Year for Productivity: Session 24: Characteristics of a Vibrant Personal Learning Network


We’ve talked at length about what Personal Learning Networks (PLN) are, ruminated upon what makes up our own network right now and we’ve hopefully even explored  a few new sources for connections. We’ve also recognized the need for participation and identification of other professionals who share our interests and with whom a dialog can be started.These individuals begin to form our learning community.Now we need to consider the characteristics of a healthy PLN and what our roles and responsibilities are as community members.

 Common Topic or Field of Interest: A Clear Purpose

                 Most successful learning communities have a clearly defined area of study (such as personal knowledge management for academics) or a specific purpose (for example individuals from diverse areas of study that are all dedicated to improving their presentation skills).  To have this clearly stated and agreed upon mission or statement of purpose available to group participants helps keep the group targeted and on task.

 Affordable Alternative Method of Professional Development

                 One of the many benefits of online learning communities is that they can help participants work toward personal development and training objectives in their formal job reviews.  Some of the larger and well organized groups especially embrace this aspect of their learning community and even develop programs that individuals can complete for “certificates” to add to their annual evaluations.  Many participants in online learning, however, simply embrace the convenience and affordability of the venue and consider it a vital part of their personal development.

 Potential for Global Participation

                 Global participation is one exciting aspect of online learning communities.  The opportunity to communicate with other professionals around the world enriches discussion and growth for everyone.  The potential learning for individuals in isolated areas is immense, but equally valuable is the mix of experience and social, political or logistic context from participants of differing cultures and backgrounds.

 Can contain both synchronous and asynchronous features

                 The ability of online learning communities to develop both synchronous (Google+ hangouts, twitter chats, webinars) and asynchronous (posting boards on topics, blog rolls, etc) adds vitality to the community, fostering the development of connections between participants. Using different methods of engagement also allows individuals with preferences for active interchanges and brainstorming kind of interactions (chats) and those who prefer more methodical and thoughtful contributions (board posts, blogs etc) to both participate in ways that are most comfortable with their style.

Common commitment to the growth of the topic/group

                 For a group to sustain itself for the long term, a common commitment to the growth and feeding of the group purpose is essential.  Many groups fizzle after a vigorous beginning because the participants have not reached a common sense of ownership and commitment to the group and each other and individuals fail to faithfully seek and provide new insights, resources, questions and participation.

 Flexible and Customizable to an Individuals Personal Learning Objectives

                 All of this talk of common purposes and commitments does not suggest that the group should become rigid.  Rigid groups are also subject to shattering. A group that is flexible and that an individual can see how they can customize and suggest threads of conversation, activities, etc that help them meet their own personal learning objectives is also important.  If the common commitment to the group is there, individuals can be more assured that they will have others participate on their topics as they also participate in the topics others put forward.  This being said, it is possible that an individual will have more than one learning community.  I might belong to one group to improve my presentation abilities, yet still have a different group that focuses on the creative writing process, for example.

 New Knowledge is created and explored via the collective collaboration

                 The most successful and sustainable communities are those where active collaboration and brainstorming  results in collective sharing that gives birth to new insights, new concepts and new knowledge.  An online learning community that promotes this kind of rich exchange of ideas, experiences and resources will continue to attract motivated individuals, thus enriching itself and assuring its longevity.

 A Variety of Viewpoints are represented and Trust and Respect for Others Exists

            To consistently grow and expand as a community it is important to attract individuals who can contribute a variety of viewpoints and who offer various backgrounds and areas of expertise to bring to the table.  In order for all individuals to bring their own voices to the community, it is essential that an environment of trust and respect for others be a pervasive element in the underlying framework of the community. And yet, Sharon Booth (2012) recognized that “ Yet among the most difficult challenges faced by online communities is fostering and sustaining knowledge sharing and trust.”  Her study found “  knowledge sharing and trust were cultivated and sustained through a clear purpose and common identity, multiple options and opportunities for social learning, the active involvement of an experienced and credible moderator, as well as modeling and enforcement of appropriate online behavior.”

An environment conducive to cultivating professional networking relationships

                The underlying purpose of any learning community is to provide a vehicle for individuals with common interests to gather together.  A secondary purpose is to provide a platform where individual networking can occur, whether this is for professional opportunities, to identify possible partnerships for future projects or to find collaborators and mentors who have the potential to become long-time professional relationships. 

Experienced and Credible Moderator(s)

                 The value of an experienced and credible moderator cannot be underestimated.  Such individuals can help a community to maintain its focus, to spark conversation, and to deal with the rare issues that may occur which, if left unaddressed, could threaten the underlying layer of trust and respect that is so important for thriving communities.  The most skilled moderators can blend so well into the general conversation of the community that their role of moderator is virtually invisible. Wenger (2009) calls effective community moderators as ‘“social artists” whose energy, skills, and craft are a driving force in the success of the community.’

So now that we have reviewed all the wonderful benefits of learning communities and explored some of the essential characteristics for a thriving community, where does this leave the individual who isn’t interested in starting a new community but simply wants to  enter the personal learning network world  and get their feet wet?  There are a number of things that a beginner can do when beginning to explore learning networks.

Choose a community that interests you and begin to read the posts and resources on this site on a regular basis.   After listening and exploring, does this community still seem to be a good fit for your goals?  If so, introduce yourself!  Be genuine and don’t be afraid to let community members know this is a new experience for you.  If it is a supportive community, they will help enfold you into the community. Look for opportunities to share posts, articles, etc that are on topic for the group or to provide possible feedback  to others who are looking for input. When it comes to learning communities, you get out of it what you put into it, so stretch yourself to participate.

 For Further Exploration and Insight:

 1.       Take a closer look at a learning community that you are a part of or are potentially interested in joining.  How do the characteristics of this group compare to the list of advantageous  elements that we discussed above? 

2.   Spend some time in an online community that interests you.  Over the next week, keep in mind some of the topics they discuss an follow some of the links.  Make comments on a line of discussion or post a link to a resource on the topic. Make a goal for yourself to interact a minimum number of times each week and before you know it you will be a part of the discussion.  Get involved!

Selected Resources:

Ardichvili, A. (2008). Learning and knowledge sharing in online communities of practice:
Motivators, barriers, and enablers. Advances in Developing Human Resources, 10(4), pp. 541-554.

Booth, Sharon. (2012) Cultivating Knowledge Sharing and Trust in Online Communities for Educators. Journal of Educational Computing Research, 47(1) pp1-3.

Cooke, Nicole A. Professional development 2.0 for librarians: developing an online personal learning network (PLN)  Library Hi Tech News  29(3) pp 1-9.

Hew, K. & Hara, N. (2007).  Empirical study of motivators and barriers of teacher online knowledge sharing. Educational Technology Research & Development, 55(6), pp. 573-595.

Jenkins, H. (2006) Convergence Culture, NYU Press.

 McDermott, R. (2001), ‘‘Knowing in communities: ten critical success factors in building communities of practice’’, Community Intelligence  Labs, retrieved online:

Richardson, Will and Mancabelli, Rob. (2011), Personal learning networks : using the power of connections to transform education. Solution Tree Press.

Tobin, Daniel R. (2011) Learn Your Way to Success: How to Customize Your Professional Learning Plan to Accelerate Your Career, McGraw-Hill.

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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