Personal Learning Networks & Environments – Same thing?

A few weeks ago I sent out a tweet to my personal learning network –

“PLN & PLE – Same thing? Or different? What do you believe to be definitions for these terms? Any opinions or thoughts?”

The reason for this is because during my literature review for my NLS5 paper I found that these two terms – Personal Learning Environment and Personal Learning Network – were used interchangeably by some and as separate concepts by others. I happen to agree with the latter, however I was curious of how other members of my PLN defined these terms with respect to their learning experiences and participation in their own PLNs. One member of my PLN responded to my question with a blog post, for which I’m very appreciative.

The discrepancies I’ve found in the literature tend to stem from the context in which the terms are used. That being said, I think its still important to note the differences between the two concepts, especially for a new information professional (or anyone), wishing to establish, develop and maintain a personal learning network and environment, to sustain a self-directed and collaborative, lifelong learning approach  to professional development. Understanding each concept individually can be the key to formulating the strategies and plans required to gain maximum value from personal learning activities.

Personal learning networks (PLN) are a subset within one’s personal learning environment (PLE). How? In my opinion, a PLN is the “people” component to a learning environment. PLNs are the social aspect; the “human connections”; “the entire collection of people with whom you engage and exchange information” (Klingensmith, 2009). A PLE is just that, an environment which encompasses your choice of tools, resources and artefacts, used to assist your continual learning.

Community vs Individual Learning – a PLE is constructed usually with the individual in mind to which the environment is designed for (there are goals, objectives and learning outcomes an individual seeks to achieve); with a PLN, participation is about give and take; contributing to the community of learners and adding value to the network by sharing reflections, perspectives, new ideas and new representations of and/or connections with existing knowledge. Active participation in a PLN is a step beyond passively receiving and reading new content and resources, but I believe you can only benefit your own professional development if you do so. (Part of me can’t believe I’m actually stating this considering my humble and nervous beginnings not even 12 months ago) Go on, take a small leap and post a thoughtful comment on a blog post – you’ll benefit from the reflective practice and your PLN will benefit from your value-adding contribution.

Interactions – in a PLE, interactions are personal, even internal to the individual, and are with the content that is collected, stored, processed or thought-through. A PLN involves interacting with people, connections with others and the collective knowledge base within the network.

New Ideas/Connections – a PLN is like a hub of engagement with and where the exchange and production of new connections and ideas take place. I guess this will depend what “engagement” means to you as an individual. To me, to gain the most out of engaging with content and resources (probably most of which will come from your PLN or PLE), you need to reflect and challenge pre-existing ideas and/or opinions, at the very least. Externalising thoughts on content would take the form of commenting on a blog post, responding to a tweet on Twitter and/or re-tweeting a resource URL with an opinion or comment.

Tools (blogs, Twitter, aggregators, etc) – okay, so there’s plenty of resources out there advising the most common and best tools to establish a PLE. But this is the area where I’ve uncovered most of the confusion amongst what I’ve read on PLEs and PLNs. Tools, just setting them up, does not equal a PLN. Tools are facilitators of PLNs. Tools used to communicate and collaborate with your PLN, such as Twitter, make up part of the wider collection of resources, that is a PLE.

Now here’s a thought to ponder – What develops first? The PLE or the PLN? Alec Couros (2010) views the PLN as being “the sum of all social capital and connections that result in the development and facilitation of a personal learning environment”. I tend to view this in two ways and both don’t exactly answer the question. On one hand, I think the PLE, the tools set up and being used, results in establishing connections with others in an online environment. But what about the people, your “in real life” PLN who help you set up a PLE?

PLN Participation Update

# of Tweets for fortnight     70

# of Followers gained     3

# of Mentions     35

# of People I started following     3

Total # of Blogs/Feeds     56 (down 7 from last fortnight)

Top 5 Blogs/Feeds I’m reading at the moment

  1. iLibrarian
  2. ALIA – LIS jobs
  3. Alexandra Samuel
  4. eLearnspace
  5. Librarian by Day
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