What is a PLN, anyway?

A  good friend (and a great teacher) e-mailed me after my last post. “Great links,” she said. “But what’s a PLN?”

A good reminder about why I try to avoid acronyms and jargon in my writing.

PLN is an acronym for Personal Learning Network. The acronym is relatively new, but the idea is not. Teachers have always had learning networks—people we learn from and share with. Teachers are information junkies. We’re also social. Put the two together and you have a personal learning network.

The structure of my PLN has changed since I first started teaching.

The pre-Internet 80s

Yes, there was an internet of sorts in the 80s, but I wasn’t on it. Teachers at my school made up the core of my PLN. Network central was wherever we gathered between and after classes. Most of the information we shared came from articles or books we’d read, conferences or workshops we attended. Books came from the bookstore, information from conferences came home in suitcases. The good stuff was photocopied and filed for future reference.

My PLN was very small—the teachers in my school, a few colleagues from graduate school, workshop presenters. Most information was shared face to face.

The e-mail 90s

I sent my first e-mail message in 1995. I could find information about books online, but had to buy them in a store (or, ask someone in the US to buy them in a store and ship them to me). I saved bookmarks for websites I liked, but still printed out pages for my files, and still shared information face to face.

My PLN got a little bigger in the 90s. I could use the Internet to look for infomation, and I could use e-mail to communicate with people after I met them at conferences. However, the people in my PLN were still mostly teachers I had met face to face.

The social 2000s

For information junkies, this decade has been amazing. Not only can I order books online and have them shipped to me in Japan, I can order books and download them to my computer. I access most journals and newspapers the same way. Information is waiting for me each morning in my inbox from discussion groups. The sheer volume of information available can be overwhelming at times.

The  biggest change has been in the way I meet and communicate with people in my PLN.

First, there is Twitter, which is like a big noisy teacher’s lounge. Everyone is talking (texting) at once. I might share a conversation with one or two teachers in the lounge, and catch fragments of other conversations around me. As I read the newspapers and group digests in my inbox, I share the good bits by sending short messages to other teachers on Twitter. Since they do the same, there are a lot of good bits being shared.

Most of the resources are in the form of links—to websites, to e-books, to blogs, or to activities. Rather than printing out copies for my files, I save the links on a social bookmarking site, like Delicious. Because I use tags instead of file folders, I can easily search for specific items. And because teachers can look through each other’s bookmarks, it’s easy to share.

Discussion groups (like JALT’s Teaching Children SIG or IATEFL’s Young Learners and Teenagers SIG) are like conference breakout sessions, where teachers have extended, and topic-oriented conversations.

Nings are like subject area resource rooms in a large school. They’re social networks connecting teachers with common interests. In addition to discussion forums, members keep blogs, share resources, and plan group activities.  EFL teachers might belong to EFL Classroom 2.0 or English Companion, or both.

I attended more conferences than ever before, but travel much less. I still prefer to physically attend a conference, but online sessions and summaries allow me to be there in spirit even when it’s impossible to be there in body. For example, the IATEFL conference this year broadcast plenary and workshop sessions (and then archived the videos available on the website), Twitter allowed workshop participants to share updates and allowed teachers not at the conference (like me) to ask questions during panel discussions. Issues raised during the presentations were discussed in online forums.

The kinds of discussions I have, and information I share with my PLN hasn’t changed all that much over the years–what works in class, how students learn, how to become a better teacher. How I meet other teachers, where we discuss ideas, and how we share information has changed. Significantly. My PLN now includes teachers who live quite far from me—in Asia, Australia, the Americas, Europe and Africa. I meet them online. I learn from them online. I share with them online.

The teachers in my Personal Learning Network are some of the best friends I’ll never meet.

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

About Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto

Barbara Hoskins Sakamoto has taught English and ESL in the US, and EFL in Japan. An EFL teacher and teacher trainer since 1985, she has conducted workshops throughout Asia, the USA and Latin America. Barbara’s motto is ‘Always try new things’, so these days, when she’s not teaching, writing, or giving workshops, she’s exploring the potential of new technologies for collaboration and professional development. You can often find Barbara online working with teachers around the world as Program Director for International Teacher Development Institute (iTDi.pro) or on her new blog for English teaches who work with young learners, Teaching Children English.

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94 Responses

  1. Dan Kirk says:

    That pretty much sums up 30 years of teacher networking. It’s great to have this tremendous freedom as wired professionals, because we can choose from such a large pool of potential colleagues. That has certainly changed from 30 years ago when networking was so much more limited.

    Great perspective, thank you.

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      Thanks for the kind words. It has sure been a huge change, hasn’t it? The Internet has made a HUGE difference to our ability (here in Japan) to be able to participate in professional development with other teachers.

  2. Hey, I hope to meet you — that last line should be “the best friends I haven’t met yet ;-).

    From Karenne, one of your PLN – who’s connecting with you now on Delicious! Cool 🙂

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      That does sound more positive, doesn’t it. I also considered, “The best friends I’ll meet when they finally get their butts into Second Life” 🙂

      Happy to connect with you on many networks!

  3. I guess that goes for me too. I’m only an island away. A PLN is very useful. I’m amazed that if you do a search for PLN on Google that you don’t come up with anything close to learning. Actually I think the first result is for the currency used in Poland. It seems like more people should be talking about it, don’t you think?

    Hope to see you soon,


    • Barbara Barbara says:

      I noticed that when I was trying to figure out if was a “personal” or “professional” network!

      Hope to see you at JALT 🙂

  4. I am happy to have met you in SL and hope that one day we will meet in real life as well, Barbara.

    A lovely post which I can share with trainees and colleagues.

    I particularly like how you have highlighted the interactivitiy of our PLN and what to do with all these great links.

    Where I come from, a teacher is seen as an authority and I am having great trouble to get people to contribute anything, so a post like yours can help them “see” !!!

  5. Barbara,

    What a coincidence that I just blogged about my wonderful PLN! I wish I had seen your post because I would have listed it (I probably will still do so) as a resource for those wanting to learn more about what a PLN is.

    You can read my post, “Why Everyone Needs a Great PLN,” here:


    I have yet to jump on the Second Life wagon, but I’m getting there. I’ve visited the ISTE island a few times, and met some people, but that’s it.

    You did a great job explaining, thanks!

  6. Ozge Karaoglu says:


    What a nice post about PLN and it’s interesting to read your experience on internet through the years, I don’t remember my first time when I met it =)

    I’m so happy that you are one of the bests on my PLN and so lucky to bump into you on this huge PLN!! and hope to grow and learn 2gether over years … and meet one day in real life!!

  7. Nice explanation and history of the PLN! I’ve seen posts describing what a PLN is but not really doing such thorough job as you have about the development. Glad to have places like Twitter, Google everything, Second Life, etc. to connect with others! Surprisingly, when I’ve had conversations w/ PLN on these networks the conversations last hours like we’ve known each other all our lives!

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      Thanks, Shelly! I really do feel that I get to know the people I talk with on these platforms–it’s pretty amazing, really, since I’d only be able to pick them out in a crowd based on a profile picture!

  8. Melisa says:

    Thanks for a great post–I am just getting up to speed in some areas and Twitter is still somewhat overwhelming for me, so it’s nice to see a full length post giving solid explanations of how these technologies can work together.

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      Thanks for the kind words, Melisa. Have courage! The overwhelming feeling passes 🙂

      At first, in order to figure out what works best for you, you have to explore a lot of platforms and tools, and it does feel like information overload. Luckily, some tools–like Twitter–have really short learning curves.

      I’d suggest adding a few goodies at a time. Maybe start with Twitter and a bookmarking site to store the information. Then, it’s easy to add on the rest a bit at a time.

      Have fun!

  9. Hi Barbara

    Just read your fascinating post on PLN. Thank you so much. It really perfectly sums up how the concept of PLN has developed over the years.

    I hope to meet you some time in the future. In the meantime, I look forward to sharing and learning with you.

  10. Lee Winik says:

    Hello Barbara!

    Great article and blog btw! Anyways, I am going to be doing a presentation on just this subject at the conference I am going to in March. Might I have the permission of using some of your material from this article?


    Lee Winik
    @leewin via twitter

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      I’d be honored, Lee! Thank you for thinking my ideas are good enough to share 🙂

      If you have a chance, please let me know how your conference presentation works out!

  11. Emily says:

    When I was a young teacher in Australia, there were no teacher editions or support for lesson development. I had to send to the US (6 weeks there and 6 weeks back) for some help. Wow! How times have changed for the better.

    • Barbara Barbara says:

      Amazing, isn’t it? I love how much easier it is now to get information and support. Sometimes, it feels like there is almost too much information to wade through, but I wouldn’t trade it for those days of no support!

  12. Christy says:

    Okay, I get it now!

    As a parent, and as a business professional who happens to work in technology, I can see where parents can contribute to a PLN, but definitely on the outer rings of communication.

    But, how would a parent express interest in helping, without being off-putting? Is an offer to set up a blog or give a teacher talk on how various social media tools work even useful to teachers?

  13. Richard Wagner says:

    What a great way to share information.

  14. Brenda says:

    Thank-you for the briefing on PLN. The overview was enlightening. Nice to know I have had a PLN before I knew what it was. Also, nice to know that I can expand it and broaden my network.

    Thanks again!

  15. Sharon says:

    I’ve just learnt what PLNs are. I’ve got mixed feelings. Yes, it’s good to network, but it’s getting to the point that it’s overwhelming: twitter, linkedin, facebook, etc. It’s hard to keep up. It’s almost like you have to be plugged in ALL the time.

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