What is a PLN?


In this section we focus on how networks that connect you to people and tools can potentially help you succeed in your learning. The ideas and tools in all these sections can be useful in a wide range of learning situations. However, we are mostly interested in helping students who are taking online courses for the first time or are considering taking one.


The purpose of this section is to introduce the concept of Personal Learning Networks (PLN) and to help you understand how a PLN can help you succeed in your studies. The concept of a personal learning network (PLN) emerged with the growth of web-based tools that have enabled interactions online that go beyond basic exchanges of written messages. Online communication tools have become quite more sophisticated in the last few years not just technically, but also in the way they are designed and used.

As these communication tools have become more and more pervasive, collaborating online has become more common in work and study settings. Online collaboration now makes it possible to easily construct a network of people and tools may help optimize activities in both of those settings. In the last few years, many online communication tools have become more sophisticated by adding a social dimension. For example, it is now much easier to share digital content (pictures, videos, audio messages, etc.) not just with an open online audience, but also with a specific audience that you can select and manage.

The Concept

So what is a Personal Learning Network (PLN)? A PLN is a bit like a Russian doll: a PLN contains an environment that you have created for your studies, which in turn contains a virtual course environment that is provided when a course is taught online. For the sake of clarity, we decided to compound these three systems into one and refer to all them as a PLN. You may think of a PLN as the most sophisticated system of the three.

Defining a PLN

The concept of PLN is intertwined with two complementary concepts: Virtual Learning Environment (VLE) and Personal Learning Environment (PLE). A virtual learning environment is basically an online environment that houses most of a course’s content, resources, and interaction. All online courses provide some sort of VLE, which could be housed in a system such as Blackboard, Moodle, Canvas, or any other learning management system that your institution supports.

When you take a course online, the VLE is already provided for you. For example, an online course may contain tools to organize your learning, such a calendar tool containing main course activities which helps you keep track of deadlines. Similarly, a VLE may contain a collection of resources provided by the instructor of the course, some support information, and some type of evaluation (quizzes, exams, etc.).

Making It Personal

However, we all have different needs and interests when it comes to learning something, and a VLE may not always contain everything you need to help you succeed in your learning. When you expand a course’s VLE by adding tools and resources that help you take control of your learning, you are basically building a Personal Learning Environment (PLE). In other words, when you personalize a VLE, the result is a PLE: a system of support that contains a customized set of tools and resources you need to improve your learning experience.

A PLE contains tools that you choose which personalize what is provided to you when you take a class. So your PLE may contain a tool that you have used for other purposes or in other classes. For example, courses usually contain supplementary online resources, such as links to websites that may provide more information on something you are learning about. Let’s say that you go to such website and would like to highlight and copy portions of it and save them for future use. There is a tool called Diigo that allows you to do just that. So when you supplement a course’s VLE in this way, you are creating your PLE for the course.

Making it Social

As mentioned before, many online communication tools now have a social dimension. When your PLE expands to add a social dimension, we refer to it as a Personal Learning Network (PLN). For example, the web clipping tool mentioned above (Diigo) allows you to share your “web clippings” with other classmates or people beyond the class. When you do this, your environment is connected to other people and possibly other people’s environments. They may be people who share something in common with you, in this particular case, an interest in the clippings you have collected, or simply people who are interested in the same topic. When your PLE becomes social, the result is a Personal Learning Network (PLN). In other words, a PLN can be considered the “social version” of your PLE.

As we said before, the concept of a PLN is a bit like a Russian doll: a PLN contains a PLE, which in turn contains a VLE. We use PLN as the generic term for the sake of clarity but if you are interested in learning more about this topic, you should search for both PLN and PLE, since PLE is sometimes used to refer to what we define here as PLN.