What is a PLN?
A professional learning network (PLN) is a way for people to connect with others in the same profession or field of study. It is a way to connect online and create professional dialogue, share learning experiences, and build relationships that might otherwise not be possible.
Creating a PLN
PLN's can grow quickly. It has been my experience that you never realize how many things you are interested in until you see all the connections you can make. It might be a good thing to start small and just focus on your area, whether it is a grade level, new teacher, technology facilitator, etc.
PLN's can be established on a variety of social media platforms.
There are several social media sites where you can establish a PLN. The image above are some of the more popular ones. I have been on Twitter since 2014, but only recently in the last two years really started establishing a PLN on there. Because I have an established PLN on Twitter, I wanted to start a new one on a different site.
I decided to set up an Instagram account for my role as a technology facilitator at my school and a student of the Instructional Systems Technology program at UNC Charlotte. My account name is MrN_TechFac.
After creating my account, I began to search for people or companies to follow based on the topics of digital citizenship, instructional design, and apps/software/learning management systems (LMS). There were seven accounts I started following. I included a link the website and their Instagram username. I did not include the Instagram link because many schools and universities block this site.
Mobile devices are one way to stay connected to your PLN.
Experience Creating a PLN
The image above is of the Instagram icon as it would appear on a mobile device. For me, this is an important point because I find myself accessing the two PLN's I have almost exclusively from my phone. The only time I access my Twitter account on a laptop is when I am participating in a Twitter chat. I have only accessed Instagram with a laptop for this presentation in order to create screenshots. Other than this one time, I access Instagram primarily on my phone.
My experience with Instagram as a PLN is that I use it as a place where I can gather information on topics of interest and learn about upcoming events, such as Twitter chats, podcasts, or webinars. I feel I am much more discerning with my Instagram PLN than I have been with Twitter. When I first started using my Twitter account, I felt I had to follow everything and everyone. With Instagram, I pay much more attention to certain aspects of an account before I choose to follow it. For example, I look at how many followers an account has and what type of material they are posting.
To be honest, I never realized how set in my ways I was with my Twitter account and the PLN I established there. Creating a new account and PLN on Instagram forced me out of my comfort zone and made me look for new connections. They say that PLN's are a great way to foster lifelong learning. I believe this is true, and starting a new PLN on a different social network made me feel like the new kid in the class. However, after a few days I was checking my Instagram account just as much as Twitter to see if any of the accounts I follow posted something new. The thing I also realized is that the people and groups I am following on Instagram also have accounts on other sites like Twitter, so my PLN there has also increased.
I now have a total of 15 accounts I am following. I am still in the browsing, or observation phase with this account. By this, I mean that I have not posted anything yet on Instagram. I have just been looking around at what others post and occasionally liking a few posts here and there. Sharing on PLN's is still something I struggle with and I will discuss more of this in the next section.
Advice for starting a PLN
If starting a PLN is completely new to you, then the first step is to decide which social network you would like to use. Examples of some social networks out there are in the image above, but there are also others like Pinterest or Snapchat. As I stated above in the Creating a PLN section, they can grow quickly. Even though I am a little more selective with accounts on Instagram, I still went from following 7 accounts to 15 in two weeks. This will probably grow even more as I become more comfortable with the site. I also added most of these accounts to my Twitter PLN, so there is a possibility for a lot of overlap if you are on more than one social network.
5 points for creating and contributing to a PLN
For me, this is the hardest part and causes me the most anxiety when creating a PLN. Usernames can range from a variation of your first and last name or it can be something much more creative. If you go with the more creative side, it is still good to include something about your interests or your profession. For example, if you are a media and technology specialist you could do something like - @MrMediaTech.
Another note about this is be sure to include a picture of yourself in your profile. More and more employers are doing internet and social media searches as part of their hiring process, so they need to know who is behind the creative username.
What to share?
This can be another source of anxiety for me. If I come across a post or a tweet that I think is interesting, I always hesitate to post it. I feel it has probably been retweeted hundreds of times, so why bother. I also worry about receiving extreme negative feedback from someone who disagrees with the post. This has happened to me only once with an education article I retweeted from a credible source. It is also important when you retweet something that it is from a credible source and not something that could later be labeled as fake news. When it comes to sharing on social media, the two questions I ask are - Is it professional? Is it positive? This leads appropriately to the third point.
Keep it professional
This might seem like common sense, but it is worth including here. A PLN is a "professional" learning network. While there are times when family, work, and politics might cross paths, I feel it is important to keep the conversation on a positive and professional tone. This usually means steering clear of controversial or divisive topics.
You have to give something to get something
This was a lesson I learned the hard way. When I first started using Twitter on a regular basis, I was just observing what others posted or using resources they tweeted. I was not contributing anything to the education PLN I was trying to establish. It became apparent to me when I messaged someone several times with no response. A few days later, I decided to attend their Twitter chat and we began a dialogue that continues to this day. He never came right out and said what I was doing wrong, but the message was loud and clear. I continued to notice this trend from others I followed.
Don't feel obliged to return the follow
You will receive notifications every time someone is following you or wants to follow you. Before choosing to follow them back, check out the account and make sure it is something that you want connected to your PLN. There are the occasional followers that are not professional or appropriate. You do not have to follow them back and there are ways to block that specific account and accounts like that.
Examples of posts on Instagram
Below are examples of three accounts that I follow with brief explanations under each.
The image above shows how you can see stories from people you are following and suggestions of other accounts you might be interested in following.
This post gives you information about an upcoming event a person is doing, such as a podcast.
People also post videos about how to make better use of certain apps,. In this example it is Canva. Thanks to this post I am now following Canva.
This is an example of how one social network can inform you of another. This is a post about a Twitter chat for new teachers. The other Twitter handles listed here can lead you to more people in your PLN.
People also post informative posters like this one about adult learners.
The two images above show two types of videos Common Sense Media posts on Instagram. Of all the accounts I follow, Common Sense posts several times a day.