How to Create a Robust and Meaningful Personal Learning Network [PLN]

This post describes how educators can develop a personal learning network that supports meaningful and relevant learning. The MOOC, Education Technology & Media, etmooc, is used here as a working example of how to develop a PLN.

My Personal Learning Network is the key to keeping me up-to-date with all the changes that are happening in education and how technology can best support and engage today’s students.” Brian Metcalfe: teacher, blogger at


A visual image of participants in an open, online course- etmooc, which shows the potential to find and create personal connections as part of one’s PLN.  (image credit: Alec Couros)

I wrote a post recently about how to develop a personal learning environment [PLE], the need and benefits of doing so,  for educators in particular. A PLE is a self-directed learning space; a virtual  framework that consists of tools to collect, curate and construct knowledge that is customized to an individual’s learning goals and interests.

  What is a PLN?
Another dimension of the PLE is the personal learning network [PLN]. Though the two are often used interchangeably there is a difference. A PLN is an aspect of PLEs, where the individual has a group of people within his or her virtual professional network, and the relationship with each is based upon a common interest, collaborative project or research. Communication and connections are made via social platforms or other Web applications, with the primary intent of sharing or gathering information. Both the PLE and PLN are based on the theory of connectivism, a learning theory conceptualized by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The premise of connectivism is that the learner connects with nodes [connection points that deliver content or facilitate interaction] within a network, and subsequently develops knowledge through this series of connections.

Twitter 6x6

Twitter 6×6 (Photo credit: Steve Woolf)

PLN versus PLE
The personal learning network can be a rich source of learning that fosters connections that become part of our professional development as the quotation at the beginning of the post from Metcalfe describes. Yet building a PLN takes time, energy and purposeful actions, which is why I find it helpful to delineate the two concepts. A PLE can be created independently, building and collecting content sources from the Web, including creating content through blogs, podcasts, Slideshares, etc. A natural extension of one’s PLE is the development of relationships with individuals that emerge from the process of building the PLE, which is how the PLN develops. When connections from a PLN are engaged, knowledge creation becomes interdependent.

Example of a PLN
I will use my own PLE building experience to illustrate the process of developing a PLN, which I have developed  through a variety of vehicles: this blog, Twitter, Pearltrees, Goodreads, and by participating in various MOOCs. This process has allowed me to establish personal connections with numerous knowledgeable and interesting individuals. I developed the majority of these friends through comments on blogs [mine and theirs], Twitter and email. That is the beauty of a PLN, it is dynamic—expanding and contracting as time and energy allows.

Logo for etmooc from

Logo for etmooc from

How to use a cMOOC develop your PLN
The nature of cMOOC is to learn, to connect, to share and create knowledge, which makes MOOCs an ideal venue to build a PLN. Though the level of participation and involvement is up to the learner, if one does not want to, or is unable to build personal connections due to time constraints, that is acceptable and appropriate, there are no rules to cMOOCs. However if building a PLN is a goal, the onus is on the individual to reach out to make connections and develop learning relationships.

In the etmooc we are primarily using Google+ Community , Blackboard Collaborate and Twitter to interact. Blogs are the primary tools that make learning visible, where participants write about and share their experiences about what they are learning.  I’ve listed several strategies that might be helpful to readers who want to develop their own PLN within a cMOOC:

  • Participate in the introductions by creating a personal introduction and by reading others. In a large MOOC it’s impossible, and unnecessary to read all.
  • Engage with participants through introductions by commenting on fellow participant introductions, two or three is ideal.
  • [Try to] Participate in at least one of the events planned for a given week, i.e. webinar, Twitter chat, or Blackboard session. It is through these interactions that you are likely to find someone with a common interest. All the MOOCs I’ve been part of, have a community of organizers that provide support and resources in all aspects of participation, for example how to participate in a Twitter chat, how to use Twitter or set-up a blog etc. etmooc is a good example of such support.
  • Participate daily (if possible), by reading blog posts, daily updates, following/participating in Twitter conversations.
  • Contribute and share by commenting on others’ posts and engaging in conversation. I have found it is through conversation within a blog’s comment functions that I first established my PLN connections. I aim to be supportive of readers that do take the time to comment by responding to their comments and reading their personal blogs.
  • Look for opportunities to join and participate in sub-groups that often form within a MOOC. As we see from the web diagram of the etmooc, there are hundreds of participants—it is through the more intimate groups that spontaneously develop where  more meaningful and deep connections are made.

Closing Thoughts
Developing a PLN does require a commitment of time and energy, but the rewards are abundant. Not only does interacting within a virtual space satisfy the need for social interaction and connection, it also can be the method of professional development, personal satisfaction, relevance, adaptability, and most importantly—may allow us the opportunity to make a difference.


65 thoughts on “How to Create a Robust and Meaningful Personal Learning Network [PLN]

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  36. KS

    Thanks. Very informative. PLNs would need an ecosystem where Learners can engage with teachers, Mentors without issues related to Privacy and organizational Hierarchy. Sure students can pursue social/informal learning; but if we need to enable an Personal Learning Environment where all the stakeholders participate, then there is a definite need for Availability and hence Engagement. There is a Start-up working on Personal Learning Networks: Visit and have a look. KS


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Thanks for your comment. An interesting product , thanks for sharing. Though this is a grey area, as the PLE and PLN need to be student driven, where they are in control, which means other stakeholders, teachers, parents etc. are on the side, viewing the environment the student creates, but not controlling it. Debbie


      1. halinakasia

        I have been trying to learn how to develop a personal learning network for some time.
        Thank you very much for a thought-provoking reading material. Developing a PLN is extremely time -consuming as well as a challenge for me.
        I am looking forward for reading your next article.


        1. Debbie Morrison Post author

          Hi Halina,
          So nice to hear from you again! I agree with you, creating a personal learning network takes time and patience! What I find helpful is selecting a few people you would like to network with, ones with similar interests. Start with those people, then work out from there. It involves reaching to them to engage in discussion, sharing resources etc. Take care Halina! 🙂 Debbie


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  41. Brian Metcalfe

    Thanks Debbie for choosing to quote how important my PLN is to me. My compliments to your well thought out and wisely crafted post. In particular, newbies to MOOCs will find your “survival strategies” useful in helping them manage all the information being shared.

    I have some questions regarding your differentiation between a PLE and PLN. Must newbies establish a PLE, that overtime develops into a PLN? In other words … Is a PLE a necessary component tha tmust be explored before a PLN can be developed? For example, the vast majority of individuals that I consider as part of my PLN are educators that I know personally and have met on a face-to-face basis. Now, like you, I find Vicki Davis (@CoolCatTeacher) to be an amazing blogger & Twitter resource. If you, like me, have never met her, do you consider Vicki as part of your PLE or does her “value” or “influence” rating gain her a PLN standing in your mind? Perhaps, I playing with semantics and have probably used the term PLN to be rather inclusive but I like your idea of a PLE as a starting point to getting connected.

    I’d appreciate your thoughts.

    Take care & keep smiling 🙂 Brian


    1. Penny Bentley

      Hi Brian, with the help of Debbie’s fabulous blog I think I’ve been able to get my head around the PLN/PLE concept. (pls Debbie, wipe this reply off the face of the planet if I’m wrong)
      Using my website as example, I’d like to show you around.
      I created my blog in April 2010, the first “task” of a 12 week online course I signed up for, the #vicpln program. At that stage I had no virtual PLN buddies and the extent of my PLN was the staff at the school I worked in at the time. The people you work with, chat to, seek advice from (like the people you know, Vicki Davis) are your PLN…the people you trust, learn from and share with. Your PLE, on the other hand, are your digital platforms and tools that enable you to work and communicate online. Re my website, it’s like my “hub” of activity on the web. I blog there using, have linked my twitter stream, facebook groups, Mozilla BackPack, Flickr images, #oldsmooc project, LinkedIn profile and Creative Commons it. I’m still creating it…bringing back to my “hub” all of my digital work. It’s my portfolio, digital me, digital footprint etc. I felt scattered about, I no longer feel that way. Many people prefer to have a digital portfolio separate to their blog, in other places, like Mahara, I prefer autonomy of, and take responsibility for, my online life. If I had my time again as a classroom teacher, I would like to start this process from day 1. I know that was long winded but hope it helps.


      1. Penny Bentley

        Me again 🙂 I forgot to mention that I’m using my website as evidence of ongoing professional development for Teacher registration. Debbie, I’ve been reading about Personal Knowledge Management lately, PKM…maybe a post for another time?


        1. Debbie Morrison Post author

          HI Penny, Your website is excellent. It is a great example of a portfolio of learning, yet because it is shared in this format others are able to learn. Yes I agree is another area to explore which builds on PLE and PLNs. Harold Jarche writes extensively about this, and I think offers workshops. For sure another post :). Thanks Penny! Debbie


    2. Debbie Morrison Post author

      HI Brian, Thanks for your comment! I was inspired by your post on PLNs and felt it was most fitting in describing how PLNs are critical to educators’ development. You bring up some very good questions here; Penny has done an excellent job in describing how the PLE is a framework of digital tools that are sources of learning and information. Her blog, is also an example of a PLE, one that is ‘hub’ of her content sources for learning and development. I’ll build here on what Penny has shared.

      I’ll tackle your question, Is a PLE a necessary component that must be explored before a PLN can be developed here. A personal learning network in the context of a personal learning environment (PLE) are contacts and connections that are made virtually, through exploring and learning through digital platforms such as blogging, participating in MOOCs etc. Face-to-face contacts are of course part of a personal learning network, but it is within the context of a face-to-face network. You are right we are talking semantics here to some extent, face-to-face contacts are PLNs in this setting.

      Another layer of personal learning contacts are created through digital platforms. One can build a very diverse and rich groups of contacts through blogging, commenting (as we are doing here) and participating in MOOCs etc. To manage our learning on the web, a foundation or framework is needed, (PLE) to organize and make sense of the content and sources of information that we consider valuable. I may visit many blogs, websites that I used for content sources for example, Coolcatteacher – and this would be considered part of my PLE, a place where I gather information from to learn. I gather many of these sources in my Pearltrees application However, my PLN consists of people that I interact with, that I have a relationship with. These are people I meet through blogging (comments) and/or MOOCs. These are people that I can email with a question, will purposefully read their blogs and comment on them, will follow on Twitter, and exchange ideas with. We can use Penny here as an example. She is contributing information to this exchange, is providing information, building on what I have written and contributing to a learning conversation.

      I hope I’ve explained it well here and not made it more confusing! This is a great conversation Brian. Thank you for taking the time to comment and ask questions. This is exactly how we build our ‘virtual’ PLN. 🙂 Debbie


      1. Brian Metcalfe

        Thanks Debbie (and Penny) for sharing your combined efforts to help me better differentiate between a PLE and a PLN. Although I have just begun to explore Google Plus (based on joining this wonderful #ETMOOC community), I am wondering if you feel that the following analogy fits:

        I perceive my PLE to be much like the #ETMOOC individuals that I FOLLOW. I visit and investigate the blogs of those I follow and glean ideas and resources from their blogs and from comments & interaction with these parties.

        However my Google Plus FRIENDS are more like my PLN. These individuals, some of whom I have met face-to-face, are ready to dialogue with me and support me. I might feel that I could more easily discuss my fears & foibles with these FRIENDS because they are part of a very supportive PLN.

        Perhaps I’m trying to simplify these concepts. Regardless, I appreciate educators like you and Penny taking the time to help educate me in my learning journey.

        Take care & keep smiling 🙂 Brian


        1. Debbie Morrison Post author

          Hi Brian, So nice to hear from you! I am so glad things are falling into place. The nice thing is, there really are no ‘rules’ to a PLE, and what makes sense to you, the framework that provides you with learning and development is what the goal is. What works for me, or for Penny is an individual as we are.

          I came across this post today, which you may find interesting. I am working on a post about PLE for students, the overlap between a PLE and a Digital Portfolio. I’m trying to make sense of it, and get my head around it. A challenge for sure. Take care and keep learning :). Debbie


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  44. Robert Connolly

    Thanks very much for both of your posts on this subject. A real takeaway I have gotten is the need to structure and engage my PLE and network as an essential part of my daily existence. That is my network of MOOCs, blogs, et al become a central component and not a tangential activity to do late at night or on weekends. As someone working in the more “traditional” ends of higher ed, this understanding is quite a revelation. I am interested in personally thinking about how I have undergone this transition in the past couple of years and how the measurable output in my career at the end of the day is enhanced by my engagement in what I will now refer to as my PLN.

    Thanks so much.


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  46. catherinecronin

    Great post, Debbie. I’m fresh out of tonight’s #etmooc webinar on Connected Learning and Alec’s description of PLE & PLN was similar to yours — and to my understanding as well. I’m most interested in modeling and making visible these learning processes for my students, so that they can create PLEs and PLNs themselves. I tell them that it’s great to leave university with a good degree, great friends, and happy memories, but that’s not enough anymore. Ideally, they should aim to leave with a PLE and a growing PLN, so that they can continue learning, literally from the day they leave!

    As for organising, archiving and sharing work, I’ve just started blogging my about #etmooc and I’ll be participating in #edcmooc as well. I created a new category in my blog called “My open learning” for all my mooc-y musings 🙂
    Storify is great, but I’ve found it best when applied soon after an event, when tweets are easy to find. Twitter will be making archives of tweets available to every user soon, so maybe searching this will be an easy way to “grab” mooc-specific tweets after the fact. Good luck with your curation, anyway — and thanks for your always-useful blog posts 🙂


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      Hi Catherine, So nice to hear from you and thanks for taking the time to comment! I agree – university graduates need more than a degree and memories – they need a digital footprint that goes beyond their own digital profile on social media platforms. A shortcoming of education here in the United States is teaching and modeling for students what this should look like. What is a PLE and how does one develop it? How can these students maintain their contacts (friends) from school and incorporate them into a PLN that supports life-long learning? These are issues and questions that I hope we can address for our students, and support them with solid instruction going forward. 🙂

      Thanks for sharing your plans for sharing your MOOC musings through ‘my open learning’ section on your blog. That is a terrific idea! That’s an excellent tip on the Storify application – there are so many tools, and it takes so much time to review and analyze each for its effectiveness. Debbie 🙂


  47. wiltwhatman


    thanks for the clear and helpful account of PLE, PLN and strategies creating them. I think this is my plan for this week, to create and develop my own PLN, and your post has really helped kick that process off.


  48. Penny Bentley

    Thank you, this is a clear, concise summary of the difference between PLN’s and PLE’s. Do you think that one’s blog/website can be a PLE with everything else you do on the web linked back to it? That includes linking to it the places where you connect with your PLN. Participating in both #etmooc and #oldsmooc at present, I think there is a need for more explicit explanations, like this, of how to get around in a cMOOC. 🙂


    1. Debbie Morrison Post author

      HI Penny, Thanks for taking the time to comment, I’m glad you found the post helpful.

      You bring up an excellent question, ‘can a blog/website be the hub of one’s PLE, with all other tools linking back to it’? I have been struggling with this very issue – where is best place to share/archive work created, resources collected within a MOOC? I participated in two MOOCs last year, and wanted to pull all my learning (in form of blog posts etc) and resources together.

      My plan is to create a page within my blog that is dedicated to MOOCs. My goal is to make a list of all blog posts pertinent to the given MOOC, links to resources collected through Pearltrees (my content curation tool, where I have dedicated a Pearltree to each MOOC), and provide a summary of the course. What to do with the Twitter feeds? I have heard of a tool called Storify, where one can select the most pertinent ‘voices’ from social media conversation and associate it with a URL. . I believe this has potential.

      Thanks again Penny. Looking forward to learning with you in etmooc 🙂 . Debbie

      Liked by 1 person


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