A Personal Learning Network (PLN) is a way for professionals to seek out and gain information by connecting with those in their field through a social media platform. The idea of leveraging networks has become more relevant than ever before as our society has moved to concepts such as social media as a dominant means of communication. As of August 2017, two-thirds (67%) of U.S. Americans report that they get at least some of their news on social media (Pew Research Center, 2017). What we choose to look at says a lot about who we are, and will shape how we think – the Internet is at the same time both the best fact-checker and the best bias-confirmer.
Using a hashtag has become the new “search” button. Hashtags structure conversations on social media platforms, see for example the hashtag #edtech on Facebook or Twitter. This technique instantly connects you to people on whatever topic you desire. By adding your own comments and stories, hashtags allow you to be an active participant as well. It is essential to remember that your digital footprint and your PLN are a reflection of you. It is not just what you choose to post, but also what posts you choose to connect with. It is who you follow. It is who follows you. In short, you are what you hashtag. This facet of social media is possibly best illustrated by the recent hiring and subsequent firing within hours of Quinn Norton at the New York Times (Windolf, 2018).
Three Steps to Creating a PLN
1) Find quality groups. Easy ways to do this are to start by finding organizations that contain the types of professionals you would want to learn from. Examples for teachers would be Edutopia, The Center for Teaching Quality, SITE, AACE or TechEd.org.
2) Narrow it down. Once you find the general area and people you are looking for, narrow it down by using a hashtag so that you can find your niche group. For example, searching #elaed will bring up any topic tagged about English Language Arts.
3) Now that you have narrowed it down to your specific content area or area of interest, choose specific people with whom to connect. These are your PLN members. Some will be peers and some will also be mentors that you look to as experts in their field. Begin following them on social media.
A Personal Learning Network, or PLN, can be a great way to incorporate social media into your professional life. Like every other information source, it has to be curated based on your personal interests and needs.
Grow deliberately: It can be easy to feel overwhelmed when it comes to creating a PLN. There are so many options of who to follow and how to connect. Begin by simply finding a few people to communicate with and then as you become more comfortable, diversify.
Reflect: It is important to occasionally reflect on your PLN to decide if you need to remove or add any people and/or organizations. Drawing a mindmap (using for example c-map tools), can help you visualize your network, and reflect your information bias. If you are using LinkedIn, try the tool socilab for an automatically generated, clustered depiction of your network.
Remember, that you have a PLN even if you don’t realize it. It is important to be purposeful in choosing who and what you connect with online.