The concept of building a network of people, spaces, and tools that supports career-based learning is not new. More than two decades ago, Tobin (1998) wrote about the importance of building a "personal learning network," to support continual, everyday, on-the-job learning. While the terms personal learning network and professional learning network are often used interchangeably and share the same acronym (PLN), personal learning networks can alternatively refer to systems of support for personal interests and hobbies (Fair, 2021). Therefore, the term professional learning network is often preferred when referring to career-based learning.
Beyond debates regarding personal vs. professional, the meaning of PLNs has not been consistently defined in the literature. Some scholars have used the term to describe educator use of a single social media platform (e.g., King, 2017; Trust, 2012), while others have differentiated between online PLNs and in-person PLNs (e.g., Kearney et al., 2019). However, educators are unlikely to limit their learning to a single space or modality (Trust et al., 2016). In the digital age, educators often turn to multiple spaces (e.g., Professional Learning Communities, conferences, Facebook, Instagram, TikTok), many different groups of people (e.g., colleagues, students, people at conferences and social media), and various tools (e.g., Internet search databases, blogs, YouTube) for professional learning (Kearney et al., 2019; Staudt Willet & Carpenter, 2020). Therefore, a broader conceptualization of PLNs as multifaceted ecosystems of support for ongoing career-based learning aligns well with contemporary hybrid learning experiences.
The learning that happens with PLNs has been described as "informal," "self-directed," and even "serendipitous" (Kop, 2012; Prestridge, 2019). In contrast to traditional professional development, which often consists of formal training on predetermined topics presented by external experts, learning with a PLN can be organic, individualized, self-directed, and interest-driven, and it can happen anytime and from anywhere (Beach, 2017; Tour, 2017). Educators can choose which people, spaces, and tools support their own unique needs, interests, and goals. They can decide when and where they would like to learn, how much time to spend learning, and how they would like to engage (Greenhalgh & Koehler, 2017; Krutka et al., 2017; Trust & Prestridge, 2021). Educators can shift and evolve their PLNs, as well as their PLN actions and engagement, over time based on changing professional needs, interests, goals, professional communities, relationships, confidence, time, technologies, and broader contexts (Carpenter et al., 2021; Trust & Prestridge, 2021).
Because PLNs involve social learning that is situated in practice and distributed across people, spaces, and tools, they offer several benefits. Specifically, PLNs can support educators’ affective, cognitive, identity, and social growth (Trust et al. 2016). Affective growth refers to changes in emotions, dispositions, and attitudes. For example, educators might feel more invigorated after participating in a Twitter chat or become more willing to try new teaching practices based on inspiration from a keynote speech. Cognitive growth is the development of professional knowledge and skills that occurs when educators come across new information, ideas, and resources from their PLNs and when they critically reflect on their practice. Identity growth consists of shifts in how educators see themselves and their roles, like when individuals shift from being leaders in their classrooms to also being a leader in their school, university, or professional communities. Social growth includes an increased sense of connectedness with others, reduced feelings of isolation, and exposure to diverse people and communities.
While PLNs can offer multiple benefits, there are also several challenges—many of which are specifically related to the use of social media for cultivating and expanding PLNs. On social media, efforts at learning are not guaranteed to succeed and can even lead to miseducation when sources are of low quality, are inaccurate, or advance oppressive systems (Greenhalgh et al., 2021). Social media platforms can distract educators from focused endeavors (Levy, 2016), contribute to an erosion of boundaries for work that intensifies their labor (Fox & Bird, 2017; Selwyn et al., 2017), and may point teachers toward content of dubious quality, as online teacherpreneurs frequently use platforms such as Instagram and Pinterest to advertise their products in online education resource marketplaces such as TeachersPayTeachers.com (Shelton et al., 2022). The quantity of content and people on social media can also prove overwhelming as educators must critically assess what and whom to trust (Staudt Willet, 2019), and self-promotional, commercial, and spam content can make it difficult for educators to find the content and people that would be most helpful to them (Krutka & Greenhalgh, 2021; Shelton et al., 2022). Educators must also manage the risks associated with social media use, such as context collapse where their PLN social media activities may be taken out of context and scrutinized by unintended audiences (boyd, 2014). With the self-directed nature of PLNs and how social media algorithms work, educators may develop PLNs that lack diversity of perspectives and become echo chambers or sustain exclusionary ideologies (Carpenter et al., 2021). Social media platforms also present ethical dilemmas as educators must consider the tradeoffs associated with patronizing these for-profit services and their problematic business practices and models (Carpenter et al., 2021). With these challenges, educators must learn to critically reflect upon their PLNs, the information that is exchanged, and the way their PLNs influence them. Such reflection can be scaffolded by tools such as the PLN Enrichment Framework (Krutka et al., 2016)—a heuristic that supports a deep, critical interrogation of the people, spaces, and tools within a PLN.
Personal learning network
Personal learning environment
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