Personal Learning Networks

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This blog was originally posted on March 3rd, 2015.

We had a faculty development workshop at UD over three days in early February, where we welcomed keynote speaker Ann Hill Duin from the University of Minnesota. Ann is in technical and professional communication and has held various administrative positions at UM, especially focused on teaching and learning with technologies. Ann’s talk was about how central connections, connectivity, and connectionist theory relate to learning.

An activity she suggested is likely to have high value in one or more of the classes you teach. She suggested having students draw a personal learning network (PLN), a diagram of where a person’s learning connects to resources, groups, situations, individuals, experiences. She helpful suggested two tools: and Both are free and simple apps that support drawing networks—nodes and connectors.

My colleague, biochemist Hal White, and I started drawing Hal’s PLN—connections to research labs and fellow scientists, to people at the National Science Foundation, to journals and books, to editorial and review roles he plays, to online communities to which he belongs, to conferences and symposia. The act of drawing triggered engaging conversation about where and when and from whom we learn. We started talking about Hal’s students and what their PLNs might look like.

Hal’s Personal Learning Network

Hal has always been a big mind-mapper, having students draw connected understandings of some specific biochemical phenomena, some cellular or molecular process, or some complex system, like blood chemistry. He uses mind maps to figure out what his students know, where their concepts are faulty, and what he should be teaching. He also uses mind maps as semester exams because he can see what students understand.

I used a similar approach in a “rhetoric of the professions” course, having students create a knowledge network on the first day of class. I collected their work, put it away until the end of term, and then had them re-do their network diagram to show what they had learned about rhetoric and what they understood to be the important connections and relationships. It was a fine way to see (some portion) of what students had learned. It also helps students reflect upon and consolidate what they know into an organized space.

My thinking here is influenced by a recent Bits posts by Traci Gardner’s on digital identity mapping. Read her post—it’s all about having students map themselves, with a focus on how they live digital, connected lives. Traci’s approach provides a nice alternative to literacy narratives, a genre covered in Writer’s Help.

It’s not hard to think about how a class or sequence of classes ought to extend a student’s PLN, or their digital identities, or their understanding of blood chemistry. In all cases, students ought to be better learners, better researchers, with more connected and complex networks for learning what they need to know. They ought also to be more self-aware of what they do when they need to learn something. That’s one outcome worth measuring.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen A. Bernhardt is recently retired from the University of Delaware, where he held the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing, from which position he promoted strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s, now in Version 2.0. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. He taught previously at New Mexico State University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.