On historically defining Personal Learning Network

Earlier this week, as a response to a post by David Warlick, Stephen Downes posted on his attempt to find origins of the term “personal learning network”. This, strangely enough, got me thinking about the origins of the term.

I was surprised that, for as common as the term has become in my own PLN, the source of it was so hard to identify; that it was a generic enough grouping of words that a meaning seemed to evolve almost organically over time, thanks to contributions by a number of different people (which, I acknowledge, was somewhat the point of Stephen’s article).

Still, I have used this term in academic papers and have often searched for a definition of the term that would be useful as a citation. Recently, I used the 1998 Daniel R. Tobin article Building Your Own Personal Learning Network as a source. In the article, Tobin defines a personal learning network like this:

An important part of learning is to build your own personal learning network — a group of people who can guide your learning, point you to learning opportunities, answer your questions, and give you the benefit of their own knowledge and experience.

I’ve found his definition of a personal learning network useful, and his personal example of developing training sessions in Brazil a helpful anecdote to understand the concept of personal learning networks. But Stephen’s post did make me curious as to where this term came from, so I emailed Tobin with a link to Downes post asking if he was the originator of the phrase or whether he had another source for it. His response (10 minutes later) was:

Hi, Clint –

I don’t know if I coined the term “personal learning network” or not. I don’t know of any earlier references to the term, but that doesn’t mean that someone else didn’t use the phrase before I did.

The article was written in 1998, but I didn’t post it to my website until 2001, so that may help with the confusion on dates.

What I was referring to was my informal network of colleagues and professional acquaintances to whom I could turn if I needed information, i.e., people who could help me learn whatever it was that I was seeking. I still have a large personal learning network and am part of many other people’s PLNs as well, although none of us use that term. When I started using the phrase, I wasn’t particularly thinking about this in the sense of a virtual, PC-based network — in fact, in 1998, there weren’t many websites or discussion baords (sic), wikis, etc., that could be used for this purpose. Back then, one of the few that I knew of and used regularly was a list service started at Penn State for training and development professionals. It was later stopped and transferred to Yahoo Groups.

I hope this is helpful.

Best regards,
Dan Tobin

From there, I did a bit more digging and discovered a 1999 article written by Dori Digenti (Collaborative Learning: A Core Capability for Organizations in the New Economy. Reflections, 1(2), 45-57. doi: 10.1162/152417399570160) which uses the term “personal learning network” along with the acronym “PLN”. The use of the acronym is important to me because it denotes a very precise and specific conceptual meaning attached to the phrase “personal learning network”. And it is an acronym that I often see used to replace the phrase “personal learning network” in my network.

In the article, Digenti sets up a six phase model to build and develop collaborative learning competency in organizations. In phase six of the model (Enhancing Interdependence p. 53), Digenti speaks specifically to idea of personal learning network, and uses the phrase as an acronym.

As technology and change gain momentum, no professionals can claim enough mental bandwidth to maintain learning in all the necessary endeavors they are engaged in. An organization can sustain its collaborative learning only by building interdependence among members. This is where the personal learning network (PLN), born of series of learning collaborations, can be a valuable tool for enhancing and building interdependence (Digenti, 1998a).

The PLN consists of relationships between individuals where the goal is enhancement of mutual learning. The currency of the PLN is learning in the form of feedback, insights, documentation, new contacts, or new business opportunities. It is based on reciprocity and a level of trust that each party is actively seeking value-added information for the other.

The first paragraph, where the term personal learning network is introduced, contains a reference to a 1998 unpublished manuscript by Digenti called “The Learning Consortium Sourcebook”. I could not find that work , but I wonder if this might be the source of the term personal learning network as I understand and use it today?

The paper then goes on to describe how to develop a personal learning network, and there are two points that Digenti makes that resonate strongly with me. First, you have to give to get (p 53).

How do you build a PLN? First, it is important to overcome the hesitation around “using” people. If you are building a PLN, you will always be in a reciprocating relationship with the others in the network. Ideally, you should feel that your main job in the network is to provide value-added information to those who can, in turn, increase your learning.

Second, it takes time and work (p 53).

To have a truly valuable PLN, investments in time and resources are essential. This requires an extension of the typical transactional business mind-set. If, as a business manager or change agent, we “do the deal” and fail to consider building our PLN, we have lost much of the value of our interactions. This is particularly true in the activities of collaborative learning, where each project we engage in should enhance and broaden the PLN of each member.

Now, this was hardly an exhaustive academic search for the term, so I suspect that there are more uses of it from around that time stuffed away somewhere. But it appears to me that the phrase “personal learning network” as I use and understand the term today may have originated in the work of these two authors around 1998-99.


Clint Lalonde

Just a guy writing some stuff, mostly for me these days on this particular blog. For my EdTech/OpenEd stuff, check out https://edtechfactotum.com/.


9 thoughts on “On historically defining Personal Learning Network

  1. Via kismet, I found your blog this morning. I am in the process of delivering a presentation, and I will be speaking about the value of a PLN in my work as a teacher. So, I thank you for writing this post. 🙂

      1. Hi! The presentation went very well. I even inspired teachers to begin or in one case resume tweeting and blogging – which was the goal. 🙂

  2. Thanks so much for this. I have been searching for academic proof of the origin for my dissertation on networked learning communities! Hooray!

  3. Great work, Clint! I too was found the terms PLN and PLE difficult to trace at first. My understanding of the etymology of the acronym grows.

    BTW I now have a feed from your blog.

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