PLN=Plenty of Learning Needed: Getting to grips with a different way to learn

Knowledge now lives not just in libraries and museums and academic journals. It lives not just in the skulls of individuals. Our skulls and our institutions are simply not big enough to contain knowledge. Knowledge is now a property of the network…(Weinberger, p12, 2011).

Living in 2016, the internet is part of life for almost all Australians. In 2012-13, 83% of the population were internet users, and those in the 15 to 17 years age group had the highest proportion at 97% (ABS, 2014). Worldwide, the internet has penetrated almost 50% of the global population (2015, It is fair to say that we currently have access to more information via this network than any human has ever had throughout history.

This abundance of information hasn’t just been transferred to the internet from another source; it is the very nature of the internet, being a huge network where information and expertise can be shared via multiple streams in multiple formats that has enabled this explosion of content.  In my previous post I began investigating the work of Stephen Downes (2012) and George Siemens (2006). They suggest that living in an age of abundant and rapidly changing information, to which we have ubiquitous access, must change the way we understand knowledge and learning. Seeing knowledge as a ‘flow’, and learning as the process of creating the pipes along which this knowledge can flow reflects the fact that very little stays the same for very long.

When knowledge was published in books, it had a life of at least as long as a year – before a revised edition of the publication could be written and pushed through the publication process. Now that knowledge is published online, it can be updated in seconds. The open nature of the web encourages growth; At the time this blog post was written, English Wikipedia included 5,070,364 articles and averaged 800 new articles per day (Wikipedia Stats, 2016).

The half -life of knowledge, as depicted by George Siemens, p81 2006. Used with permission under CC Licence.
The half -life of knowledge, as depicted by George Siemens, p81 2006. Used with permission under CC Licence.

Whereas once a pre-service degree set up a professional for a life-long career, nowadays the expectation is that learning is life-long; and that professionals continually update, refresh and renew their skills, knowledge and understandings. One way to do this is via an online PLN – an online Professional Learning Network.

PLNs are nothing new; teachers have been networking for years to learn, share, discuss and feedback on ideas and strategies for the classroom (GTCE, 2005). The difference is that with access to the internet, the network can be broadened to include a wide range of people from all over the world, each with their own knowledge and experience to share. This diversity is what enriches the learning experience and enables opportunities for knowledge creation to occur – as Pataraia et al have found, ‘the characteristics of the networks in which individuals are embedded have a significant influence on what individuals know’ (2014).

Pinning down what a PLN actually looks like is tricky. Prior to social media’s growth, Tobin suggests a PLN is “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” (1998). More recently, online networks have broadened the definition.  Elliott describes a PLN as a ‘set of resources, both physical and digital, of your own choice, which are always available, and are used for the growth of personal knowledge and skills required to thrive in emerging information environments” (p. 48, 2009). Treading the middle ground, Way (2012) finds that PLNs can be facilitated by technology or be conducted face to face, or indeed be a combination of both. Importantly, a PLN goes beyond simply connecting with others. Nussbaum-Beach reminds us that just because one follows a lot of people (on social media) doesn’t mean that they are engaging in worthwhile professional development (p.13, 2013). Indeed, the power of online PLNs comes through the interactions that occur – the connections that are created and the knowledge that is remixed, re-designed and re-imagined. While it may feel like the learner is a the centre of the PLN, they are actually only one part of a much wider network – and interdependence means that sharing is key. Warlick captures the active nature of PLNs when he says

Learners become amplifiers as they engage in reflective and knowledge-building activities, connect and reconnect what they learn, add value to existing knowledge and ideas, and then
re-issue them back into the network to be captured by others (p.16, 2009)

There are many blog posts about how to develop a PLN (my own included), and there will be scope for discussion on this in future posts I am sure. However I’d like to conclude with a  parallell between the way that I have always understood online PLNs to develop and the way that Siemens presents connectivism as a staged view of how individuals encounter and explore knowledge in a networked manner (which, in essence, could be described as the type of learning that occurs within a PLN).

Please note, that although I describe Connectivism as the theory and PLN as the practice, I do not mean to say that these are directly in relation to each other; only that one is more theoretical in its nature, and one is more practical. Also, Siemens’ view of a PLN includes offline connections; when I refer to the PLN, I am referring to purely online interactions.



Australian Bureau of Statistics (2014, February 25). Personal Internet Use. Retrieved 2 February 201, from

Downes, S. (2012). Connectivism and Connective Knowledge. Canada: Stephen Downes.

Elliott, C. (2009). We are not alone : the power of personal learning networks. Synergy, 7(1), 47-50.

GTCE. (2005). Networks: The potential for teacher learning. In G. T. C. f. England (Eds.) Available from

Nussbaum-Beach, S. (2013). Just the facts: PLNs. The Phi Delta Kappan, 94(7), 16-17. Retrieved from

Pataraia, N., Margaryan, A., Falconer, I., Littlejohn, A., & Falconer, J. (2014). Discovering academics’ key learning connections: An ego-centric network approach to analysing learning about teaching. Journal of Workplace Learning, 26(1), 56-72. doi:10.1108/JWL-03-2013-0012

Siemens, G. (2006). Knowing knowledge. United States: George Siemens.

Warlick, D. (2009). Grow your personal learning network: New technologies can keep you
connected and help you manage information overload. Learning & Leading with
Technology, 36(6), 12-16.

Way, J. (2012). Developing a personal learning network for fast and free professional learning. Access, 26(1), 16-19.

Wikipedia:Statistics. (2016, January 22). In Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia. Retrieved from<

Weinberger, D. (2011). Too big to know : rethinking knowledge now that the facts aren’t the facts, experts are everywhere, and the smartest person in the room is the room. New York: Basic Books.

World Internet Users Statistics and 2015 World Population Stats. (2015, November 30). Retrieved February 2, 2016, from

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