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Professional and Personal Learning Networks

“What’s in a name?” – Romeo and Juliet, IIii  ‘Juliet’ illustration by Philip H. Calderon, Public Domain

You may have heard the abbreviations PLN, PLC and PLE used in teaching conversations, and they may have even been used interchangeably.  To add some confusion to the conversation, PLN can mean a Personal Learning Network or a Professional Learning Network.  What are these networks, communities and environments? Though a number of definitions exist for these uses, let’s look at some ways of defining these concepts.

Derrick Meador offers this definition of a Personal Learning Network

“A personal learning network, also referred to as a PLN, is a powerful professional development tool that allows teachers and administrators to connect with other teachers and administrators across the country. These connections are typically made through social media outlets including Google+, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. A personal learning network allows educators to seek advice, trade best practices, or simply network with other professionals.”

A personal learning network is an informal network in which a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from others. The network may or may not be built around someone’s professional life and could be about their personal interests.

You will find this type of network relates to the theory of connectivism developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Their ideas involve learners creating their own connections and developing a network that goes beyond the people they interact with on a regular basis and which can include people they have never met personally or will ever meet in person.

The Internet and the rise of social media has created an easier way to have a far reaching network around our desires to learn.

But Brianna Crowley writes that “A ‘professional learning network’ is ultimately a personal learning network. ”

Do you have a personal learning network of online and “real world” people? Do you have a separate professional learning network around your teaching, or are they blended?

Many of us connect to other educators using public blogs, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and other platforms. The monthly NCTE Twitter chats (#nctechat) are a good example of a part of a professional learning community. We also probably know colleagues that have multiple accounts for social media – one for their personal network, another for their professional network.

A Professional Learning Community (PLC) is a more formal network. Richard DuFour writes that:

The idea of improving schools by developing professional learning communities is currently in vogue. People use this term to describe every imaginable combination of individuals with an interest in education—a grade-level teaching team, a school committee, a high school department, an entire school district, a state department of education, a national professional organization, and so on. In fact, the term has been used so ubiquitously that it is in danger of losing all meaning.

As an NCTE member, you can participate in many online communities as part of our Connected Community. Although anyone can explore some areas of the site, members have full access to the content there. This is a professional community consisting of people who are involved in teaching at all levels and with many of the same concerns and interests.

We can contrast this with the online communities we have in Facebook for NCTE, CCCC and TYCA which are open to anyone interested. Likewise, anyone can follow our many Twitter accounts and participate in conversations.

The News and Information Literacy Professional Learning Community is a group within the Literacy and Learning Exchange that is open to anyone interested in learning more about news, information, media and digital literacy. Teachers, students, researchers and developers are able to collaborate and share ideas.

Power of the PLNIn the “Power of the PLN” NCTE chat held in 2015, co-hosts JoEllen McCarthy and Tony Sinanis, we explored ways to expand your capacity for collaboration and use your PLN as an energizing tool for facilitating and enhancing learning relationships. (These fast-moving chats are also archived.)

Of course, online communities are only a part of this professional learning. Much of what we do in education relies on relationships. The way students learn and our own professional learning relies on our personal and professional relationships. In the classroom, in the hallways and at meetings and over lunch and coffee is at least equally important.

Thinking about “professional development” as more than  an event, an inservice, workshop or conference and as more than the physical “takeaways” of documents that we are given is possibly new to many people.  Expanding PD to include social media and other digital ways to share, collaborate and learn is certainly still relatively new for all of us.  Professional and personal learning networks help support learning communities.

Among the questions considered in that particular #NCTEchat:

  • How does your PLN fuel and energize your learning life?
  • How have your extended your PLN connections beyond social media?
  • How do you show/inspire/demonstrate to your students the importance of developing a PLN?
  • What role does NCTE play in your PLN?

Finally, you might hear the abbreviation PLE used to mean Personal Learning Environments.  Rather than people, a PLE is a system that allows learners to create and manage their own online learning.  According to Alan J. Cann, a PLE system includes “providing support for learners to set their own learning goals, manage their learning, manage both content and process, and communicate with others in the process of learning.”

A PLE is often associated with distance education or formal online learning, and it is likely that you have built your own professional  “environment” using a combination of free, online services and also real world connections to people you work with and  have met online or at conventions and other professional events.