Twitter, PLEs and PLNs

Thought I would share some bits of my thesis on Twitter, PLN’s and PLE’s  as others might find it useful.

What is a PLN?

For all of the conversation occurring among educators about PLNs, there has been surprisingly little academic research on PLNs (Couros, 2010, p. 123). With many educators using this term to describe their own informal learning habits, it is important for educational researchers to investigate exactly what this concept means to those who are using it as a term to describe a learning activity

A Personal Learning Network (PLN) is a network of people you connect with for the specific purpose of learning (Tobin, 1998). These people may assist you in your learning by acting as a guide, direct you to learning opportunities, and assist you with finding answers to questions (Tobin, 1998).

Digenti (1999) defines a PLN as:

relationships between individuals where the goal is enhancement of mutual learning which is based on reciprocity and a level of trust that each party is actively seeking value-added information for the other (1999, p. 53).

Couros (2010) echoes Digentis notion that a PLN is defined by the relationships among the individuals when he states that:

“a PLN is the sum of all social capital and connections that result in the development and facilitation of a personal learning environment” (2010, p. 125).

In order to fully understand this definition, a distinction needs to be made between the Personal Learning Network (PLN) and the closely related term, the Personal Learning Environment (PLE) as the two terms are often used interchangeably when, in fact, they refer to two separate conceptual models.

A Personal Learning Environment (PLE) can be thought of as the ecosystem that enables a PLN. A PLE represents

“the tools, artefacts, processes, and physical connections that allow learners to control and manage their learning” (Couros, 2010, p. 125).

Using this distinction, Twitter, along with other ICT’s, are tools of the PLE that enables interactions with a PLN. These other ICTs are significant as the PLN is not limited to interactions on Twitter alone and encompass not only other ICTs, but also face-to-face and non-ICT mediated interactions.

The other ICT’s  that are often used alongside Twitter can be divided into three broad categories; technologies used to enhance, extend, view, or manage Twitter data, technologies that are used in conjunction with Twitter, and technologies that are used independent of Twitter.


  1. Technologies used to enhance, extend, view, or manage Twitter data: Twitter extensions are tools that specifically enhance, extend, view, or manage Twitter data. This category can further be divided into three subcategories;
    1. technologies which participants use to view and manage the Twitter data stream (Tweetdeck and HootSuite),
    2. technologies that participants use to repurpose or modify Twitter data (such as, Packrati,The Tweeted Times), and
    3. technologies that are used to search Twitter data.
  2. Technologies used in conjunction with Twitter: Technologies in this category are tools that can be used independent of Twitter, but are often use in conjunction with Twitter, such as  blogs, social bookmarking applications (Delicious and Diigo), and collaborative tools (Google Docs). For example, Twitter itself is not a collaborative platform in that participants do not use it to collaboratively create a tweet. However, Twitter is often used in conjunction with Google Docs, a collaborative document authoring application, to help facilitate the creation of a shared resource among the PLN.
  3. Technologies used independent of Twitter, but may also be used for PLN activities. Other technologies that are used independently of Twitter. Examples are Facebook, LinkedIn, forums and Ning.

This is not an exhaustive list of ICT’s used within a PLE, but a sample based on interviews with thesis participants. PLE = Personal Learning Environment; PLN = Personal Learning Network; Data = Technologies used to enhance, extend, view, or manage Twitter data; Conjunctive = Technologies used in conjunction with Twitter; Independent = Technologies used independent of Twitter, but may also be used for PLN activities


Lalonde, C. (2011). The Twitter experience?: the role of Twitter in the formation and maintenance of personal learning networks. Retrieved September 13, 2011, from

Couros, A. (2010). Developing Personal Learning Networks for Open and Social Learning. Emerging Technologies in Distance Education (pp. 109-127). Edmonton, Canada: AU Press.

Digenti, D. (1999). Collaborative learning: A core capability for organizations in the new economy. Reflections, 1(2), 45-57. doi:10.1162/152417399570160

Tobin, D. R. (1998). Personal Learning Network. Retrieved October 4, 2009, from


PLNs and OERs

While I have always been interested in OER’s, this issue has taken on greater professional significance for me since arriving at an institution that has active OER projects on the go, and I have begun paying closer attention to reports like the one released this summer by JISC in the UK examining the the impact of Open Educational Resources (OER) (pdf) on teaching and learning.

While I started reading the report from the perspective of someone who works at an institution sensitive and supportive of OER’s, I quickly realized that there is a lot in this report that connects the creation of OER’s with Personal Learning Networks and with what I discovered during my thesis research.

The JISC research looked at the benefits OER’s offer to educators and learners, and examined the pedagogical, attitudinal, logistical and strategic factors that enable or inhibit the uptake and sustained practice in the use of OER’s.

While some of the benefits to educators for adopting OER’s are not surprising (saving teachers effort in that they do not have to create resources themselves, and enables educators to teach topics that may lie outside of their expertise), there were some conclusions that are maybe not so obvious, and sound very much like the kinds of activities people who cultivate PLNs might take part in.

OER’s are collaboratively created in networks

For example, the research found that using OER’s can “stimulate networking and collaboration among educators” and can “improve possibilities for new collaborations in researching fields of common interest.” Additionally, the report notes that one of the enabling factors for uptake of OER’s among educators is a decidedly social one in that:

Impact on individual practice is most likely to be achieved within the dimension of social practice: networks of like-minded individuals who are receptive to ideas and suggestions from each other and ready to share their own resources.

This reinforces something I discovered in my own thesis research on the role that Twitter plays in Personal Learning Networks. Every participant I interviewed for the research indicated that Twitter played an important role in coordinating the creation of collaborative resources related to their professional educational practice, and, quite often, those collaboratively created resources were shared not only with their PLN, but beyond as well (pg 79-83).

One of the participants in my research spoke to the importance of creating collaborative resources that get shared back to the community.

 I like the word professional for learning network, but I use the word collaborative learning network because there’s a sense of symbiotic nature, like we benefit one another by being involved. It’s not just me that’s getting the benefit. It’s not so much personal. But for me it’s very much collaborative benefit; there’s a whole bunch of people that are benefiting from it.

In this passage, the participant suggests that there is a “symbiotic nature” to collaborative projects, and that “we benefit one another by being involved” which implies a reciprocal relationship at play here; that if you help with my project, not only will you get to reap the rewards of this project, but I will participate in future shared projects as well because we will both benefit.

OERs are created by people being open and willing to share

The JISC report goes on to make a number of recommendations for educators wishing to enhance their teaching and learning practice with OER’s, including one that is very connected to what I discovered in my PLN research.

Adopt an open approach to your academic practice, seeking to share resources and ideas both within your disciplinary community and beyond it.

This echoes another story I heard from another participant during my research who initiated a collaborative project with her PLN by tweeting out a call for collaborators on Twitter. Shortly after, she received a message from a member of her PLN saying that they wished to contribute to the project not because they wanted to use the project, but rather because they witnessed how this participant had, in the past, created these collaborative resources and freely shared them back with the larger community.

I think it was probably <name removed> in <location removed> who wrote in and said “You know, I don’t even know what’s on your document but I want to be part of it because of your openness and your willingness to share, and your willingness to let everyone collaborate and use it again.” That’s the kind of attitude that we need. And I’m not saying that I’m special for having that attitude, I’m just saying that idea of openness I think is really critical.

By conducting this work in the open on Twitter, the work of this participant became transparent and visible to the members of her PLN, which builds up goodwill in her PLN. This goodwill then translates itself into motivation among members of her PLN to participate in collaborative projects she initiates. In the end, the shared resource was not only shared back with the PLN, but to the wider educational community.


The role of Twitter in Personal Learning Networks

My Masters thesis (the full title is The Twitter experience: the role of Twitter in the formation and maintenance of personal learning networks) is now publicly available in the DSpace archives at Royal Roads University.

Here is the abstract:

This qualitative phenomenological study involving in-depth interviews with seven educators in K-12 and higher education examines the role that the microblogging service Twitter plays in the formation and development of Personal Learning Networks (PLN) among educators. A double hermeneutic data analysis shows that Twitter plays a role in the formation and development of PLNs by allowing educators to; engage in consistent and sustained dialogue with their PLN, access the collective knowledge of their PLN, amplify and promote more complex thoughts and ideas to a large audience, and expand their PLN using features unique to Twitter. This research also examines the nature of a PLN and shows that participants believe their PLN extends beyond their Twitter network to encompass both face-to-face and other ICT mediated relationships. Secondary research questions examine how Twitter differs from other social networking tools in mediating relationships within a PLN, what motivates an educator to develop a PLN, how trust is established in a PLN, what the expectations of reciprocity are within a PLN, and what is the nature of informal learning within a PLN.

It has been on the site for just over week now and I was holding off to post this until the RRU thesis office could correct the typo in the title (all fixed) I noticed that people have started making reference to it (thank you, Dan), so thought I should get something up here.

Other than the spelling mistake, one glaring oversight on my part is the lack acknowledgments, so if you will indulge me I want to publicly acknowledge some people.

First, to the 7 participants in the study, thank you for your time, your voices and your stories. This was not a “spend 10 minutes filling out a survey” type project, and I appreciate your graciousness and generosity as participants.

To my thesis supervisor, Bill Muirhead – a calming presence who was always there when I needed him, his steady hand guided me through the process. I feel extremely fortunate to have him as a mentor.

To my PLN (and you know who you are but if you don’t here’s a big hint – you are reading this right now). You feed my head with the best stuff. Thanks.

To my co-workers at both Camosun College and Royal Roads University, specifically Susan Chandler (Camosun) and Mary Burgess (RRU) who’s support and understanding cleared many non-thesis related hurdles away from my path during this project.

Finally, to my family; Maggie and Graeme, who missed their Dad a lot during the whole Masters journey (yes, Graeme, Dad is finished his see-ssus). I know a trip to Disneyland won’t make up for all this missed weekends, but I suspect it might help :).   And to my wife, Dana. No one has had to wear the extra burden of this project more than her, and I feel truly blessed to have someone as supportive as her in my life.


3 research studies on potential advantages of using Twitter in the classroom

Three academic studies are cited in this article about Twitter, and how it can increase student engagement, enhance social presence, and help develop peer support models among students through the formation of personal learning networks.

Amplify’d from
A small but impressive study of students at Lockhaven University in Pennsylvania found that those who used Twitter to continue class discussions and complete assignments were more engaged in their classwork than students who did not.

Four sections (70 students) were given assignments and discussions that incorporated Twitter, such as tweeting about their experiences on a job shadow day or commenting on class readings. Three sections (55 students) did the same assignments and had access to the same information, but didn’t use Twitter.

In addition to showing more than twice the improvement in engagement than the control group, the students who used Twitter also achieved on average a .5 point increase in their overall GPA for the semester.

An earlier study [pdf] by Joanna C. Dunlap and Patrick R. Lowenthal from the University of Colorado at Denver found that Twitter was able to “enhance social presence” and produce other instructional benefits in an online course.

Another experiment into the use of social media at the University of Leicester found that tweeting helps to develop peer support among students and personal learning networks and can be used as a data collection tool. Read a more detailed description of the experiment here. [via Faculty Focus]



On social software & student ownership of their own tools

Two points from this article. First, social software enables learning conversations to occur outside of the classroom, not only between students, but also between students and the larger community. Second, when students taking ownership of their own tools, they are set up to become lifelong learners. My take is that this requires flexibility on the part of educators in that they have to be willing to go where the learners are and let the learner decide where they want these conversations to occur.

Amplify’d from

But, most importantly, their learning experiences often involve a conversation, a process, and this conversation can include teachers and others with knowledge in their field. The skills students gain in the process are those they need to join a wider community and succeed in today’s economy.

Colleges and universities need to do more to incorporate social software into their courses and methodologies. I hear from faculty and administrators regularly about transformations of entire programs to the social/conversational/active learning paradigm of today.

This extension of the learning conversation online (with blogs, wikis, e-mail, texting, chat, conferencing systems, portfolios, and so on), helps students develop online literacy skills. Though it is dependent on technology, it represents a return to the roots of human learning. Learning has always involved conversation. In fact, knowledge results from, or increasingly is, consensus-building through conversation.

To the extent that students are engaged in that conversation using their own–literally their own–Web and Internet applications, some of them have a chance to become independent, life-long learners and enjoy a better chance to develop their own expertise




There’s something happening here

Something happening here

Something is happening at my institution. I seem to be connecting with more of our faculty on Facebook and Twitter. Interest in blogging among faculty is growing, and every week I am hearing of another faculty person starting to blog or tweet.

What is both interesting and encouraging is the topic of conversation in these spaces. They are talking about teaching and learning. They are sharing links and resources. They are connecting with each other and talking about their craft. They are developing their PLN’s, and it is very cool to see happening.

One striking example of what I am seeing occurred recently where I took part in a conversation on Facebook with an instructor who posted the following status update:

How do I measure student engagement in my classroom? How would I evaluate them if I decide not to use exams anymore?

There was a great response from his colleagues and a rich discussion ensued. But then something interesting happened. It wasn’t just other faculty who were responding. There were staff, his friends, his Dean — and students. Students who he was FB friends with weighed in with their opinions on what kind of strategies they thought would engage them. His students were responding to his question, and posting their responses to what others were suggesting.  Talk about a rich formative evaluation, done completely informally and naturally, prompted by a simple question posted as a status update.

I am not sure what is going on. Perhaps we are reaching a tipping point where there are enough people now engaged with social networks that  where this type of interaction is possible. Perhaps it is because we have a new Dean in Arts and Science. He blogs. He tweets. He connects with his faculty in Facebook. And I think he is setting the tone for his School. Perhaps his presence in these social spaces, talking about both professional and personal things, is making it somehow more inviting for his faculty. I’m not sure. But whatever the reasons, it is great to see and be able to take part in these conversations without having to wait for a once a year conference, or a chance hallway encounter.



I’ve signed up for Personal Learning Environments Networks & Knowledge, a Massively Open Online Course (MOOC) from Stephen Downes, George Siemens, Rita Kop and Dave Cormier. I am not sure how much I will be able to participate, considering I am already in the throes of a thesis, but the topic is so perfectly aligned with my thesis research on PLN’s, informal learning and the role of microblogging that I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to participate at some level.

Conceptually, there is a pretty clear distinction in my head between PLE’s and PLN’s. In very broad terms, I think of PLE’s as the technology, with the PLN being the people. The PLE enables me to build a PLN. Not that everyone who is part of my PLN requires technology to connect with, but technology has made my PLN much richer, more diverse, and instantly available.

Personally, I am more interested in the PLN than the PLE. Considering I am primarily a technologist in my day job, this is probably a bit off-kilter, but while I use a PLE (built primarily in Netvibes and good ol fashioned, still alive and kicking butt in my little world RSS) and find it invaluable to my learning, I realize I am not a typical user. I do wonder how viable the idea of learners constructing their own environments really is within the context of higher education, which is one of the things I hope this course will help me come to terms with.

But the PLN – I am much more interested in the PLN as a learning construct, both formally and informally, and how it is similar or different to other learning constructs, such as networks of practice and communities of practice.

About a year ago, I wrote about my casual search on trying to historically define the term Personal Learning Network, and came across a 1999 article by Dori Digenti called Collaborative Learning: A Core Capability for Organizations in the New Economy (pdf) in which she noted that reciprocity and trust are two crucial elements in constructing a PLN. I have thought about, and referred to, this article a lot in the past year, specifically when speaking about the idea of reciprocity and how it manifests itself in a network enabled PLN. The more I have thought about it, and the more I examine my own use of a PLN, the more I realize that the reciprocity in a PLN is not so much between myself and individuals within the PLN, but between myself and the PLN itself. I find myself both answering and asking questions to a relatively anonymous group of people whom I have weak ties with, with whom I have developed a certain level of trust with, based primarily on the ambient exposure I have to them and their ideas as a result of them being open and transparent on the web. How did I get to trust these people? Why do I think they know something that will help me? And what are the expectations of me of the people who choose to include me in their PLN? What are my responsibilities? Or are there even any responsibilities?  Oh, the questions.

The other point on PLN’s that I am interested in is a bit more grounded, and that is whether people who use PLN’s use them as a general tool, or segment them to professional development. In my view, a PLN is a general learning tool regardless of what I want to learn, yet I often see PLN’s used primarily as tools for professional development. But I realize that I only get a small glimpse into other people’s PLN’s based on who I am and the role they believe I play in their PLN, so this is probably not the case.

Okay, I need to wrap this up. Hopefully I’ll be able to articulate some of this more clearly in the coming weeks, and be able to contribute to your PLN’s in a meaningful way. At the very least, I am happy to be along for this PLENK2010 ride.


Facilitating a distributed discussion – an experiment

Get Connected!

The latest course in my Masters is Facilitation and Community Building, and I have an interesting experiential assignment this week. I am working with 2 other members of my cohort to facilitate a discussion with the rest of our cohort.

Our topic is facilitating collaboration in virtual teams and we’re trying something a little bit different and I’m feeling a tad nervous about it (I keep telling myself nervous is good when learning). In the spirit of networked learning, instead of facilitating the discussion in our closed Moodle forum, we are going to try taking the discussion outside of the LMS and onto a couple of blog posts that we found which are related to our topic.

Part of the reason why we decided to do it this way is because all three of us facilitating this week are strong believers in networked learning as a way to engage with a broad array of voices and opinions in our field. While the assignment we have come up with may be a bit more prescriptive than constructivist, it will hopefully give the rest of our cohort a brief opportunity to try their hand at network learning.

For the past couple of days, our cohort has been reading 2 articles on facilitating virtual teams in a collaborative environment. Tonight we posted the second part of the assignment and have asked them to visit (at least) one of three blog posts related to the topic and leave a comment on the blog. The posts we have chosen are:

  • Lurking and Loafing from Steve Wheeler talks about social loafing, lurking and how to encourage participation.
  • Collaboration from Ben Grey questions the differences between collaboration and cooperation.
  • Dysfunctional Teams from Tony Karrer is a nice summary of Patrick Lencioni’s Five Dysfunctions of a Team.

Hopefully, these authors won’t mind us practicing a bit of network learning to try to spur some conversation on the topic of collaboration and virtual teamwork. So Steve, Ben and Tony, if you happen to notice a few new comments on these posts this week, take it as a good sign that you’ve engaged some of our cohort. There are 9 of us, so hopefully distributed over three blogs you won’t feel overwhelmed with a sudden influx of comments.

And if anyone in my network reading this would like to join in our conversation, that would be wonderful as well. If you get a chance, pop by these posts, respond to a few comments and help us illustrate the power of networked learning.

Photo: Get Connected by Divergent Learner used under Creative Commons license.


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.