Using Social Media To Build Your Personal Learning Network

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|  By Dr Carol Skyring  |

Your personal learning network (PLN) connects you to a vast array of people so that you can harness their collective intelligence to enhance your own learning.

The old saying is that two minds are better than one. If that is the case, then how much better are dozens (or hundreds) of minds and how can you harness these minds to your own advantage? Harnessing the collective intelligence of other educators gives you access to vast amounts of knowledge and experience which you can use to find answers, help, resources and advice for your own teaching.

Harnessing Collective Intelligence

Collective intelligence has been most simply described by Jenkins (2006) as “a situation where nobody knows everything, everyone knows something, and what any given member knows is accessible to any other member upon request on an ad hoc basis”. Harnessing collective intelligence through a personal learning network (PLN) can enhance your learning. Social media extends your PLN by enabling you to harness the collective intelligence of a wide group of peers and experts from around the world. Part of knowing how to learn involves knowing how to create and exploit social networks and the expertise of others within those networks (Pea, 1993). It has been found (Lalonde, 2011) that social media provides teachers a way to access the collective knowledge of their PLN through sharing links, posting questions and facilitating collaborative projects among their PLN.

Creating your PLN

Educators who have a PLN have told me that they have learnt more from their PLN in a few months than they did in four years in their degree course! The nature of a PLN, as the name suggests, is that it is personal. Your PLN will be uniquely yours and not like any other person’s PLN – although you might share many common contacts. Start your PLN slowly and build over time – an avalanche of information in the early stages can overwhelm you.

The right social media tool will depend on your subjects of interest. The more well-known sites that are used by educators include Twitter, LinkedIn, Google+, YouTube and Facebook. However, others can be useful for specific topics – for example, Instagram for photography or art. A social bookmarking site such as Diigo is useful for finding resources collated by others, as well as for storing and organising the numerous website links you will receive from your PLN. Digital curation sites such as Scoop-it and Pinterest can also be useful for finding and storing resources.

To find the best site, run a search on some keywords of interest on several sites. For example, type ‘astronomy twitter’ into Google and you will be rewarded with dozens of people and organisations who share astronomy ideas and resources. Searching ‘maths google+’ will give you similar results for maths people and communities in Google+. Once you have run your search, check out a few of the people or groups to see if they share information that would be useful to you. If so, sign up for an account (if you do not already have one) and start building your PLN.

Building your PLN

Once you create your PLN, build it by adding valuable people. Choose a few interesting people from your chosen social media site and follow them. Have a look at their profile and see who they follow – it is most likely that the people they follow will also be of interest to you. As you find people of interest, follow them to add them to your own PLN.

A number of social media sites use hashtags (#) to isolate topics of interest. For example, #edchat is a well-established hashtag in Twitter which has live meetups (via Twitter) as well as being used to denote resources of interest to those who follow #edchat. To build your PLN, check the posts of people you decide to follow to find any hashtags they use. Click on the hashtag to discover what topics and ideas are shared. If these appear to be of interest to you, add them to your PLN.

Most sites have some way for you to organise the people within them. In Twitter, you can create lists. For example, I have a list named Gurus which contains the people I regard as experts in my field of interest. This is a good technique to quickly filter these people from the mass of people and information in your network. Facebook also allows you to categorise people and then post to just chosen groups – another valuable way to manage your PLN.

Slowly build up your network, but do not let it become unmanageable – better to have a smaller, high-quality network than one including hundreds (or even thousands) of people who are not sharing useful resources. A PLN can be a valuable resource, but it needs tending. Check in with it regularly, but do not feel that you have to read everything that everyone in your network shares – this will certainly drive you crazy.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Harnessing collective intelligence has advantages and disadvantages for professional learning. The great advantage is the access to a pool of colleagues and experts from whom you can collect resources and ideas. Conversely, these large amounts of information can become problematic to manage and become a disadvantage if you do not have an effective process for managing the information. Exchange of information alone is not enough – you need to filter, select and categorise information for your own purposes. Having a PLN and harnessing collective intelligence should not be an exercise in compiling vast amounts of information which you will never use.

Managing Information from your PLN

Develop your own system for storing and labelling information. Much of the information from social media sites is here today and gone tomorrow, so you will need to save valuable resources to another source. Social bookmarking and digital curation sites mentioned earlier are ideal for this.

Key words, tags or categories are a good way to have your information easily searchable. It is worth taking the time in the beginning to think through some tags that you are likely to use and implement them immediately. Over time, you can add to your list of tags or categories, but it is a time-consuming exercise to go back and apply these to previously saved resources – far better to start as you intend to continue.

Good PLN Etiquette

There are a few unwritten rules. Building a PLN requires that you not only seek to learn from others, but also that you help others in the network to learn. First and foremost, you should be generous. Nobody likes someone who just takes – they are often referred to as leeches! Share resources and ideas freely – you will always receive more than you can give. Some examples of resources that are useful to others are websites, articles and videos. It does not take much to share these with your PLN as you find them in your daily activities. If you are on-sharing resources and ideas from others, be sure to acknowledge them – this recognises the value of others in your PLN.

Engage with your PLN. Commenting on other people’s posts is one way to do this. Everyone likes to think that someone is listening to them, and commenting is one way that you can indicate this. You might merely thank them for a valuable resource, or perhaps engage by adding your thoughts to create a discussion. Asking questions is another way to engage with your PLN. People love to answer questions and their answers will give you a broad, but qualified, view.

There are also some do nots for your PLN. Most importantly, do not share information or links that you have not checked yourself – even if they come from a trusted source. It is always possible that a spammer has been at work, so you do not want to spread false or even malicious information to your network. And be sure not to be a spammer yourself. Bombarding your network with the same message is a form of spam in PLNs – particularly if it is of an advertising nature.

Finally, learn the language of your chosen social media site/s. They all vary, although there are often crossovers. By not knowing the language you could, at best, look foolish and, at worst, be missing out on valuable resources. Whether you are just starting your PLN, or you are a seasoned PLN user, enjoy creating, building and learning.

For a full list of references, email

Dr Carol Skyring researches and writes about the use of social media for professional learning. Her papers and articles can be accessed at

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