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Plan for a PLN: How to Leverage Personal Learning Networks

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Personal Learning Network, or PLN, is a term I first learned on Twitter in 2010. It is essentially a network of people from whom you can learn. Whether you're looking to learn about a subject area, teaching academic courses, or providing employee training, a PLN is a valuable tool. For the purposes of this post, I'm focusing on online PLNs, but they can extend into the physical world.

Online PLNs are organic, on-demand solutions to learning. They are resource-rich environments that are both customizable and sustainable. And they don't have to cost a thing.

An online PLN is not just a list of people to follow, though. It requires participation. It is a networking experience.

How I Used a PLN to Advance My Career

As a new professor, I was learning to teach while having to teach. There wasn't a lot of structured learning for new faculty. I needed a place to bounce ideas and gather resources, not just for me, but for the success of my students.

Twitter became my best learning tool.

Initially, I joined Twitter to promote my blog, comPOSITION. I wanted to connect with other folks interested in Rhet/Comp to build my readership, but I got a lot more than I bargained for.

The people I connected with on Twitter shared teaching tips, research, and guidance. I was able to crowdsource the career training I craved, but just wasn't getting. I was able to connect with people from all over the world. I was even able to talk individuals whose work I admired, people that were major players in my field. And it was all born from genuine conversation and desire to connect. I asked questions, and I got real answers from real people.

Here's a snapshot of my day to day interactions:

Great content and great questions for someone working in instructional design and/or education. By engaging with these tweets, I could potentially grow my network, as well.

I also became a PLN leader when I co-founded #FYCchat (first year composition chat), a weekly hashtag-based grassroot group of first year writing enthusiasts. We met each week to discuss different predetermined topics in the field. Through this PLN, I was able to connect over 400 people, create a growing list of FYC/FYW resources, and build confidence in my own pedagogy.

In the end, my years of using Twitter and my work with #FYCchat empowered me to develop a professional identity and clarify my approach to teaching, learning, and management. It led to research opportunities and international conference presentations with people from my Twitter-based PLN. I also made a few friends along the way.

How to Create a PLN

There are many wonderful ways to make online PLNs work for you. Use these four strategies to structure a PLN that works for you.

Start small. Just 240 characters small. If you're totally new to this sort of networking, I highly suggest starting with Twitter. Twitter makes content easy to filter, easy to track, and easy to find people interested in the same things. In my experience, it produces some of the highest quality interactions, despite the brief space of a tweet.

Why don't I advocate Facebook of LinkedIn as the top PLN product? Facebook makes it difficult to successfully filter content. Communities can be fantastic, but it's not always easy to find a quality community for an area of interest. LinkedIn has tons of quality content, but it's not easy to keep a record of resources, and many users are primarily interested in marketing rather than learning.

UPDATE (10/25/21): In the years since I wrote this blog post, the landscape of social media changed quite a bit. Twitter has become, in my opinion, a bit hostile, though it can still be a great tool for pulling up quality resources quickly. If I had to pick a place to start now, though, I would actually advocate for starting with LinkedIn. Now that LinkedIn has advanced its search features and use of categories and groups, it's much easier to find people with common interests.

Pick your pals. Your goal at the beginning of the PLN process is to find folks you can learn from and learn with. Start by searching for keywords in the area of interest and job titles in the field. As you find people you think are good fits, browse their following and followers lists for other interesting individuals.

When you start a PLN, you're going to want to include major players in the field, and you should. They're great resources, but people with huge followings may be overwhelmed with interactions and unable to respond. Find colleagues in the field, some with more experience than you and some with less.

Create lists. This one is Twitter specific. Twitter allows you to pool users into lists, and you absolutely should take advantage of this. It helps you narrow the thousands of tweets on your feed into focused knowledge pools. You can organize by topic of interest, by job title, by frequency of tweeting, by region-- whatever speaks to you.

The Facebook and LinkedIn versions of "lists" are communities. You won't have the power to filter members, but it will focus the content offered.

Give and take. Like I said earlier, if you want your PLN to be valuable, need to give, not just take. Successful networking is a symbiotic exchange. Offer your insights. Answer your colleagues' questions when you have insight to offer. If you're not motivated by altruism, keep in mind that these contributions can lead to insightful feedback and opportunities. The more you get involved, the more you'll learn.


Want a great place to start build a PLN? Check out the Freelance Instructional Designers, eLearning Developers, & LXDs community on Facebook.

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1 Comment

Nov 12, 2021

Thank you for this insight and for updating the original post to accommodate the changes in the social media landscape. I am not a huge fan of social media, but you offer an excellent reason and strategies for maximizing it as a tool to build knowledge and potentially generate interest in ID services. I have a Linked In account, how should I modify the existing page to refocus it to create an effective PLN?

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