The Symphonic Magic of the PLN

Some might say that a symphony orchestra represents a type of magic. Here are a group of (very talented) individuals, each expert players of their own particular instrument. When they play alone, they make beautiful music. However when they join together within a concert hall, led by a conductor, what they create is nothing short of a miracle. It may be no longer possible to identify an individual instrument, and yet if one were not to play, its absence would be noted. The players and their conductor share certain goals – to produce a beautiful piece of music, to entertain, to bring joy – but these goals are secondary to each player’s individual goal – to play his or her instrument to the highest standard, following the conductor, and the particular piece of musical notation which represents their part of the whole. Without this individual excellence, the overall production would suffer.

Overture The Magic Flute by Mozart flickr photo by mohamedn shared under a Creative Commons (BY) license

Developing your own PLN is somewhat like being the conductor of an orchestra. The conductor has a goal that is singular – to draw the best from each player, and to bring their playing together in such a way as to create magnificent music. The musicians in the orchestra represent the ‘nodes’ or contacts of the PLN – the people, information or resources that the conductor creates connections with in order to achieve this goal. The participants of a PLN share certain goals – to enhance professional knowledge, to contribute to the greater good of the profession, to seek and offer support and collegiality. However, just as every orchestra has a conductor, every PLN is determined by the autonomous individual, who drives their own learning according their interests, passions and learning needs. Whether a PLN offers a successful learning experience is dependent upon the individual’s actions, although they require the contributions of many others in order to learn.

This is how a PLN, which is underpinned by the social construction of learning, is ultimately an autonomous learning experience.

Here is a diagram explaining the similarities in more detail:

How the PLN reflects an orchestra

So how does this analogy of the orchestra help us?

1. It helps us explain the PLN to others
Let’s face it. Trying to explain how ‘socially’ constructed learning is ‘autonomously’ conducted sounds paradoxical. Using the analogy of an orchestra helps people new to PLNs understand that although a PLN is dependent upon people working together, it is up to each individual to contribute and manage their own learning and network.

2. It helps explain that PLNs take time to develop
Social media tools do not define a PLN, just as individual musical instruments do not define an orchestra. It is what the musicians do with the instruments that creates the magic. And musicians playing in a symphony orchestra did not pick up their instruments yesterday. It takes time to learn how to play, more time to refine and consolidate, and then practice to develop the skills needed to play as a part of an orchestra. Play with social media tools. Try a few different ones out. You may find Twitter floats your boat, or that Facebook meets your needs more effectively. You may like the visual nature of Pinterest, or need the more detailed, text driven Diigo to help you manage your information. All of this takes time. Once you have found some tools that you like, spend time getting to know how they work. Don’t feel that you need to dive into the deep end straight away. Understanding how to use social media tools to enhance professional learning, developing your network and becoming an interactive ‘node’ in others’ networks takes time, and just as with instruments, the more you practice, the more natural it will become.

3. It captures the magic of the PLN
I entitled this blog post The Symphonic Magic of the PLN because when you have an active, living PLN, it can indeed be truly magical. It is symphonic because of the interweaving nodes, with one connection leading to another, and one piece of learning springboarding you into a world of new ideas. There is something truly special about the blending of different musical instruments, that cannot be replicated. The learning opportunities that may emerge from a PLN are also one of a kind. The capacity to connect all over the globe, to learn and share with others who share your passions (if not your home country) and the feeling when someone reaches out across oceans of time and space to say ‘thanks for sharing’ or ‘I’ve been there – you’ll be ok’ is like nothing else. The flow of a fast paced tweetchat, where ideas are flying and people are riffing off each other, the discovery of a carefully curated collection of resources in just the area you were looking for, or the opportunity to do something you never thought possible due to an invitation from another in your network are all examples of how a PLN can be magical. But, just as with an orchestra, you have to be there to experience it. Listening to a CD duplication is not the same. In short, if you want to be a part of the symphony, you have to take action!

These are developing thoughts. I’d love to know what you think; how do you describe your PLN to others? Did you find this analogy helpful? What resources do you feel would help you explain the magic of the PLN to others? Let me know in the comments!

8 thoughts on “The Symphonic Magic of the PLN”

  1. Hi KO
    I´ll start to ask you to oversee with my english.
    I´m head of center for educational development at Luleå Technological university in sweden. I wrote a thesis about educational culture, based on a burning interest in the connection of how we “arrange the courses or learning practice” with the learning outcome.
    Today I´m writing on material to inspire our university board to set an interesting vision for education 2030.
    I´m also presenting PLE at an ingeneer education conferens as an important phenomena when struggling with students goal becoming professional, learning digital literacy, and to connect university teaching/environment with resources “out there”. Even if it may not be the solution of all challenges it surly raise a lot of constructive questions to Higher education development.
    I like this metaphor – about the orchestra – and i´m working from the point of “space of emergence” (Biesta) which connects to your point that personalised learning network can´t be delivered. they need to own the idea and the intention behind the content and strategy of the network.
    I work with what we call MOTA – modell of target attributes – to help students to early grasp and through education develop the personal and real goal of their education. With an artefact where they write the most important attributes that signifies the skilled performer within the profession they study they also create a “map” for what kind of learning environment they need to construct.
    You write about PLN – and I´m curious how you relate that to PLE? I really want to keep an dialogue with you and maybe have the opportunity to discuss this issues more deeply.

    1. Hi Oskar
      Your work sounds fascinating, and appears to have a great deal of alignment with my areas of research interest.
      I would love to continue this conversation with you in more depth. Please send me a message through the Contact page on this blog at so that we may make email contact.

      In answer to your question, I see the PLE as related to, but not part of the PLN. Interestingly, in my PhD research, I have been asking participants to draw a map or visualisation of their PLNs and this seems to be similar to what you are asking your students to do. The PLE to me is the place where the network is situated, whereas the PLN is the structure of nodes and relations that enable and create the knowledge exchange and production. I discussed this briefly in a previous blog post, which you can read here:

      I think that what you are proposing in assisting students to develop their network and digital literacy skills is very important, and an essential part of contemporary tertiary education. Constructing ones’ own learning environment and pursuing ongoing connections in order to continue constructing new knowledge and to identify patterns within connections is an under-utilised and under-recognised skill that supports those interacting within constantly changing and nebulous contexts.

      I look forward to hearing from you and learning more about your project; it sounds fascinating! Thanks for getting in touch!

  2. Hi Kay,
    I sought inspiration in your post for my own ONL172 blog post on topic 3. You can read it on my blog (stated below – sorry, I wasn’t allowed to paste the link here)
    I really liked your musical analogy, and I gave it a little twist, from a symphonic orchestra to an improvisation jazz ensemble. I hope you like it!

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