I was in a workshop at a conference just two years ago, and the presenter asked us to brainstorm for 5 minutes about something. I turned to the people sitting near me and we talked and bounced around some ideas. When he brought us all together, he changed the projector from his presentation slide to a live view of his Twitter feed. When he asked us to brainstorm, he had tweeted the same question out, and in just five minutes had 33 responses from people who follow him on Twitter. Those 33 people are part of his Personal Learning Network (PLN), and he was able to call on them instantaneously and get some pretty decent responses. Today, three years after taking her course online, one of my instructors is an essential part of my educational technology PLN.
Everyone already has a PLN, though a lot of us do not think of it in those terms, and even fewer of us intentionally build and make use of it. Fortunately, the growth in technology - the Internet, social media, email, etc. - has made it increasingly easier and more productive to do so.
Watch this video introduction to PLNs by Will Richardson.
A PLN is all the connections that you use to learn and grow as a professional; it includes colleagues, teachers, students, groups, organizations, etc. that have a shared interest in your field. A strong PLN includes your connections' connections, so while you may not have a direct connection to someone, you are connected through one of your connections.
The image below is probably what your PLN looks like, though you may not realize it is as extensive as it probably is. Take a minute to write down your first level connections - every person or group or organization you have direct contact with. Now note the connections between them; you start to realize it is a web; each of these elements, or nodes, in your web has their own PLN, thereby extending yours.
Image source: http://www.fmsasg.com/SocialNetworkAnalysis/
Note that your connections may be made in many ways, including personal and virtual. The Internet and technology have allowed for many more virtual connections than before. While personal connections are essential, virtual connections can be equally valuable, and provide the added benefit of not requiring ones presence. They allow you, for example, to "meet" people before you attend a conference; they allow you to keep in touch with people regardless of their physical location.
If you are asking yourself why you need to proactively create a PLN - rather than just let what has always happened continue - it is for the same reason you are taking this course. There is so much more information readily, easily, and freely available that it behooves every teacher to create an environment where we make sure we have access. It can only benefit our teaching and, as a result, our students' learning.
Benefitting from a PLN once it is in place is as easy or involved as you choose. You can be a passive participant and simply let information come to you, or you can be an active one and seek it out. Most people find a happy balance somewhere in between, but it is ultimately up to you. You may find that when you are looking for something, you can use your PLN actively to help find it; when you are not you may be happy to be passive; either way you will still benefit.
Bullet Point Summary