PLNs and PLEs - It's the 'Personal' bit that counts the most

I was writing a comment on an interesting blog post by Cecilia Lemos about what having a PLN has done for her, when I realised that this comment deserved to be expanded a blog post of its own, so here it is!

For some time now, I've been concerned about how some people are using this term, which stands for 'Personal Learning Network' and which developed out of the concept of PLE (Personal Learning Environment). 

Shelly Terrell has said she prefers the term 'Passionate Learning Network' and others refer to Professional Learning Networks, but for me, the whole point about the term is that it's 'personal'. 

The term PLN is bandied about so much these days it's starting to lose its meaning. Another thing I hear a lot now is people talking about 'the PLN' , which is fine when people are referring to 'their' PLN, but not if they have a big social club in mind that people are either part of or not. This is not a PLN. A PLN is something people have to build and which takes time to nurture and develop. It is also and involves active participation and hard work. It's not just about pressing a button and joining a Ning.

Where did the term PLN come from? You can find a great discussion about this on a blog post by Alec Couros, but I'll also share what I have come to understand about the differences here.   

First of all there was the idea of PLE (Personal Learning Environment), which was a reaction to the VLE (Virtual Learning Environment) represented by platforms such as Blackboard or Moodle. The VLE is all very well, but the big problem with it is that it is usually institution owned. You join when you are a student or employee of an organisation or institution and then when you leave (because you change jobs or stop studying at a particular university, etc) then you will probably have to leave the VLE. This usually means losing all of the learning content you have contributed and becoming divorced from the people you have connected with. Not ideal as it means you have to start all over again somewhere else.

A PLE, on the other hand is owned by the teacher or student and is all about 'small pieces loosely joined' (i.e. a collection of tools that work for you. Soon after the popularisation of the PLE, people started to realise that it wasn't about the tools (i.e. the environment) it's about the people you choose to connect to to enable learning to occur (i.e. your network). So, the idea of a PLN was born, and by all accounts we have David Warlick to thank for this.

Perversely, I have subsequently seen organisations trying to hijack the popularity of the term PLN and use it for what really is a VLE - I went to one presentation at a conference where the presenter talked about how her university was building a 'PLN system' to help their students - what they were in fact doing was building another VLE (i.e. a learning environment that was owned by the university) - bizarre,and totally missing the point!

The benefits a teacher can gain by building a PLN and how best to do it are the reasons why a group of us have started the aPLaNet project - to raise awareness of what this can do for teachers who are reluctant or who don't know how to begin. If you think you can help us by becoming a mentor to new teachers, then please join us here:


  1. Thank you, Graham, for the valuable explanation. I completely agree with you about the idea relating PLN and PLE.
    The group of educators in Ukraine, Russia and Belarus have been also talking about these both notions. We do too consider PLE to be personal learning environment which is created by a person - a teacher or a student.
    I follow your articles, you are in my PLE. ;-)

  2. Thanks for the comment, Nina - I think it's important that these terms don't get confused and that the 'personal' aspect is important - otherwise we risk slipping back to institution owned platforms, which are of little value for lifelong learning

  3. Thanks a lot for the article. I found the link to aPLaNet extremely helpful.




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