PLN = Perplexing Linguistic Notion

Like any educator, I love a good acronym.

Like any user of social media tools, I love a good acronym.

Here's one that's really popular - PLN. Stands for Personal Learning Network. Gets bandied around a lot by educators using social media tools. Myself included.

We all think we know what we are talking about when we refer to our PLN.

Well, I do, at least. Not too sure about some of you others out there. Here's what I personally think my PLN is:

  • infrequent or frequent use of social media tools of my own personal choice like my blog, Twitter, Reader, Slideshare (I could keep naming 'em) to read, view, communicate, write, talk, learn with other social media users on topics of my personal interest.
  • nodes on my personally constructed compiled network are people who are serendipitious discoveries, linked to in a variety of ways via comments, blogrolls, twitter lists as I trawl my way through my social media connections.
  • my PLN is a bunch of frequently travelled highways, deserted dirt tracks and narrow one-way alleys to other people's thoughts, opinions and ideas.
  • I have nodes that respond to me as much as I respond to them, some who don't know or even care that I exist, and those who I'm blissfully unaware of that read my dubious collection of posts, tweets, comments and random digital utterances.

A PLN is a notoriously hard beast to accurately describe and I know that my take is not a universal notion. I like a lot of the thinking that went into defining the differences between groups, communities and networks a while back - especially from people with deeper thought processes than mine. So, with that bit of digital history on my cerebral back burner, here's a few things that I think a PLN is not:

  • a one stop shop where all great educators come to drink from the common digital watering hole. Because not everyone on my PLN is an educator, not everyone reads and links to the same group of thinkers. Beware of Nings advertising themselves as such - they may be a Learning Network, but they are not, in my mind, Personal.
  • possible to assemble in one spot at one event in time, not even virtually. Diversity, controversy and civilised disagreement are the seeds for pushing boundaries of thinking. Some echoing in the chamber isn't a bad thing but you don't everyone singing together like a well honed choir.
  • not fixed. Sources can be dumped and replaced as I see fit. You can do the same with my posts, tweets etc. Flick 'em if they are just adding to the digital noise.

So, I'd love to read some challenging of people the next time they trot out the PLN acronym. Semantics is an important element of any popular turn of phrase used in varying forms of communication and my own personal will vary from many other points of view. By all means, challenge me and my admittedly flawed thinking. What exactly do others mean? And do they believe that their particular interpretation is the only one going?

And if any readers can come up with a more entertaining alternative explanation to the PLN acronym than the one I've used in my title, please let everyone know in the comments. After all, PLN could mean Pretty Limited Nonsense.


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14 thoughts on “PLN = Perplexing Linguistic Notion

    1. Graham Wegner

      My best answer is still this presentation I did for a Learnscope event run by Alex Hayes a few years back. 15 minutes of my own thoughts and ideas that do flow over into my PLN concept today. Basically, Environment = tools and Network = People/Sources.

  1. Sui Fai John Mak

    Thanks Graham for your wonderful question.
    You have provided a personal perspective what is and what is not of a PLN.
    The PLN could be split into its individual component IMHO:
    Is it personal?
    Is it related to learning?
    Is it related to network and networked learning?
    What is it not then? If it is not personal (based on what you feel is personal to you?)
    If it is not related to learning at all, or not personal learning that makes sense to you?
    Or you don’t resonate with the network or the responses of the network – i.e. you don’t find it adding any value to your learning due to its lack of resonance.
    Semantics is the heart such PLN interpretation, absolutely?

    1. Graham Wegner

      John, I must confess to enjoying kicking semantic meaning around a bit. What phrases and concepts mean to different people is an enduring fascination of mine. I can see Darcy’s point though that sometimes debating the finer points of an idea can be off putting to newer onliners but being clear about a broad definition can be helpful while providing room for experienced social media users to inflect their own perspectives.

  2. Darcy Moore

    Hi Graham,

    Some great provocations and an interesting topic for conversation and debate.

    What is a PLN? I think it important not to tell others what to think or that they are askew, especially when they are enthusiastic about a newly discovered ‘system’, as I and many of the people who read this post were/are. It is going be a different experience with shared transit lounges for us all. Occasionally one cringes.

    I found this comment witty and amusing:

    “my PLN is a bunch of frequently travelled highways, deserted dirt tracks and narrow one-way alleys to other people’s thoughts, opinions and ideas”

    noting you listed it in the ‘not category’. One wonders if anybody can really avoid this scenario? I tend to wander to familiar places, like your blog but, of course, the very act of listing such a comment has the desired effect of provoking reflection (on the well-beaten path)- well done ;O)

    Early last year I tried to source the etymology of the PLN acronym. Here’s the post as some background.

    I no longer enthusiastically pursue the artificial divide – for students and staff – that I posit in that post but feel both terms (PLE and PLN) are really useful for explaining how one can manage learning using digital tools, especially social media.

    BTW – my entry: Pretty Lame Name ;O)

    1. Graham Wegner

      Darcy, I think it is still possible to discuss the finer semantics of a concept while leaving the broader concept easily interpretable for newer online learners. Hopefully, my post doesn’t come across as telling others as much as it is laying out what I personally think, and encouraging others to give their own definition some deeper thought.

      The part you quoted wasn’t in the “not” section, I don’t think. (See how text can be multi-interpreted!) Anyway, there are blogs I read a lot that are popular and well known with others, there are ones that I know have a much smaller audience that I make an effort to comment on and shine a brighter light on and there are the ones I read without leaving any trace of my existence. These tend to be blogs well outside my own expertise and I don’t comment or re-Tweet because I am grappling with complex ideas that I don’t think I’ve quite got the handle on.

      Hope that makes sense!

      1. darcy.moore

        Apologies. Not in not. 🙁

        Also, my meaning re: not telling people what to think was just as much a way of not having to define PLNs 😉 as a philosophy; rather than a dig at you

  3. Terry Freedman

    This is great, Graham. I didn’t know you’d written this when I wrote my own notes about what a PLN is (Personal Learning Networks:, which is a pity Why? Because it took me an hour or so of thinking about it + sleeping on it before writing mine, because I started out thinking everyone knows what a PLN is. Then I thought to myself, “Wait! *I* don’t know what a PLN is!”
    I looked at a few blog posts and they all said something a little different from each other, and none of them said anything that completely resonated with my own feelings on the matter. I thought your post very honest and open, and your first four bullet points say everything I’d want to say myself.
    That being the case, it’s probably just as well I didn’t read yours first, or I’d have had to think of something else to write about!
    Thanks again.

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