PLNs, CoPs, and Connectivism

I have been actively involved on Twitter as a means of personal professional development for the past three years or so, and I’ve been blogging for the past two years. I knew that these activities were helpful for my own learning–I was making specific, deliberate connections with other educators via Twitter, and my blogging was a reflective practice made public…allowing for questions, affirmation, pushback, and refining. Until now, however, I did not have specific vocabulary to describe this learning.

This Haiku Deck provides visuals to illustrate my current thinking about network-based learning…

Personal Learning Networks

I chose a picture of three different (Macintosh) computers to illustrate the concept of a Personal Learning Network (PLN). A PLN is comprised of the people that are part of one’s personal learning environment. George Siemens (2003) explains it this way: “Most of us belong to more than one learning community. These multiple communities form a personal learning network. If a learning community equates somewhat with a course, then our learning network is equivalent to a degree program. Each community is a node on the network” (paragraph 4). These three Macintosh computers might represent three different individuals within a PLN. They are different ages, they are running different software, but they all connect to the same network. Likewise, the individuals that make up a PLN may share different backgrounds and experiences, but their common interest brings them together.

Siemens (2003) indicated that the idea of a PLN is not new; they used to exist simply in face-to-face format. But with the explosive growth of online communities in recent years, many PLN members might not meet each other face-to-face. Along these lines, Rajagopal et al (2012) noted that personal learning networks easily exist online, stating “the effects of networking are not limited to face–to–face interactions with the contacts” (paragraph 31). 

Communities of Practice

Etienne Winger describes a Communities of Practice as, “groups of people who share a
concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly” (2011, p. 1).  As I reflect on the way I use Twitter for personal professional development, I could not think of a better description than this. I regularly connect with several overlapping groups of educators via Twitter to discuss topics of mutual interest, to share resources, and to generally challenge each other to improve.

The image I used to illustrate a Community of Practice then is actually a mosaic of some of my Twitter-friends profile pictures. I placed a picture of me with Rick Wormeli (a thought-leader in several educational fields, and a key member of my personal learning network!), whom I had the pleasure of meeting face-to-face in the fall of 2013 at the Association for Middle Level Education conference. I was surprised that when he saw the name on my name tag, he recognized me immediately, gave me a hug, and thanked me for specific contributions to a recent Twitterchat. This was an unexpected honor! The faces framing that picture of Rick and me are other educators I have learned from, and learned with, and found great value in their insights. All of us are seeking to improve, to get better at our craft, and to share what we have learned with others.


Connectivism may best be defined as a theory describing the way learners actively make connections. Connectivism is touted as a new learning theory alongside the three learning theories currently with broad acceptance: Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism (Massachusetts New Literacies Institute, 2013). This view is, however, disputed. For example, Bell (2011) argued that Connectivism is not, in fact, a learning theory, but rather might best be described as a phenomenon “that mainly has its impact that the level of curriculum” (p. 106).

That said, Connectivism does make sense for personal learning networks. As Siemens (2005) put it, “Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions,” and “Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources” (paragraph 40 & 41). The individuals comprising a Community of Practice share their knowledge through connections, and learn from each other by making further connections.

The image I used to represent Connectivism is a map of all of the hits I’ve had on my personal blog over the past two years I have bee using it as part of my reflective practice and sharing with my PLN. I share my blog posts via the social networks I participate in, and thus I am connected with a great number of people. They can interact with my ideas–they can easily access my current thinking as I make it visible on my blog. At the same time, I learn from them as they affirm me, challenge me, push back agains my current thinking, and offer alternative positions.

Overall, I am intrigued by the possibilities of Connectivism as an organizing principle for learning through social networks, but I still have some concerns. Siemens (2005) posited, “The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today” (p. 58). I am not sure I agree with this contention; I think that what we learn is at least as important as what we learn! But I am thankful for the opportunities social networks provide for me to learn from a wide-ranging PLN.


Bell, F. (2011). Connectivism: Its place in theory-informed research and innovation in technology-enabled learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 12(3), 98-118.

Massachusetts New Literacies Institute. (2013). Connectivism: A new learning theory. Massachusetts New Literacies Institute Blog. Available online at

Rajagopal, K., Joosten-ten Brinke, D., Van Bruggen, J. & Sloep, P. B. (2012). Understanding personal learning networks: Their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday, 17(1).

Siemens, G. (2003). Learning communities and learning networks. Elearnspace. Available online at

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. Elearnspace. Available online at

Wenger, E. (2011). Communities of practice: A brief introduction. STEP Leadership Workshop, University of Oregon, October 2011. Available online at



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