On a recent stroll through the edtech blogosphere, I stumbled upon a new acronym. Well, it was new to me. And, as 20 year veteran teacher, that doesn’t happen very often anymore. The acronym? PLN. First I saw it in a Twitter post, then in one blog post, then another. Based on the context clues, I pretty quickly figured out the letters stood for Personal Learning Network.
I’ve written and taught extensively about the use of Communities of Practice (CoP) and also heard of them referred to as Learning Communities or Personal Learning Communities (PLC). In effect, both of these are the same thing – this is how my writing partner and I describe them, with a nod to Wenger, in our book:
…a group of individuals with a shared interest and a willingness to participate in a dialogue about that interest for purposes of learning…When a community of practice has been formed and individuals are truly engaged, a synergy of learning begins to happen. While individual learners concentrate their responsibility of contributing to the discussion, the group also begins to reciprocate by providing the learner with multiple viewpoints, challenging questions, and taking left turns in the discussion that the individual learner might never have considered on his or her own.
In this way, the individual learner has served the learning community, and the community, in turn, has brought out the best in the individual learner. The give and take becomes something larger than any one discussion prompt, and the intangible benefits of a vibrant learning community pay off big dividends long after the discussion thread ends (pp 139-140).
It wasn’t until I did a bit of the old search engine two step to discover how these two terms CoP and PLC differentiated themselves from PLN and why educators felt the need to add one more acronym to the pile. In Beth Still’s Nebraska Change Agent blog, she clearly anticipated my confusion. In a recent post called “What the Heck is a PLN?” Still clarifies the difference.
“Anyone who is actively engaged in learning online is part of a PLN. If you are reading this then I am part of your PLN. The people I follow on Twitter make up the vast majority of my PLN. These are the people that I learn from and interact with on a daily basis. A PLN is an incredibly powerful tool to have at your disposal. The flow of information is available 24 hours a day seven days a week. It has been said that the more time you invest in building and contributing to your PLN the more you will get back from it in return. This is so true! A PLN does not form on its own; you have guide it and direct its growth.”
So there it is – the big difference. The word online. A community of practice does not require it’s location to be online – your CoP can be your neighborhood scrapbooking group, or the guys who meet once a week at the local coffee shop. Or it can be a group of teachers who discuss best practices at lunch one day and continue the discussion via email for the remainder of the day. However, a PLN, as I understand it, may not even have a personal interaction (in the sense of a two-way conversation) attached to it. For instance, I can read an idea from Twitter, grab more information about it from a blog, and confirm what I am thinking from a wiki…all of these sources (and the people who create them) are then part of my PLN. This is exactly what happened for this post.
UPDATE: A further update on the term PLN (and its origin) can be found here at David Warlick’s $.02 Worth blog.