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4.5 Personal learning networks

In MOOCs, and also in other online learning communities, the phrase ‘PLN’ (personal learning networks) is often used to emphasise the role of the network of peers that are important in learning. As we saw with the idea of little OER, use of an individual network not only provides a means of disseminating and finding resources, it also provides a means of discussing ideas and connecting with peers.

The concept of a PLN grew out of earlier talk of a PLE (personal learning environment). The idea of a PLE is that with the advent of so many free, easy-to-use tools that are not formally controlled by an institution, people were constructing a set of tools that helped to structure their informal, everyday learning. This was in comparison with a VLE (virtual learning environment, also sometimes called an LMS or learning management system) for instance, which is very structured and is organised and hosted by the institution.

A PLN emphasises that it is the people in the network that are significant, and places less focus on the actual technologies. For instance, you may have a well-developed network of peers in Twitter that helps inform your professional practice, but if that network migrated to another tool, for example Google Plus, the personal value to you is derived from the people and their expertise, not the specific tool they use.

Activity 15: Defining a PLN

Timing: 2 hours

As with many new terms, PLN is used in a variety of contexts. The Wikipedia entry defines it as:

‘an informal learning [Tip: hold Ctrl and click a link to open it in a new tab. (Hide tip)]  network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment. In a PLN, a person makes a connection with another person with the specific intent that some type of learning will occur because of that connection.’ (Wikipedia, 2012)

  • Use search tools and the discussion in the forum to formulate your own, one-sentence definition of a PLN.

Activity 16: Examining a definition

Timing: 3 hours

Now you have a definition of PLN, the question you need to answer is:

  • ‘Does this offer anything new?’

In terms of innovation, can we say a PLN is truly innovative, or merely a rebadging of existing practice? As with many new terms in educational technology, some people find a PLN usefully captures a new development, while others say it is simply a new term for an old practice.

In considering this, take into account the scale and possibilities offered by new technologies, past networking practice and any of the references you found when constructing your definition.


  • Write a blog post setting out a position statement on what PLNs are and whether it is a useful term or not.

For further information, take a look at our frequently asked questions which may give you the support you need.

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