Wednesday, September 22, 2010

PLN vs PLE, i think i got it (for me, anyways)

This morning, i spotted a post on, which led me to the original post. Eduardo’s post was (in my words) essentially a question about whether The Daily was really needed. I answered that in my view yes it was, and then Eduardo answered back, and then I replied, and we interchanged a few ideas and then turned to connecting on twitter and thank each other for what has occurred. What I got out of that conversation was a glimpse of clarity on what how I can differentiate Personal Learning Networks (PLN) from Personal Learning Environments (PLE).

[I do realize I am a week late in getting this, but I’m getting there, I hope]

To make this introduction longer, allow to explain some of my background: I am a psychologist by training, and have always practiced within the field of Organizational Psychology, and got most of my work experience as a trainer. I wrote my thesis (in Latin America, that’s how we get a degree) on how Organizational Psychology could enhance Knowledge Management. Knowledge Management, as you can guess, has been a field I’ve discovered and enjoyed a lot, and was how I stumbled upon George Siemens’ Knowing Knowledge, which I quoted in said thesis. Within my research, Wenger’s concepts of Community of Practice were also key. If you are starting to see a pattern of emphasizing the power of the group/team to get things done, you’re getting me right. Of course, virtual teams and online collaboration came next, along with a great interest in what was then called “social networks”. I’m referring to those quaint diagrams with dots and lines that portrayed how people related to one another. Networks were where the action was. I actually went as far as trying to describe what my emerging views on organizational design were in here.

With all these antecedents, Personal Learning Networks were necessarily where the action had to be for me. I actually gave a (dis)presentation at the last Quito Barcamp to share my ideas and enjoy a little discussion about the topic. 

One of the key concepts for me in a PLN is that learning is a social activity. The human being learns, and makes sense of the world within a community. And PLNs are the expression of that social behavior on the online world. We connect to people, including their artifacts (writings, drawings, videos, etc.) in order to learn more. The human being is naturally a learner, and this is one of the ways he has to connect to other human beings (within the learning-teaching continuum). PLNs, then, are how we locate the resources we need to learn more, how we achieve interaction with people that can help us learn more. To me, the PLN is this bunch of resources (essentially people, but more practically their artifacts) that I have connected to and that can help me make more sense of the world, possibly even providing me with answers when I need them (or at least good questions).

The key aspect here are the connections, and what I can do with them, in the sense of doing something with them, not just benefiting from them.
The PLN is then more akin to a community, but with much looser connections, described in the literature as “weak ties”. Weak they may be, but if they’re helpful, that’s all that’s needed.

My comprehension of the Personal Learning Environment is now differentiated from the PLN in the following way: My PLE is where I store all my “keys” to the network. The PLE takes me to my PLN through various gates and paths.

This difference is key for me as it means that the PLE is more focused on the tools, whereas the PLN is more focused on the people that can learn from each other and together. PLEs are nice, and useful, but they're the ticket and ride, not the destination. The destination is the PLN.

Back to Eduardo's post: In order to keep a growing productive community, we must help it learning more to achieve more. PLEs are enablers, not doers. What we need is a conscious and active PLN to get things done.   This means facilitating connections (between people, artifacts, and results).

I guess my next question then becomes: why focus on PLEs? Shouldn't we be trying to figure out how to make PLN work better?


  1. I like your distinction between PLEs and PLNs
    I'm thinking once the tools are mastered this would be very useful for organisational psychology

  2. Thanks for the terms "keys", "gates", and "paths". This is what I meant by entry.

  3. Thanks for the comments.

    @Roy: I think the PLE+PLN combo are useful tools to look at and help organizations work better. They are obviously great for organizational learning, and strengthening the unity within the organization.

    @Matthias: Entry is a good term, though i think in military or medical terms you might also use "entry point" or "access points".

  4. Hi Vahid,

    Glad my blog post was useful to you and thanks for the inspiration for mine :-). I do find that generally the inspiration for my own blogs comes from other bloggers posts. Keep up the good work.

    PS: tip on inserting graphics - go into the html code and adjust the width and height peoportionally. a width setting of 400 will keep it tidy on the blogger page. Viewers can always click on it to get the big picture :-)

  5. Hey Steve, blogs truly works as an inspiration, it's just that keeping track of them in a completely decentralized network that's a bit too much work. I could have easily missed your post, and even miss the opportunity to know your blog was there, and that would have been too bad. This is why the curator's job is key, serendipity is just not systematic enough for something as important as education.

  6. I also liked the distinction Vahid. I've just managed to find a few minutes to sit and read some blogs, an activity sadly lacking in my exploration of PLN's! I also saw the PLE as a sort of surround for, or a part of, the PLN. I suppose I'm wondering what the other components of the PLE are?
    Thanks for a good post.