What is a PLN? Or, PLE vs. PLN?

I am currently writing a chapter regarding open and networked learning. I have used the term Personal Learning Network (PLN) dozens of times over the last few years, and have seen it mentioned countless times in blog and microblog posts, and other forms of media. However, I cannot seem to find a solid reference or definition for the concept of PLN. I sent out several email messages asking people if knew of an existing article or reference for the PLN definition, and I have yet to receive a response. About the best lead I could find was a post from Stephen Downes that mentioned “Dave Warlick has taken the concept of the Personal Learning Environment, renamed it (to Personal Learning Network).”

I thought it was appropriate to ask the question to my PLN (or what I perceive as my PLN) via Twitter. I asked if anyone had a definition for a PLN, or if they knew the difference between a personal learning network and personal learning environment (PLE). I received varied responses, and the majority of these are pasted below. To make more sense of this conversation, read these from the very bottom to the top as they are in reverse chronological order.

PLN Conversation 15
\PLN Conversation 14
PLN Conversation 13
PLN Conversation 12
PLN Conversation 11
PLN Conversation 10
PLN Conversation 9
PLN Conversation 8
PLN Conversation 7
PLN Conversation 6
PLN Conversation 5
PLN Conversation 4
PLN Conversation 3
PLN Conversation 2
PLN Conversation 1

There were a number of interesting perceptions revealed regarding PLNs and PLEs. Participants of this conversation seem passionate about these topics, and there are some very interesting research questions that begin to emerge. If anyone has suggestions for existing academic research that relates to PLNs and PLEs, please let me know.

And this conversation itself seem to have sparked some creativity around these questions. For instance, @bookjewel posted this conversation to Plurk, where @catspyjamasnz (Joyce) developed and shared this diagram (below) that describes her current understanding of the differences between the PLE and PLN.


I also received a Twitter direct message from @BlancheMaynard who shared this important distinction:

PLN is organic; PLE is mechanic. You can use ‘tools’ like Twitter within your PLE to access your network, but the tool isn’t the network.

And, I received a very thoughtful email from @jrichardson30 (Jeff) that helped to give me insight into PLNs and this very conversation. I have included only a small piece of this message as I am hoping Jeff posts his thoughts in their entirety in his own space.

I have a PLN but really haven’t tried to describe it. I have talked about PLN’s with the teachers at my schools but I really haven’t defined it in any certain terms…much less in 140 characters (actually, 132 characters by the time I added in the @courosa to respond on Twitter). So I distilled out what I thought was a somewhat thoughtful response and tweeted it. Well, just like any good steward of Twitter, Dr. Couros quickly responded to my answer. But his response was another question! Isn’t that what good teachers do…use good questioning techniques to get students thinking on higher levels? Of course it is. And he must be a good teacher because his question led me to closely examine what a PLN really is…to discover what it means to me personally. It’s not that defining a PLN has been a pressing issue for me or something that I have lost sleep over. It’s the fact that I entered into a conversation, shared my thoughts and then the conversation didn’t just end. It was been furthered by another person’s response and question…a true conversation.

This conversation has become a learning opportunity for me, my chance to create meaning and gain a better understanding for myself…a meaning and understanding that I can then share with others in my PLN. Maybe I can further this conversation or enter into a new one, but the difference will be that I have something NEW to bring to the community because of my personal discovery as a result having a PLN. Isn’t that our goal for our students…for them to authentically engage in the learning process so as to create/discover meaning that is useful to them personally and then hopefully to contribute to the larger society? Isn’t that what a good citizen does? I believe that is what a PLN is all about…To act as a source AND catalyst for this sort of thought-provoking conversation and authentic experience mentioned above that leads us to a point where are required to engage, to reflect, and ultimately to contribute instead of just consuming.


From a simple question on Twitter, I received dozens of twitter replies, direct messages, and email responses. While I am still having trouble defining exactly what this is, I know that what I observe to be my PLN has dramatically changed the way I view teaching, communities, and the negotiation and formation of knowledge.

So let’s keep the conversation going. What are your thoughts?

33 thoughts on “What is a PLN? Or, PLE vs. PLN?

  1. So you missed one of my replies, “@courosa my simple answer: I prefer term ‘PLN’ because the term ‘network’ contains both ideas of technology AND people” – I mention this not to be pedantic, but because
    a) I think it’s very much what @bookjewel captures in her diagram and
    b) as much as I applaud you efforts to reconstruct the conversation from twitter, I think this illustrates really well (to me at least) why twitter is NOT the great way to have these conversations; for anything I want to document, or really care to preserve the answers, personally I still resort to my blog; it is not as immediate as twitter, and still suffers from having pieces of the distributed conversation strwen across the blogosphere, but usually it seems easier to me to get a sense (and even more importantly, for others, network learners) of ‘a conversational strand.’ Twitter in that regards I think fails (and I *think*, in retrospect, maybe this was what @downes tried to get at with his “twitter is closed” comments months ago, but maybe not). Anyways, good job to document this and tie it all together.

  2. sorry, that should have read “illustrates really well (to me at least) why twitter is NOT the great way to have these conversations” – actually it does say that, but your theme rendered the word ‘Not’ in a weird background way. Is that intentional? Are you promoting positivity through web design? ;-)

  3. Thanks for adding this, Scott. I did not intentionally miss your (or anyone else’s tweet). While I tried to capture this (via Summize and Skitch), @ replies kept coming in, which meant the end points kept dropping off … thus I likely missed more than a few.

    And, I actually tried to get some feedback on how to capture these tweets earlier today, but I didn’t get anywhere. You’re correct, Twitter is poor for keeping tracking of these conversations. I think a lot is lost along the way, and I do prefer a blog space as the alternative. But, in saying that, I’ll take the conversations where they emerge.

  4. Alec

    My comment got chopped off, too. Well, some off-topic humor got included somehow but my serious reply about PLEs and PLNs didn’t. Here it is (slightly expanded since I don’t need to fit in that tiny box here!).:

    The difference between PLNs and PLEs is that PLNs are between people (I agree with others that they are organic) & PLEs are literally the surroundings/affordances. As an analogy: PLNs = passengers; PLEs = Planes, Trains. Automobiles

  5. yeah, no worries, it was a small comment. But I do lament the shared knowledge that often gets lost in twitter conversations (were it not for efforts like yours to recapture it). Twitter has actually made some changes that do help: you’ll have noticed that using the ‘reply’ arrow in a tweet actually creates a database linkage now between the original tweet and its reply, making it easier to follow conversations back. Anyways, small thing, again, thanks for the original question and the summary posted here.

  6. An interesting conversation, and one that I wish I had been a part of. Here’s my take on the PLN/PLE thing. It seems quite similar to what others have said but maybe the analogy I use will be helpful.

    The analogy I would use is that a PLN is similar to the neurons in a brain. The neurons communicate by passing information within an incredibly complex network. Each neuron only communicates with the other neurons to which it is connected. When enough neurons are interconnected, they form a neural network which seems to be the basic functional unit of learning within the brain.

    Within the brain there is another group of cells called the glial cells. Glial cells are the support cells that provide infrastructure for the neurons. They support them physically and nutritionally. They maintain connections between the neurons and modulate signal transmission between them. During development of neuronal connections they guide the migration of neurons and connections between them.

    A PLN is like set of connection that each neuron has with other neurons, with the addition that we often know of the connections between the other nodes in our network. I can see your connections, for example, by looking at who you tweet with, or at your blogroll or at the feeds you share on Google Reader. Collectively, all our interconnected PLNs form a moderately complex network, maybe similar to a neural network. It makes me wonder if there is any sort of emergent learning or intelligence that can be seen in the overall activity of that network. Sounds suspiciously like connectivism, doesn’t it?

    A PLE is like the glial cells. They are the infrastructure that allows us to make connections to others, thus growing our PLN. They create channels or media for our communication. Think of all the ways we communicate with our PLNs – blogs, twitter, instant messaging – all of those are the glue that hold our networks together and keep us in contact.

    I don’t know if that helps or muddies your thinking about this. I suppose I haven’t really offered much of a definition of PLN or PLE but maybe the analogy will help lead you closer.

  7. Just a correction, I created the diagram after @bookjewel re-posted the discussion on Plurk. Thanks for starting the discussion Alec. It helped me crystallize something that had obviously been percolating for a while…

  8. I believe that word personal in Personal Learning Networks is the operative word in seeking to define PLNs. PLNs are personal because we, as the learners, make clear and specific choices in the context in which we learn. We effectively build or construct our network and our own learning initially through the choices we make and then most effectively through the people connections that follow. Which blogs do we read? Which twitterers do we follow? Who do we connect with and why? What audience do we post for? What resonates with us most at any given point in time? We need connections with others to make these choices. Though interests are personalized, it is the people connections and sharing that makes learning networks thrive. When people connect on common interests, rich knowledge sharing and shared construction of meaning is made possible. Our personal interest helps us to construct our network and allows personalized, connected, networked learning to ensue. Each PLN is as unique and as original as we are as people.

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  11. I like networks. They invoke thoughts of activity, organisms, people. Environment, well, an environment can be static. My learning environments are pretty inclusive lately to my home office, the classroom where I teach, and the classroom at the university where I learn. my network exists all over the world, including those places.

    I’d love to see the graphic that was created as a result of the conversation. Is there somewhere else to access it? It doesn’t seem to be available here anymore.

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  13. Alex, are you aware of the recent special issue of Interactive Learning Environments which was dedicated to PLEs? http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals/titles/10494820.asp It has articles by Oleg Liber, Scott Wilson and Mark van Harmelen amongst others and there are some very useful articles in there which may provide you with definitive, peer reviewed sources. btw – I will be the new editor as of January 2009. Best wishes.

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  19. ami right that this discussion is generally just repeating the old “software vs. people” argument? so:

    PLN = the nodes, the people
    PLE = the tools & infrastructure

    this is vaguely true, but if you look close its asimplification.

    the real interesting point of course is that the communities are an effect oft software, and this kind of 2.0 software is running on human input.

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  23. I was just chatting about the semantic differences of PLE vs PLN vs PLC vs CoP with colleagues today and decided to do a little Googling to see if any more definitive descriptions have come up since I blogged about it a couple of months ago. Here is that post if you’d like to read it. http://wp.me/p1D8O-A

    Did you ever come up with an answer of your own to the question you posed on Twitter that night?

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