Thursday, July 15, 2010

Why I *STILL* Love the Phrase Personal Learning Network

During a session with Joyce Valenza at the BLC10 conference, I learned that there are folks who have an issue with the term “Personal Learning Network” (PLN). Valenza referred to her PLN and sort of apologized, acknowledging those who disagree with the term.

As a lover of my PLN, I had to know more. Why was she apologetic about the term? So, of course, to find out more, I turned to my PLN and asked what the issue was on Twitter where they tried to explain in 140 characters or less.

Here’s what they said and what I thought.

eduinnovation @InnovativeEdu I use Prof. Networked Learning Collaborative (PNLC) for PRODUCING / ACCOMPLISHING things with edu people from all over
  • My thought: Okay, that’s a nice term, but very different to me then my personal learning network. To me a PNLC seems like a group who all know they belong to a particular collaborative. I might use that for my learning network However, not for my PLN. My personal learning network is unique to me. We collaborate, sure, but we’re not one group. Each of us have our own personal learning network uniquely aligned to our specifications. While members may intersect, each network is different.
juliafallon @InnovativeEdu Jist of it: PLN doesn't mean anything to everyday people. Looking for word to describe w/o taking away human exp./connection.
  • My thought: Hmmm...If it doesn’t mean something to people I know, I take it as a great opportunity to explain in person or online like I did here 5 Things You Can Do to Begin Developing Your Personal Learning Network. I enjoy helping others understand the concept and build their own network. Technology gives us a unique opportunity to develop our network in ways never before possible and I want to share and help others get started!
tomwhitby @InnovativeEdu Arguments of semantics often take people off what should be the focus of the discussion. #edchat #blc10
  • My thought: I don’t get it. It’s personal. It’s learning. It’s my network. The semantics work for me.
While I appreciated the insight, I STILL didn’t get it so @akamrt tried to explain further in this series of tweets.
akamrt @InnovativeEdu For me, I think it's a misnomer & far to sterile. @ijohnpederson suggests "guild" as more appropriate term, I agree w/ that.
akamrt @InnovativeEdu A guild is an association of craftsmen . . . earliest guilds were formed as confraternities of workers. (Wikipedia)
akamrt @InnovativeEdu The network model is a database model conceived as a flexible way of representing objects and their relationships. -Wikipedia
akamrt @InnovativeEdu That was the best option on Wikipedia for "network" Also, guild is "us" and personal is "me"
akamrt @InnovativeEdu Networks are also too hierarchical. Also, think "guild" in the way it exists in World of Warcraft.
  • My thoughts: Huh? Misnomer? Sterile? Hierarchical Why? It’s personal. It’s mine. It’s the learning network I chose to create for me aligned to my talents, interests and passions. Guild is not more appropriate. A Guild is something people sign up to join. I am a member of the Screen Actors Guild. We all joined this guild because of a common focus, but my network is personal, aligned to my unique focus...not a common one. It’s mine and while anyone can join "MY" network, it is mine. They are a part of network of people I turn to for learning. While I might be a part of their network, we are not all a part of the same network. Each of us has our own network. It is hierarchical and that’s okay. I’m at the top of mine, and you are at the top of yours and we have a lot of people that intersect.
Sadly, despite the best efforts of some members of my PLN, I still wasn't getting why some no longer like the term. So, mbteach tried to come to the rescue. She explained as follows:

mbteach re: PLN it started at ISTE. Certain people like to remind us to think about the terms we use & how we make connections.
mbteach as Tom said, it's a semantics issue but also requires more than 140 characters to explain :)

So I asked her if maybe there was a blog post that said more. She responded with...
mbteach it's not so much the acronym as this:

This was a link to this blog post titled Embraced by the Cult | PLN | Embracing the Cult.
So I read it, and guess what? I’m still not convinced. While I respect the author’s opinion and clearly there are others who agree, I haven’t had the experiences she outlines, and I don’t perceive the term the same way. I hope there are others in my camp because I find the term personal learning network eloquent and clear. When I first heard Will RIchardson use the term I was filled with excitement. It named these wonderful people, from all walks of life that I learn from and with.

The issues stated in the blog post and how the author viewed the term PLN were just never how I viewed a PLN. True, I gave the term a glorified meaning. I loved it. It signified all the amazing people in my life I can turn to for advice, insight, and learning. I don’t agree with the post's postulation that a pln is cult-like or exclusionary. The author asks if you assign people to be in your PLN, what does that say about the people outside it? I’ll tell you what it says. To me there are two types of people when it comes to my personal learning network.
1) People who are in my PLN
2) People who I hope will be in my PLN.
There is no exclusion. To people outside my network, it says, "Hey, how ya doing? If you haven't connected with me yet, please do and let's get smarter together."

She explains that she believes people learn all the time, and everywhere. She says she doesn’t need to isolate or elevate a group of individuals to be her PLN. I agree with her observation. We do learn all the time and everywhere, and I appreciate that. That's why I am happy to elevate those I learn from and call them my personal learning network. They too are happy when I thank them and tell them how much I've learned from them and how I perceive them.

Furthermore, my PLN is not only digital. My learning network consists of many people that I know only online, only face-to-face, and there are those that I know in both favorite, but not always possible. It also consists of people of all ages and with whom I have all sorts of connections. From my personal trainer, to my students who friend me on Facebook, to author Lucy Calkins who I rarely connect with in online communities, to my best friend, boyfriend, volleyball partner who also has a blog... or the one who also has a TV show, and all sorts of inspiring educators like principal Chris Lehmann (lots of on and off line connecting) and superintendent Mike Davino (we mostly connect offline.)

The article expresses a fear of loss of human connection. I don’t have this fear. My PLN enables me to connect to some of the most amazing leaders, thinkers, authors, students, friends, and others when I want, which would never be possible in the past. In fact, while at the BLC10 conference someone mentioned that it was at places like these that it is so great that we often, “meet people’s minds before we meet their faces.” I haven’t lost human connection at all. I’ve extended it in powerful ways.

The post goes on to bemoan PLNs for making influence and power more important than truth. I suppose any tool can be used well or not well. The way I use it, this has not been an issue. I try to connect with smart thinkers about smart ideas. A level of trust is developed. I get to know well the biases, passions, and interests of those in my PLN. I can usually look at their digital footprint for insight in this area. I just haven’t encountered power being more important than truth with anyone in my PLN. Could it be I'm more selective then others? I don't know.

The author also expresses a big problem when she reads “power of the PLN” statements, referencing the recursive nature of using the PLN to promote the PLN, or using tools to promote the use of tools. My PLN really has been powerful. It helps me think, process, discuss, dream, and create. So, I’ll be the first to admit that I often talk and write about the power of my PLN. Search for “personal learning network” on this blog and see for yourself.

Finally, the author shares, “I know people who have no desire to blog. I know people who lack charisma. I know creative people, who don’t function well in this space. They will be excluded, for not playing by the rules. They don’t “get it.” I guess this goes back to my own definition of PLN. Members of my network don’t have to get it to be included. They don’t have to function in this space. We communicate, discuss, learn, grow thinking, F-2-F, phone, email, Twitter, FB, Skype, on the court, wherever using whatever.

As I write this, I'm thinking/wondering if maybe I'm just lucky to have a super terrific personal learning network and realizing that perhaps there are others who in some way have been burned.

I applaud Jennifer Dalby for striking a powerful chord that resonated with many, but, even after reading the tweets and this blog, I still love the term and think I will continue to refer to my personal learning network as just that...unless I’m still missing something. Am I?


  1. Just to let you know you are not alone; I think this must be about the first blog post I have read with which I can completely agree.

    I really don't understand the 'guild' thinkers, especially when they describe networks as hierarchical. They presumably don't know anything about guilds! The 'power' thinking also strikes me as particularly strange - one only thinks about how much 'reach' and 'authority' a member of the network has if one wants to try to analyse the network in that way, as far as I am concerned. I suspect this thinking may be influenced by the CCK08 (or later) course run by Downes and Siemens, but it wasn't a conclusion I reached from it.

    The PLN is entirely personal - the only hierarchy in mine is that I choose who I 'follow' (in Twitter terms), whether that is online in some way or in the real world, and that I am somewhere near the bottom of the heap (or, to think of it another way, standing at the top on the shoulders of a good many giants!).

  2. Thanks for this posting this Lisa. I am with you on this one. I was instantly enamored with the term Personal Learning Network (PLN) because we can all create one that is unique. I think that we all agree in what a PLN accomplishes so let us not waste time in semantics.

    Instead let us focus our efforts on building our PLN's that help us do exactly what you describe - "think, process, discuss, dream, and create."

  3. David Kampmann @mrkampmannJuly 16, 2010 at 8:07 AM

    When I first heard the term PLN I instinctively thought of me being able to own my learning. I have a unique set of learning objectives to which I find people that can assist me in achieving those objectives. Those people are my PLN.

    I think a large part of the criticism comes from a desire to change something for the purpose of changing something. Much like all the different labels they give to people that teach/support educators with using technology.

    I agree with what Pat said, "...the only hierarchy is who I 'follow'..." Perhaps those that believe a network has to be a hierarchy system have a complex of some sort. I have never felt that I was either beneath or above anyone in my network.

  4. I agree with your feelings on this one. " It’s personal. It’s mine. It’s the learning network I chose to create for me aligned to my talents, interests and passions." Yes, it is for me too. Kudos for taking a stand.

  5. The question that I've been thinking about as I've followed a number of blog posts on both sides of the fence, is this about owning something (a PLN) or doing something (networked learning)? I suppose I'm pushing back a little bit at what I see as an assumed perspective on this idea. You point out that your PLN is not solely digital - interestingly though, many others quite often tweet out "a shout to my PLN" which precludes anyone not connected!
    Anyway, thanks for taking the time to think through Jennifer's blog post. She is one of the smartest writers out there and she adds in more of her thoughts over on Alan Levine's blog. She is doing what many of strive to do in blogging - interrogate emerging thoughts and leave them open for others to find and consider. I'll leave you with this question (which you can feel free to ignore and I am not being snarky) - now that you've found Jennifer's blog post and connected with it, does that make her now part of your PLN? Or as it was an on-topic discovery, is just a case of you just participating in some networked learning, finding and accessing relevant links, information and opinions as you go?
    Cheers from down under.

  6. Some people have issues with issues. I think they ought to get a life. Many other places those kinds of folks are called cranks.

  7. @Don. I think you're being a bit harsh. I'm not sure if your assessment is aimed at my comment here or at anyone doing a bit of semantic analysis. I'm interested in a conversation where I can try and see other people's ideas from their perspective. I can only do that by trying to outline why my thoughts and ideas ate at. I figured that Lisa might be interested as she has spent the blog post trying to do the same - trying to work to work out another person's point of view. It may well be issues about issues as far as you are concerned but I do find communicating concepts and ideas via the web to be something I really enjoy.
    thinking about. The web and social media tools allow anyone to give their ideas a platform and we don't have to just blindly accept one definition just because it emanates from an authority figure somewhere in the blogosphere.


  8. @Graham Wegner thank you for the thoughtful feedback. I like your question too. I "think" (not sure) that someone becomes part of my pln not just by my citing or connecting to them, but when there is a reciprocal connection. Also, I "think" it has to happen a few times.

    As far as your comment about the online nature of PLNs, I do give kudos to my PLN at times, but I often shoot an email with a link to those members who don't use some of the online spaces I use telling them to check out the online space where I gave them kudos. In essence nudging them into joining me in another medium. However, as I mentioned in my post, my ideal is to have online AND face-to-face connections, though either/or is valuable too.

  9. I tried to leave a lengthy comment here yesterday in response to Don but I was using my iPhone and I stuffed it up somehow. Anyway, Lisa, I can see your definition a bit clearer now and if nothing else, it means I will be using the terminology with a bit more thought in the future. I'm sorry if Don is a bit annoyed but again even his words can have a double meaning - crank as in crazy or crank as prone to crankiness?? And as we've both added each other on Twitter and your blog is now in my Reader, then chances there is more learning to be had in the future beyond the world of semantics. Thanks again for being willing to follow my thoughts (and Jennifer's) into a better understanding of how others might view things. Interestingly but not necessarily of any consequence, Jen is Canadian, I'm Australian, you're in the US and we can connect our ideas across time and space with ease. No matter how confident I get in the online world, that will never cease to amaze me. Anyway, perhaps, I'd better get back to my life.

  10. @Graham Wegner, thanks for the insight. I do appreciate. I too am also amazed, even dazzled, and totally thrilled to make the global connections available today. Look forward to more connecting, conversing, defining and redefining.