How to Leverage the Power of Your Personal Learning Network

By Guest Blogger Jennie Snyder, Superintendent, Piner Olivet Union School District, Santa Rosa, CA 

Meaningful change ain’t gonna happen for our kids if we’re not willing to invest in it for ourselves first. At the heart, it’s not about schools…it’s about us.” — Will Richardson, “No Quick Fix,” October 4, 2011).

A PLN is a group of people with whom you engage to develop your own create it and customize it to your own interests, questions and needs.

A PLN is a group of people with whom you engage to develop your own create it and customize it to your own interests, questions and needs.

There is no doubt that we are in the midst of a seismic shift in the field of education. The rapid rate of innovation in all human endeavors, especially science and technology, has called into question the relevance of the industrial model of schooling based on the transmission of knowledge. Students entering college face the obsolescence of the body of knowledge within their chosen field even before they graduate. Author and consultant Bruce Wellman summed our current context up well when he said: “At this point we appear to have a 19th century curriculum, 20th century buildings and organizations, and 21st century students facing an undefined future.” Given our current context, how then do we create educational experiences for students that are meaningful and that prepare them for success?

As educators, we often cite the need to cultivate the habits of lifelong learning as critical for our students to successfully navigate this unknowable future.  Yet, as Will Richardson suggests, if we are not willing to invest in our own learning first, the change needed to make our schools more relevant and responsive to the needs of our students in the 21st century, isn’t going to happen. In short, change begins with us.

The good news is that by leveraging the power of connections through new technologies and digital platforms we have access to endless possibilities for our own self-directed learning.  More and more educators are turning to social media to create personalized learning networks to engage with other teachers, principals, educational leaders, authors, and researchers to seek out new ideas and practices.

What is a Personalized Learning Network?

In Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education (2011), Will Richardson offers this definition:

“In our PLNs, we learn what we want or need to learn using the vast resources and people online (or off) that can help us learn it. Unlike traditional learning environments, each of our networks is unique, created and developed to our personalized learning goals that grow and evolve throughout our lives.”

In other words, a PLN is a group of people with whom you engage to develop your own learning. You create it and customize it to your interests, questions and needs. Building a learning network in digital spaces does not replace your face-to-face collaborations with colleagues at your school site or district. Participating in a network of learners enhances and expands the reach of your collaborative relationships to a broader community of educators across the country and the globe.

Putting the Pieces Together

Personalized. First and foremost, PLNs are tailored to your questions, interests, and needs. What are you passionate about? What challenges do you face that you’d like to learn more about? Unlike more traditional forms of professional development that cover one-size fits all content, PLNs provide educators with flexibility to pursue their own learning.

Creating a habit for engaging with your network for even 20 minutes a day can be enough for personal growth

Creating a habit for engaging with your network for even 20 minutes a day can be enough for personal growth

Learning. Another essential component of PLNs is the opportunity to engage in your own learning in a variety of ways, anywhere, anytime. Begin with a search for blogs that focus on topics of interest to you. Choose 3-5 blogs and start reading them on a regular basis. Gathering resources and consuming the insights of others is one part of learning. Deepening your learning requires reflection. As you read blogs, reflect on what you’ve read. What ideas and practices stand out? What questions do you have? How might you apply these ideas and practices to your work?

Networked. Finally, the power of PLNs can be found in the depth and reach of connections with the larger communities of educators. Being part of a network of learners relies upon two-way communication -- connecting and contributing.

●      Connect -- Set up a Twitter account. Twitter is an essential part of personalized learning. Follow other educators who are thought leaders in your area of interest or who are working in a similar position or context.  In How to Use Twitter to Grow Your PLN, Betty Ray, a regular contributor to Edutopia, provides some helpful tips on how to get started.

●      Contribute -- Once you’ve become familiar with reading and consuming the insights and resources shared by other educators. The next step is begin to share your own reflections and practices. Start small. Perhaps, begin by sharing articles you’ve found helpful on Twitter or comment on a blog post that has resonated with you. By sharing your thoughts, questions and reflections through comments, you begin to build relationships with members of your learning network.

Make it a habit. We are all very busy people with many competing demands on our time. Devoting regular time for reading, reflecting and sharing can be a hurdle. However, carving out even short periods of time (say, twenty minutes) to invest in your own professional learning will yield benefits.

Resources to get started on developing your personal learning network:

Edutopia, DIY Professional Development, Building a Personal Learning Network

George Couros (@gcouros), "21st Century PLNs for School Leaders"

Lisa Nielsen (@innovativeEdu), "5 Things You Can Do to Begin to Build Your Personal Learning Network."

Jerry Blumgarten (@cybraryman1), Cybraryman's Twitter Page (or everything you ever wanted to know, but were afraid to ask).

Betty Ray (@EdutopiaBetty), “How to Use Twitter to Grow Your PLN,” Edutopia, June 7, 2010


Jennie Snyder, Superintendent

Piner Olivet Union School District, Santa Rosa, CA 95403

Superintendent, Piner Olivet Union School District