How to effectively build and leverage a personal learning network (PLN)

Mirjam Neelen & Paul A. Kirschner

This blog was inspired by a workshop on personal learning networks (PLNs), led by Helen Blunden, and attended by Mirjam in Ghent, Belgium at Learning Tech Day.

Intuitively, the usefulness of building and leveraging a PLN to continuously learn to improve your work makes a lot of sense (at least, it does to us). But what does the research say? And how do you effectively build and use a PLN?

We start by exploring what a PLN is and why it’s important in today’s work world. Then, we discuss how you can effectively build and leverage your own PLN (and as a bonus, you can use these pointers to support others to do the same!).

What’s a PLN and why is it important in today’s work world?

We define a PLN as a trusted network of current and former colleagues or other people that are valuable to you as a professional or in other areas of your life. Rajagopal, Verjans, and Sloep (2012) refer to it as “the network of people a self-directed learner connects with for the specific purpose of supporting their learning” (p 1). The value of a PLN lies in the fact that the people in it provide access to the knowledge and expertise necessary for you to better perform your role (Milligan, Littlejohn, & Margaryan, 2014). According to them, many organisations now recognise the need for new organisational structures and workplace practices that support continuous learning to maximise innovation. To put it simply, these structures and practices, one of which could be a PLN, are critical for the organisation to survive in a competitive world as well as for individuals to help the organisation to survive so that they can keep their jobs. Another reason why a PLN is important is because work – and especially knowledge work – has become increasingly cross-disciplinary, which means that people with different skills work together to solve novel problems. In this context ‘training’ people doesn’t necessarily always make sense but effectively planning and structuring your own learning and then interacting with others to learn does.

Of course, there can be other reasons. You might use one to share common interests or practices, exchange ideas, and/or receive and provide support to others (Sie et al., 2013). For this blog, we mainly focus on the former (the professional) and not on the latter (the hobbyist).

Rory Sie and his colleagues (2013) explain that there are two approaches to PLNs, namely top-down and bottom-up. From a top-down perspective, a PLN can be part of a collaborative learning solution consisting of a networking environment for learners and recommending knowledgeable peers to them. The idea is that this way, learners will become more motivated or less isolated in their learning efforts.

A bottom-up approach – and this is the approach Helen Blunden focused on in her workshop and what we focus on in this blog – is where individuals tailor their learning networks to their own perceived needs. But what does this mean? Why would individuals engage in learning through networks and what do they need (to do) to be able to build and leverage that network effectively?

How to build and leverage a PLN effectively

According to Sie and colleagues (2013) individuals engage in learning through networks because they share common interests or practices, are keen to exchange ideas, and want to receive and provide support. In her workshop, Blunden explained the process she goes through when building and leveraging her PLN.

Helen Process

Let’s see what the research has to say about this. It all starts with determining your need.

1.        Determine your needs

This is where self-directed learning (SDL) and self-regulated learning (SRL) skills come in (we’ve blogged about SDL and SRL before (here , here and here).

Milligan and colleagues (2014) carried out an in-depth exploration of what the learning behaviours of knowledge workers in both technical and non-technical work environments in a PLN look like. Based on their research, they’ve identified four key learning behaviours when knowledge workers learn in informal networks which they call ‘the 4 C’s, namely

Consume

Create

Connect

Contribute

They mapped these behaviours to Zimmerman’s SRL phases (see image).

Zimmerman_Forethought

For the forethought phase (highlighted in the image) Milligan and colleagues described which specific learning activity goes with each ‘C’.

Table

Of course, the next and very critical step is to find the right people; people who can help you achieve your goals. As Blunden worded it in her process: “Where are the people you need to connect with hanging out?”

2.    Find the right people for your need

Rajapogal & co investigated what to consider when making PLN connections. They say that you should find people who:

  1. can give you different perspectives
  2. have values that you appreciate
  3. are passionate about what you need
  4. inspire you
  5. you can trust (of course this takes time to figure out!)
  6. are innovative (or, give you fresh perspectives to look at the things that matter to you)
  7. are experts on the topics that are relevant to you
  8. provide you with disruptive thoughts, ideas, and opinions
  9. give you a reality check for your thoughts, ideas, and opinions
  10. do things differently

As Blunden mentions, reciprocity (in this case, it’s about mutual benefit) is critical in a PLN; thus, you not only profit from others, but others also profit from you. One important construct here is socially shared regulation of learning. Socially shared regulation “occurs when groups regulate together as a collective, such as when they construct shared task perceptions or shared goals” (Panadero & Järvelä, 2015, p 4). In the context of a PLN, the group shares its own regulation (i.e., there’s no leader), its beliefs, and its knowledge (e.g., strategies, monitoring, evaluation, goal setting, motivation, metacognitive decision making).

Important here is that groups (or communities) jointly regulate their shared activity. For you, as an individual, this means that you need to be aware of what others in your PLN are trying to accomplish so that you can support them as much as you would like them to support you. Thinking about what you can contribute to your network is, thus, as important as considering how your PLN can help you!

Another skill that’s critical when building and leveraging a PLN is networking (e.g., Rajapogal et al., 2012). Let’s explore this a bit more.

3.    Networking

SDL, SRL, as well as socially shared regulation skills also come into play when it comes to networking. After all, you need to approach this type of networking in a conscious, purposeful manner. We’re not trying to say that people won’t learn if they don’t do it consciously. We all learn incidentally and/or accidentally. However, for individuals to recognise their own learning, the ‘conscious’ part is critical. How else can you drive your own learning and adjust your efforts to be as effective as possible? In practice, this means that you need to purposefully engage in conversations and communicate ideas, thoughts, and opinions.

Last but not least, harnessing technologies to create, grow, and manage your PLN is also super important!

4.    Leveraging Technologies

According to Warlick (2009), technologies are indispensable in a PLN as they help tap into communities of interest to find information sources, answers and solutions, potential collaboration opportunities, and so forth. Technologies make it easier to capture and manage the inevitable information overload. Milligan c.s. also recognise that PLNs are increasingly mediated through tools such as blogs and Twitter. They mapped digital tool types to each ‘C’ (Remember? Consume, Create, Connect, Contribute).

We’ve created the table below based on their work and in addition we’ve mapped the top 10 of workplace learning tools 2017 to the 4 C’s (this top 10 is a subset of the top 100; collected each year by Jane Hart from C4LPT). This way, you can see which tools are appropriate, depending on what you’re trying to accomplish.

SRL process The 4 C’s (Milligan et al., 2014)
Consume Create Connect Contribute
Performance Discover new knowledge to help achieve learning goals Create new knowledge or augment existing knowledge Engage with others to achieve learning goals, through collecting and connecting knowledge and developing new knowledge structures Make new knowledge and new knowledge structures public, through formal and informal mechanisms
Tools from Toptools4learning YouTube, LinkedIn,  Google Search, Wikipedia PowerPoint Twitter,  Facebook Google docs, Drive, Word, LinkedIn, WordPress
Self-Reflection Seek evidence to validate learning strategy Write personal reflection notes Find others with similar experiences to establish/confirm causality Public self-reflection through blogging or similar mechanisms
Tools from Toptools4learning Word, Google Docs Twitter,   LinkedIn Google docs, Drive, Word, LinkedIn, WordPress
Generic tools (Milligan et al. Search engines, RSS readers, social bookmarking Personal note taking tools (e.g., Evernote) Microblogging (e.g., Twitter), social bookmarking (e.g., Diigo), communication tools (e.g., email, Skype, Zoom) Collaborative platforms, e.g., blogs, wikis, Word

Overall, the precise set of tools used depends on individual needs and preferences but what is important for you is that:

to effectively leverage your PLN, the full range of learning behaviours needs to be supported to learn effectively through your PLN.

Although we’ve only mapped Milligan et al’s top 10 tools, their observation that some behaviours, in particular goal-setting, are poorly supported by existing tools holds ground. We’ve scanned the full top 100 and most fall into the Perform and Self-Reflection phases. This means that we may need a more complete set of tools when we are to build and leverage PLNs. Every good artisan needs good tools!

As Nussbaum-Beach (2012) states: “Creating a productive PLN takes time, effort, and perseverance (p 27)”. We invite you to reflect on the need for yourself to build and leverage one and the skills and tools you need to do it effectively. Start to improve your own PLN practice and next support others to do the same.

And if you have good ideas, add them as comments to this blog so that we may form a good PLN!

References

Fetter, S., Berlanga, A. J., & Sloep, P. (2010). Fostering social capital in a learning network: laying the groundwork for a peer-support service. International Journal of Learning Technology, 5, 388-400. Retrieved from http://dspace.ou.nl/bitstream/1820/2024/6/Sibren%20Fetter%20ijlt2010%20Theoretical%20paper.pdf

Milligan, C., Littlejohn, A., & Margaryan, A. (2014). Workplace learning in informal networks. Journal of Interactive Media in Education, 1(6). Retrieved from http://oro.open.ac.uk/42257/1/325-2585-1-PB.pdf

Nussbaum-Beach, S. (2012). Just the facts: Personal learning networks. Educational Horizons, 91(2), 26-27.

Panadero, E., & Järvelä, S. (2015). Socially shared regulation of learning: A review. European Psychologist. Retrieved from https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Ernesto_Panadero/publication/268388822_Socially_Shared_Regulation_of_Learning_A_Review/links/54cd2aee0cf298d6565cda13/Socially-Shared-Regulation-of-Learning-A-Review.pdf

Rajagopal, K., Verjans, S., Costa, C., & Sloep, P. B. (2012). People in Personal Learning Networks: Analysing their Characteristics and Identifying Suitable Tools. In V. Hodgson, C. Jones, M. de Laat, D. McConnell, T. Ryberg, & P. Sloep (Eds.), Proceedings of the Eighth International Conference on Networked Learning 2012 (pp. 252-259). April, 2-4, 2012, Maastricht, The Netherlands. Retrieved from https://dspace.ou.nl/bitstream/1820/4224/3/NLC2012_0054_paper_final.pdf

Sie, R. L.L., Pataraia, N., Boursinou, E., Rajagopal, K., Margaryan, A., Falconer, I., Bitter-Rijpkema, M., Littlejohn, A. & Sloep, P. B.

(2013). Goals, motivation for, and outcomes of personal learning through networks: Results of a tweetstorm. Educational Technology

and Society, 16 (3), 59-75. Retrieved from http://ro.uow.edu.au/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1685&context=asdpapers

Warlick, D. (2009). Grow your personal learning network: New technologies can keep you connected and help you manage information overload. Learning & Leading with Technology, 36(6), 12-16. Retrieved from https://files.eric.ed.gov/fulltext/EJ831435.pdf

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6 thoughts on “How to effectively build and leverage a personal learning network (PLN)

  1. Will Thalheimer says:

    The process put forward hinges on a person having accurate knowledge of their learning needs. It’s in the very first box! This seems like a HUGE and TROUBLING assumption. Isn’t there ample evidence that people are overly optimistic about their own abilities, have blind spots when assessing their limitations, are captive to their own intuitive heuristic processing, and generally suffer from a large number of cognitive deficiencies despite being competent in many other ways?

    Other people can help in this regard of course, pushing us to see our blind spots, helping us to diagnose our strengths and weaknesses, and pushing us from automatic intuitive responding to more deliberative processing, but where is this in the recommendations?

    An even bigger problem is inherent here. There seems to be an assumption that learning and performance are solely or primarily conscious intentional activities. We are urged to see what learning we need and then use our network to get it. Ha! To help oneself learn, we should learn how to put ourselves into situations that prompt us to learn and trigger us to think in new ways.

    Much more work is needed it seems… Of course, I haven’t made PLN’s part of my learning goals, so I’m sure I’m missing many things…

    • 3starlearningexperiences says:

      Hi Will, good points (as usual, so annoying! :)). About the ‘blind spots’, I think it’s implicitly there (choosing people w different perspectives, people who can disrupt your thinking etc) but you can’t control it all. I feel it’s a higher level challenge that needs to be addressed (in the way that people need to learn that they usually ARE overconfident etc) but that’s not something you can (or want to) control in a PLN itself. Re your second point, aren’t we explicitly saying that learning is NOT always intentional? I agree that we should learn how to put ourselves in situations that prompt us to learn but that is not part of this topic, right? A PLN can support you in your efforts (and you can help others with theirs) but it’s only one element.

  2. Activate Learning Solutions says:

    Hello Mirjam, thank you so much for the time you invested in pulling together the various resources in PLNs.

    There has been much written in this area around self-directed learning but also in the social learning/community space. In my experience, building a PLN has been an instrumental and critical opportunity to tap me into the various knowledge that exists in networks outside my sphere.

    It’s a constant source of ideas, innovations and insights that otherwise would have remain hidden for me. As an example, it taps me directly to the people in the know in the space because participating and contributing in the network has built trust in them of me and vice versa.

    As a result, it’s put me into access with people and opportunities that would NEVER have come my way (such as making a film that was screened on cinema; collaborating on various book projects; meeting people who are leaders in their field; behind invited to meetings in companies that you would otherwise not have known about). All these things and more would never have been possible without nurturing, supporting, contributing in PLNs. It’s very much related to the act of reciprocity and comes from a genuine feeling of mutual respect for the knowledge that we all have to offer.

    PLNs have stretched my comfort zone, they’ve allowed me to listen, contribute and express different ideas and see other viewpoints and make my own judgements. It’s a mind-broadening experience – and most of all, it’s built me a network of people around the world who I know, like and trust.

    Thank you once again for writing this post.

    • 3starlearningexperiences says:

      Hi Helen, thank you for your comment. I get your point re SDL versus social learning/community space. This blog was written mostly from the first perspective but the social learning & community perspective is as important. And to be honest, I think they go hand in hand (my guess is, that network comes first and community next as building a community takes even more time than building a network?

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