’s a good thing to read widely, but I’d suggest focusing on one area of interest for about 3 – 6 months or so and see what you come up with. Create a notebook in Evernote to save items worth keeping. Review it regularly. Or perhaps you’d like to set yourself a mini research project? Determine a couple of research questions and seek out information relating to the area to help develop your knowledge. This doesn’t mean to disregard resources and articles, etc in other areas, but just focus on one or two for a bit. I’m trying to focus on research data management and innovation at the moment. Innovation is taking over as my interest gains momentum. It also happens to be an area I’d like to explore in a research project next semester, so it makes sense for me to invest some time here.

4. Reflect, take time out.

….but there’s so much to learn! I know. My goodness, don’t I know it. I’m at the base of a salad fork right now, three pathways I can see myself taking. But I cannot stress this enough – take time out to reflect. Create a career journal. Write often. My career journal has had frequent visits from me lately. I’ve gained value from exploring my interests, finding out where they might be coming from. I’ve tried to understand some motivations behind my interest in innovation, for example. Even if you don’t eventually pursue a path, exploring some underlying reasons why you were interested in an area may indicate a common thread of the type of work you’re really seeking in your career.

5. Feel the fear and do it anyway

My (awesome) manager kindly lent me a book of the same title. Basically, life is a series of learning experiences. If an opportunity comes up and you think there are some lessons to be learnt, go for it. It’s all experience. No matter what, you need to have faith that you will handle whatever that comes your way. We all have our own pathways. (I need to tell myself that quite regularly.)

Anyone else, new or experienced information professionals, wish to share their thoughts, experiences and ideas about how to build knowledge and experience towards a career we want?

PLN, where art thou?

….well, that’ll be the first thought I have if, heaven forbid, Twitter disappeared tomorrow.

Someone asked me the question recently, “If Twitter went kaput, was lost and disappeared, what would you do?”

For a moment, well actually it was a little more than a moment, panic set in. No one had asked me that question before, and it’s a very valid one.

Twitter is a tool I use to connect with my personal learning network. If that connection was lost, what would my PLN look like? How would I communicate?

Firstly, let’s look at my main purposes for Twitter, besides connecting with my PLN. My Twitter network acts like an information filter. I have hundreds of ‘pairs of eyes’ looking out for relevant, thought provoking and important key professional information which feeds into my professional development activities. Twitter is also a channel through which I contribute and share information, ideas and reflections.

Now take Twitter out of that equation.

And I realise a few things: -

  • Connecting with my personal learning network would become….. very……. slow. Circulation (and even generation) of  ideas, issues and trends would seem like forever. A lot more time would have to be spent seeking, sorting and processing information, making careful judgements on what is significant to the profession, what I need to consider and what I can discard. My sounding board would be taken away if Twitter disappeared.
  • I do have other tools for connection, such as this blog, so I would probably put out a ‘message in a bottle’ to see where I could connect with others again. I would really miss my peeps!
  • I’ve survived without Twitter before. And so I could survive again, if I had to. Plus there’s conferences and tweet ups! ….oh wait, you couldn’t call them ‘tweet ups’ without Twitter, ooops.
  • I would heavily rely on my local, face-to-face PLN members to point me in the direction of where others were ‘meeting’.

I recommend really having a think about this. I’ve shared just a few initial thoughts. Seriously, what would you do? Please share!

BAM! Twitter’s gone…..Go!

Let’s Talk

As I walk around networking events (especially at first when I knew no one) I find there’s a distinct separation between the students and new graduates and the more established, experienced library and information professionals. The experienced professionals tend to break away from the whole group and have their own discussions, and the students and new graduates are left wondering how to enter “the circle”. There are only a few experienced professionals who dare mingle with the students, new graduates – newbies to the profession. I am very grateful for these people because without them, I wouldn’t have received the encouragement and support I’ve needed to progress with my career and professional development. It is rather unfortunate that there is only a few who are willing to help out those needing a boost into this (very) networked profession of ours.

I witnessed a completely different scene at a recent event I organised, as part of the ALIA New Graduates Group – Resume Reviews. The basic concept is experienced professionals generously donate their time to provide feedback and advice to students and new graduates about their resumes. I recruited three experienced professionals, called for resume submssions, then created a schedule of appointments. At the end of the appointments, attendees came together for a chat.

The difference between this event and other New Graduates events was that it brought experienced and new information professionals together. What I saw was an opportunity for experienced professionals to get excited about the enthusiasm and dedication new professionals were bringing to their careers and the future. There was a sense of collaboration and ‘working together’ between this mixture of information professionals. It was inspiring.

Experienced library and information professionals need not be threatened nor discard new professionals because of a perceived lack of knowledge and experience. New library and information professionals have what it takes to move the profession forward. Experienced information professionals just have to trust us. We have ideas. We are passionate. And we are able. Let’s talk. Together with experience, ideas and enthusiasm for the future, the profession may be strengthened and equipped to take on challenges it currently faces.

Let’s bring down our forts. New library and information professionals are just as scared, if not more, of experienced professionals, than experienced professionals are of new ones. Trust me.

So at your next networking event, think about those experienced professionals who helped you get started. It’s time to pay it forward. Walk up to that nervous library student in the corner and say ‘G’day’. I’m still very new to the profession and I try to include newbies into conversations. You just never know where it may lead. Let us build trust, learn from each other, because we all have a common goal and passion. Find that common ground.

Dialogue. Conversation. Sharing. Collaboration. We need more.

Audit Your Personal Learning Environment

No doubt there are others like me who have signed up for, downloaded or acquired tools, applications and devices which make up our Personal Learning Environment. There is every intention to integrate these into our daily or weekly routines. Perhaps we just wanted to try them out, used them for a specific task or project or have used them only on an ad-hoc basis at most. It’s time to clean up!

In an earlier post, where I distinguished a PLN from a PLE, I hinted at my own definition of a Personal Learning Environment. There appears to be variations of a definition, yet two components stick out – tools and learning. Here’s my definition: -

A PLE consists of an individual, learner-oriented collection of tools, resources, services, and connections organised and used to gather and engage with information, reflect, and communicate and collaborate with others, in pursuit of continual learning and achievement of goals and objectives. 

The goal of a PLE audit (or mine) is to re-organise and co ordinate components to increase efficiency by minimising effort required to access and use each component. The outcome of this process is a more effective PLE, better suited to the achievement of learning goals and objectives.

I’ve taken three steps to audit and tidy up my Personal Learning Environment – stocktake, assess and organise.


  1. Gather all log in details for each tool, resource or service. I found this was the easiest way to identify what I’ve signed up to, tried, or use.
  2. Create a list of email subscriptions, web applications, wikis, software of your computer and devices. My list consisted of over 20 tools (!) including Gmail, Mindnode Pro (on my Mac), Dropbox, Twitter, Slideshare, Evernote and Skype.
  3. Divide a page into three columns – Tools/Devices/Resources, Use it?, What for?.
  4. Fill in the table as much as possible.


Go through each component and assess its role and contribution to your PLE. I created the diagram below to provide consistency and assist with the process.

(I understand the diagram can be hard to read. Click on the image to view a larger version)


Once you have identified the next steps required to re-organise your PLE components, ensure that you action them! If it will help, create a diagram or edit your list (created during ‘stocktake’) to show your newly designed PLE.  A visual reminds and assists me to see the ‘big picture’. I’m that sort of person, I guess.

Other Tips

  • Take stock of your PLE on a regular basis.
  • Include your online presence in this process. Which ‘presence’ (eg. LinkedIn, blog) is lagging, not being properly maintained that it’s potentially damaging your brand and identity?
  • Identify the role of each component by their function. For example, my Google Reader performs a collecting function and my blog is a thinking and contributing space.
  • Create (and stick with) consistent use of tags, vocabulary and folder structures across similar applications. For example, a project folder on my mac will resemble an arrangement of notebooks in Evernote.
  • If you use Instapaper, create an RSS feed for your “Unread” folder and add it to Google Reader. You’ll only need to look in one place for reading material and resources, not two.

The aim here was to prompt thinking about the effectiveness of a PLE and its components’ efficiency of use. The suggested audit process is intended to be a guide and is by no means exhaustive or absolute. I’m sure there are other ways to evaluate tools and ‘tweaking’ a PLE. This was just my approach. I hope it can be of use to others.

Resources for PLE definition: -

Attwell, G 2010, ‘Supporting Personal Learning in the Workplace’, The PLE Conference, ISSN 2077-9119.

McElvaney, J & Berge, Z 2009, ‘Weaving a Personal Web: Using online technologies to create customised, connected and dynamic learning environments‘, Canadian Journal of Learning and Technology, 35(2).

Educause 2009, ‘7 Things you should know about Personal Learning Environments‘.

10 Must Reads for PLNs

A recently new follower on Twitter who is keen to learn more about PLNs contacted me last week, after being referred by another in my PLN who knew about my current research in PLNs and Connectivism. The final paper for the New Librarians’ Symposium has been submitted, so there’s no better time to compile and share resources and key authors resulting from my literature review.

While my research focused on the use of PLNs by library and information science professionals, a key finding from the literature was a concentration on the use of PLNs in an educational context. Discussion tended to centre on the evolving use and purpose of learning management systems. Other themes included attempts to distinguish between personal learning networks (PLNs) and personal learning environments (PLEs); prescribing tools to start a PLN, and tips on how to “join the conversation” and grow a PLN.


Supporting concepts of PLNs are: -

  • Connectivism
  • Network Theory
  • Personal Learning Environments (PLE)

Check out other articles, posts and presentations by these authors: -

  • Alec Couros
  • David Warlick
  • Howard Rheingold
  • George Siemens
  • Stephen Downes

And these Slideshows

Other tips and resources for learning more about PLNs (and connecting to others) include: -

  • Follow the #pln hashtag on Twitter
  • Set up a Diigo account and look for bookmarks for PLN resources

Principles of Connectivism and the PLN

Amidst attempting to work up some “headspace” momentum for writing my NLS5 paper, I thought I’d write my fortnightly post for the project….

During my literature review for the paper, I drew yet another link between the theory of Connectivism and the PLN concept. The “Principles of Connectivism” by George Siemens can be applied to the PLN context, in order to understand the purpose, characteristics and success factors of building and participating in a PLN. The eight principles (as stated in “Connectivism: a Learning theory for the Digital Age”) are: -

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialised nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
  • Decision making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, does not mean it will be right tomorrow, due to the constant shifting in the information climate.

For a PLN to be successful – to thrive and for its collective knowledge to evolve – there needs to be a diverse set of people connected to the network. In the LIS community, this would involve cracking the echo chamber and include people who may not work in a traditional library per se, but who work in different sectors, information environments, and also those who work in varying degrees of information professional roles such as information/enterprise architects, educators, information technology and business management. What I would recommend to those contemplating establishing a PLN, new information professionals like me, is that it’s ok to select people outside of ‘library world’ to follow, to support learning goals and interests. Diversity strengthens a network’s ability to create meaningful connections between information resources and ideas by bringing together varying opinions and understanding. The key is have an open mind.

In the current “digital age”, it is becoming increasingly important to develop the ability to know where to find information, rather than know the information itself. This is due to the ever-changing and evolving information climate, in that connections are being formed every day, every minute. I believe this is where librarians and information professionals are ahead, we are already “connectivist” minded. Librarians and information professionals’ skills, are indeed, more valuable than ever in the current information landscape. It is then inherently clear that the need to continually fine tune information skills, strengthening our “connectivist” ability, is a key driver to establish and participate in a PLN.

PLN Participation Update

# of Tweets for fortnight     94

# of Followers gained     5

# of Mentions     71

# of People I started following     10

Total # of Blogs/Feeds     54 (down 2 from last fortnight)

Top 5 Blogs/Feeds I’ve found to be good reads recently

  1. Librarian by Day
  2. iLibrarian
  3. Alexandra Samuel
  4. Annoyed Librarian
  5. David Lee King