Year for Productivity: Session 18: What is a Learning Network?


Happy Labor Day!  Hopefully most of you are busy firing up the grill and enjoying this fall holiday Monday away from work.  This day also marks the beginning of our third and last section of posts in the Year of Productivity program.  With this third section we leave somewhat the focus on the academic workflow to turn our attention to the idea of Learning Networks.

We are quite familiar with the concept of a Learning Commons, and chances are that your academic library has at least one of these productive areas for students.  Learning Networks, however, might be a little fuzzier for many of us; and, actually, this is one area where we can turn to our colleagues in the K-12 world because they have been actively talking about and developing Learning Networks for some time.

Many of us have been traveling through various stages of learning throughout our lives. Most have experienced formal classroom learning through elementary, middle and high school, followed by a varied number of years and degrees in higher education institutions.  At some point, that wonderful time of learning was supposedly complete and we joined the workforce, only to find that learning is a continual activity that merely has changed forms.  Some of us had formal training “workshops” where we were taught a particular skill or computer program, but employers began to find such training budgets were attractive places to obtain funds to cover shortfalls in decreasing budget times.

Learning, we also discovered, was a part of our annual performance evaluation, and we were encouraged to identify, with the assistance of our managers in some cases, specific areas of learning and development that we were to pursue over the coming year.  While formal training was sometimes a part of this objective, increasingly we were expected to develop our own plans of learning and discover ways to increase our knowledge and expertise outside the formal training arena.

Jane Hart of the Learning in the Social Workplace blog comments on this state of affairs:

“Being “proactive” or “taking charge” of your own learning isn’t just about engaging in formal professional development activities though, or even participating in a few MOOCs (massive open online courses) or watching some inspirational videos from time to time, it’s also about recognizing that most of your real learning takes place continuously  – and frequently unintentionally…by being active in the fast moving flow of ideas and new resources being exchanged in your professional networks.”

Employers began to see mentoring as a low-budget solution to their training budget woes while still being a personal way to develop employees.  As a result, formalized mentoring programs became increasingly popular within the workplace, and professional societies also created mentoring programs. The mentoring program of the New Member Roundtable of the American Library Association is one excellent example of a mentoring program that allowed an individual to reach outside their workplace and their local environment and establish a meaningful, sustained dialog with a professional in another city or state who has been identified as having similar professional interests and experience in areas that the mentee particularly desired to develop.-

One of the challenges for self-motivated learners has always been finding a group of people who shared their learning goals and interest.  While some large metropolitan areas might provide enough opportunities for developing local groups, many individuals face the challenge of connecting and desire a large pool of like-minded learners to share with and grow from.  The internet has greatly facilitated this process and today, people from many different countries, different time zones and different levels of expertise can all connect with one another sharing resources, advice, techniques and experience.

Personal Learning Networks are also sometimes referred to as Communities of Practice.  The Creating a PLN wiki defines PLNs:

“Personal Learning Networks are systems that help learners take control of and manage their own learning. This includes providing support for learners to:

  • set their own learning goals
  • manage their learning; managing both content and process
  • communicate with others in the process of learning
  • and thereby achieve learning goals

Simply put: A PLN is a system for lifelong learning.”

This wiki goes on to explain the stages of creating a PLN:

Stage 1: Immersion:  This stage embodies the excitement and exploration of jumping into many networks, trying new social software and getting overwhelmed trying to keep up with everything and feeling like you can’t miss a thing because that might be the most important nugget of all.

Stage 2: Evaluation:  At this stage, you have begun to understand and become more comfortable with the different networks you have joined.  You are now able to pick and choose which network(s) fit your learning goals the best.

Stage 3: Know it all:  At this stage you deep dive into your chosen networks, trying to learn it all.  This stage reminds me of the avid video gamer who can’t leave the virtual world and its inhabitants behind in order to interact with the real world.

Stage 4: Perspective:  Perspective can occur when you finally surface from your virtual networks and gain some space from them and reconnect with the real world and people around you.

Stage 5: Balance:  Once reaching that perspective, you can then begin to understand that your network is there to support you, and the collective knowledge of the network means that you do not have to be expected to know everything, but that, instead, you and your network colleagues can each share your knowledge with each other when there is a need.

Do you recognize yourself in these PLN stages?  Where do you fall? And what might be the next step for you?


For Further Exploration and Insight:

1. Take a few minutes to explore this incredibly rich resource called a PLN Starter Kit.  The target audience is the K-12 educators population.  Brainstorm how you might create a similar tool for the academic arena.  What would be included?

2.  Steve Wheeler is an Associate Professor of Learning Technology at Plymouth University.  Watch this video of Steve describing his personal learning network.  How would you describe your own PLN after watching this?  What is necessary to succeed?
(My Personal Learning Network by Steve Wheeler:


Selected Resources:

Chatti, Mohamed Amine.(2012) Knowledge management: a personal knowledge network perspective. Journal of Knowledge Management Volume: 16 Issue: 5, 829-844.

Communities of Practice:  This is a detailed bibliography on building communities.

Cooke, N. A. (2012). Professional development 2.0 for librarians: Developing an online personal learning network (PLN). Library Hi Tech News, 29(3),1–9.

Creating a PLN wiki:

Developing Connectivity: a PKM path for higher education workplace learners
Blanca C. Garcia (pp. 276 – 297)

Hart, Jane. “The future belongs to those who take charge of their own learning,” Learin the Social Workplace blog, October 2012.

Tools for Building your Personal Learning Network, a LiveBinder compiled by Tim WIlhelmus

Waters, Sue.  PLN Yourself!,   The aim of this site is to help you gain the skills to build your own personal learning network (PLN)

Wenger, E., McDermott, R. and Snyder, W.M. (2002), Cultivating Communities of Practice: A Guide to Managing Knowledge, Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.

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