7 Steps to Student PLNs

Network (in glorious Helvetica)Photo Credit: Alexander Baxevanis via Compfight

One of my goals for 2014 is to apply what I have been planning for quite some time now: encourage my students to develop their own PLNs.

In brief, a PLN (Personal Learning Network) is “an informal learning network that consists of the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from in a personal learning environment”. Interactions can take place online and the learner does not have to meet those people in person.

My own PLN consists of like-minded educators from all around the world; they are the people I learn from and with on a daily basis. They are those who share with me and inspire me to experiment, reflect and become a better educator. Whether I have met them in person or not, these people are now part of my life. I’m not isolated anymore; I’m part of a community of lifelong learners.

How would it be like if students developed their own PLNs in areas of interest or talent? Not only would they be encouraged to learn independently but they would also have access to information and communities impossible to reach from within classroom walls. After all, as 21st century teachers, we are no longer the sole providers of knowledge; however, we can be the ones who will show them the way to opportunities; those who will provide them with skills to learn from and with a global network of people.

Below are 7 steps that I consider essential to this endeavour. The list is by no means exhaustive and you are invited to make your own contributions through a comment or blogpost 🙂

Step 1: Reflect on how you developed your own PLN

Our experience in developing and maintaining a PLN should not be taken for granted. Reflect on that. Think about the steps that you took, the mistakes that you made and on what you have learned on the way. If you don’t have a PLN, it’s never too late to create one. You will feel much more confident to teach something that you have personal experience in. Read what Shelly Terrell and Vicky Loras suggest and contact me in case you need further help 🙂

Step 2: Teach students Digital Citizenship skills

To participate in online communities effectively, students will need to be equipped with skills to use technology responsibly, ethically and safely. They should be polite and tolerant with people; they should be critical thinkers, able to challenge and filter a vast array of information found online; they should also be aware of the dangers they might encounter and be able to deal with them effectively. Even if your students are aware of these concepts, reminding them is always a good idea.

Step 3: Give it time

As you will know from your own experience, PLNs cannot be developed overnight; they are not static either. They grow as we grow and can slightly change when our needs and interests change as well. Give your students time to build and maintain their PLNs. It might work well as a year round project for instance but you will need to check students’ progress regularly.

Step 4: Encourage active participation

Finding and joining a community of like-minded people might be highly important but PLNs cannot be maintained if students are just consumers of what other people share. They will need to contribute back by taking part in discussions, by creating and sharing their own content. Teach students to be creators. They can start with comments or questions and gradually move on to writing blog posts or creating videos. Anything that will add value to other people’s learning will be appreciated and welcome.

Step 5: Find tools that will suit your students’ needs

Twitter, Facebook groups or blogs can be great PLN platforms. Do your personal research and use the ones that address your students’ needs. You will also need to consider your students’ age. If you teach young learners, platforms like Edublogs or Edmodo might be more appropriate. Curation tools are also important. Teach them to curate and organise information and resources with tools such as diigo, Evernote or scoop.it.

Step 6: Don’t forget that PLNs are personal

The term itself suggests students need to personalise the learning experience and make decisions. Don’t impose networks and interests on them; instead, help them define their goals and motivations and make connections according to them. Personalisation can be achieved even with younger students who need to be supervised more closely; for instance, you can initiate collaboration with kids in other countries but let them have a say over who they want to work with.

Step 7: Act as a model

Last but not least, focus on modeling what learning looks like. Share your own learning and experiences. Tell them how you started your own PLN and how valuable it has been to you. Learn with them and from them. Invite them to teach you something; explore and discover new things together. Be part of their PLN and let them be part of yours.

6 thoughts on “7 Steps to Student PLNs

  1. Great idea, so simple in its design! I’d love to have students gain from a PLN like I have. I wonder though, how you facilitate this into a purpose that makes sense and seems valuable to undergrads of mixed disciplines. I think I’d have to work it into an assignment of some sort, but that figures difficult to manage given the range of interests that would be in one class.

    • Hi Tyson,

      Thank you very much for your comment. It would be great to see how it works with undergrads. My context (EFL, teenagers & YLs) is also very very diverse in terms of interests. When I ask them to pick a niche topic for a project, I’m always surprised by the wide variety of ideas they come up with. I think what makes PLNs so special is the “personal” part in them. What we need to do as educators is first to allow students choice and then to guide them to make it meaningful.

      I’m sure you will do a great job if you try it! In fact I’d be very interested to know how it goes as I will be teaching undergrads soon.



  2. Dear Sophia,

    I like this idea a lot…but a challenge we educators face in Hungary is getting students to be more proactive and self-, rather than teacher-directed. Can we be sure they’ll construct a PLN? Or contribute actively, and not merely consume content? Not everyone wants to be brave and do as I’m doing now!

    I tend to find that WebQuests work well, though – students are happy to be told (loosely speaking) “pick a niche topic (from a menu of options), become an ‘expert’ in it and tell the class all about it.” There’s a lot of mileage in that approach, it seems, and a lot of good presentations have been generated that way. A little scaffolding of what’s expected from students can also work well here.

    As for getting students to participate in online discussions, I’ve tried getting students blogging (on a closed platform) with mixed results, but overall students are much more open in face-to-face class situations. Some love the challenge posed by online dialogue, but by no means everyone seems minded to contribute to online discussions, even if what’s said is only visible to the class. So I have some reservations.

    So, do you by any chance think a PLN plus Web Quest combination could work particularly well? I’d be interested to know what you think.

    • Hi Philip,

      Thank you so much for your comment. I totally understand your concerns. It would be unrealistic to expect or encourage a teacher-centred class to develop a PLN. As you very well pointed out, students need to have developed critical thinking skills first. I’ve taught at primary and secondary level in Greece and I know as an insider how teacher-centred the system can be. But I think you can take baby steps; for instance, by asking your students to pick a niche topic without providing them with a menu of options. This will challenge them to make decisions and feel ownership. Another suggestion for your students would be to try blogging for a wider audience. There is nothing to worry about if you moderate posts and comments. It works very well with my students as they can share their posts beyond classroom/school walls. I find they are much more motivated as well. Public blogging can open up so many more opportunities for connections and learning; we wouldn’t have this professional discussion if I blogged for a restricted audience, for instance.

      I love WebQuests and I use them a lot with my classes. Maybe a good idea would be to ask students to upload their presentations on your class blog (or their individual blogs if that is the case) and ask students from other schools (in Hungary or abroad) to comment on them.

      I would be very interested to see your students’ work by the way. Please, let me know if you share 🙂



      • Thanks for the encouragement, Sophia! Actually, we weren’t doing too badly with my ESP (English for Business Studies) classes last academic year: the contributors did indeed have free choice over what to write about; meanwhile, the presenters generally were asked to look for a new angle on something we’d already covered. But I like your approach towards moderating, I really feel I’ve learnt something there.

        I think you’d have liked the blog my students and I did last year, but unfortunately I’ve lost access to it as I’m not working for the business school any more: I’m studying for an MA in ELT full-time in the UK just now. However, as I’m due to be starting a blog myself as part of my studies next term it would be great if you could read and/or comment on it!

        Best wishes,


        • Hi Phlilip,

          That would be great! Looking forward to reading your posts. It’s always so encouraging when dedicated educators join the blogosphere. There’s so much we can learn from one another. Please, let me know when you start 🙂

          All the best,


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