A model of Personal Learning Networks – in progress

I met with my supervisor a couple of weeks ago to get feedback on my research proposal. One of the most helpful suggestions he made was to tease out the factors from the literature that influence the usefulness of a network to achieve the desired outcome (i.e. improvements / innovations in professional practice) – and to develop a model based on this  literature review. My research could then be used to explore / validate this model (and provide some structure to interviews and data analysis). So this is what I’ve been working on. Aside from the benefits this model will bring to structuring the research, the process of thinking in terms of a model has been extremely useful in helping me to consolidate the various (and disparate) strands of literature I’ve reviewed, and my thinking around it. This is my working draft.


My PLN model (click to expand)


As I tease out the strands of research three key components emerge for me as being relevant:

  • Environment – a lot of research focuses on the ‘tools’ / tech that people use to build and develop networks.  Whilst this is certainly interesting – as different tools have different affordances which support varying aspects of PLN relationship development – it’s more than just the discrete tools and tech that influence the development of these  relationships. It’s the entire context in which the tools / tech are embedded and used  – this includes the environmental & situational context (e.g. where is the tool/tech being used – work, home, the beach, etc?), culture (incl. organisational/industry/societal/geographical/national/political etc), and the support available to develop skills in the use of the tools/tech.
  • Personal – these are the personal skills and characteristics that contribute to an individual’s decision and motivation to actively and intentionally build and maintain a PLN. Significantly, this includes both networking ‘skills’, as well as attitude / mindset, and reflective behaviours.
  • People  – this I’ve classified as the ‘network’ characteristics that make up an individual’s PLN, consolidating the body of research on network structure (strong vs weak ties; open/closed networks, network diversity etc). A lot of this research comes from the management / R&D literature and so often focuses on identifying links between these network components and outcomes like innovation and creativity.

Of course, there are interactions and complex links between all three components, which is what I’ve tried to portray in the the model. I see these three components as impacting both the processes of learning and outcomes. The outcome of interest I’m defining primarily as innovation in professional practice – but mindset and behaviour, both of which contribute to the outcome (output?) of ‘innovative practice’ could also be considered outcomes (which could be explored through interviews).

How does this model link in with existing PLN models?

Rajagopal, Joosten–ten Brinke, Van Bruggen, & Sloep (2012) have the defined the following model based on their research and review of existing literature:


From Rajagopal K., Joosten–ten Brinke D., Van Bruggen J., & Sloep P. (2012) Understanding personal learning networks: their structure, content and the networking skills needed to optimally use them. First Monday 17 (1-2) http://firstmonday.org/ojs/index.php/fm/article/view/3559/3131

For me, this model demonstrates the importance of the personal skills, attitude and behaviours required to develop an effective PLN; and the factors which influence intentionality (why and who people choose to connect with). It also touches on the role of tools / tech for supporting the behaviours (‘Activity’) and ‘skill’ components (fig 3). But what’s missing I think is the broader context related to environment (it’s not just tools / tech) and network / people characteristics that may impact on these personal skills, attitude and behaviours. Thus my attempt to incorporate these components into my model.

Serendipitous connections

As I’ve been doing this over the last week or so, I came across a couple of blog posts (from my own PLN) that struck me as being serendipitously related:

  • Personal Learning Networks: Learning in a Connected World by Sahana Chattopadhyay (@sahana2802) which I first encountered on LinkedIn, but also published on her blog (accompanied by an excellent discussion #MSLOC430 related thread). Aside from it being a well written, comprehensive argument on the benefits of building PLNs to support the changing nature of work, what struck me was the emphasis on mindset and attitude – not just tools – as critical in effective social learning and collaboration (reflecting Rajagopal et al’s model above).
  • My Professional Network Review by Michelle Ockers (@MichelleOckers) – this detailed analysis of her PLN blew me away when I saw it. This post for me, represents a perfect example of the attitude, intentional activity (including reflective behaviour) and skills that Rajagopal et al (2012) describe in their model for building, maintaining and activating PLNs.

I’ll continue to tweak and share my evolving thinking on this as it progresses.


7 thoughts on “A model of Personal Learning Networks – in progress

  1. Andrew Gerkens says:

    A fantastic update Tanya. I like how Working Out Loud with your Supervisor (as mentor) helped you to make sense of the (mess/mass) of literature you had reviewed, gaining clarity around your research objectives and next steps.

    The three elements you have defined made me think immediately of performance analysis:

    Your People (PLN) element represents the outcome (i.e. an effective PLN that supports the individual to share ideas, solve problems and create solutions through others).

    The Environmental and Personal elements you’ve detailed align very closely with the Knowledge, Skill, Motivational and Environmental factors used as part of the performance analysis/consulting process, to identify the root casues of performance problems (and/or create performance solutions). See Stolovitch & Keeps (Training Ain’t Performance, 2004, ASTD Press) and Harrison (How to be a True Business Partner by Performance Consulting, 2008) as examples.

    In this context understanding/defining the Environmental and Personal factors (or K,S, M, E) will enable and equip individuals to build an intentional PLN that supports them to develop and perform (learn continuously).

    I hope it is a useful interpretation!

    • tanyalau says:

      Andrew – what a fascinating interpretation! I love how you’vedrawn links between the models and reapplied the performance consulting model (which typically looks at org/ business problems) to this context – personal performance improvement. It all makes sense and the pieces seem to fit – it’s a really creative way to think about it though! Thanks so much for thinking outside the square and bringing this dimension into it. I need to check out those books too (have heard them mentioned before…! Maybe by you…!?)

  2. francesbell says:

    Thanks Tanya – I thought I had commented on your proposal but must have lost the comment (I’m good at that). Anyway, I love it.
    An observation (not a criticism as it’s making me think so I haven’t formulated a proper response) is that I thought when I saw your model and re-read the proposal “it’s an ing as well as a thing” meaning that it’s as much about networking as about the network itself. It has made me wonder about the process of networking and how the learning might be sub-/un-conscious and some of those aspects might escape conscious diarying. If your participants are working on a public network like Twitter (obviously they network across platforms) then it might be possible to map their interactions and compare with their diaries but that would still leave out what they read (unless they are fitted with a chip:) Ah well – just a thought.
    What I love about Twitter is the asymmetric nature of the relations. I don’t follow everyone who follows me and I deliberately follow people who are unlikely ever to follow me. I have been interested in the operation of diversity and (its sort of opposite) homophily in my networks. One action I have taken is to ‘witness’ i.e. follow people whose Twitter networks and life experiences are very different from my own. I have followed @deray @akacharleswade and @brownblaze from whom I have learned so much about black experience in USA. My intention was conscious but my learning less conscious as I have absorbed their experience as it flowed past me.
    I am not sure if/how this is relevant to your research but thanks for stimulation of your model:)

    • tanyalau says:

      Hi Frances – really appreciate your comment – and you’ve definitely picked up on one of the challenging conundrums of researching in this area: how to capture the learning that is often informal and sub/unconscious – which potentially makes up a significant portion of our learning via PLNs (and in particular, may have a significant impact on influencing our attitude and mindset). The types of learning-in-activity experiences that you described in your recent post https://francesbell.wordpress.com/2015/02/08/revealing-and-celebrating-learning-beyond-education/, in fact – while playing with a baby, or during a hobby. And people just don’t associate these activities with ‘learning’ (often due to the strong association of learning with formal / school education).
      The other challenge is the private conversations – e.g. that happen in hallways and at the watercooler etc – how to capture the learning from those? This is where I was hoping that the diary activity might bring some of these interactions to the fore – BUT I also think it will be important how the diary activity is framed, and what people are instructed to notate. Because people don’t often recognise learning from informal conversation as ‘learning’ per se, I think I will need to frame the activity as a diary of interaction / communication – i.e. notate every instance where you communicated with someone…or something along those lines. Then use the interviews to draw out more detail about the communication event – whether it related to their work in any way, and how it may have impacted their work-related thinking, behaviour or outcomes. Using the diary activity as a stimulus for exploring the spectrum of day to day; moment to moment interactions they have with others, and the underlying processes of learning associated with these interactions…(including hopefully things like whether the interaction led to new resources, or connections with other people)…and reflecting on how this impacts thinking, behaviour and outcomes. Of course, it will never be a perfectly comprehensive account of the interactions or learning process – diarising is fraught with errors including forgetting entries, fatigue, and differences between participants in what they interpret as relevant to diarise – but the intention is to help bring some of the less conscious learning into the conscious, encourage reflection, and also hopefully, provide some picture into the range of interactions that contribute to the mindset and behaviour that result from learning and interacting with your PLN.
      As an aside…you mentioned fitting people with a chip ; ) An article you may be interested in is http://www.optimice.com.au/documents/secretpowerbrokers.pdf – one study describes an organisation fitting employees with ‘movement belts’ to track their movements through the building and their use of the physical space- then marrying this data with social network maps to get a better view of how people were interacting – and to make decisions about things like organisational design to foster greater opportunities for serendipitous collaboration (not entirely certain how I feel about this attempt to engineer serendipity…but interesting to ponder).
      This type of data could potentially be really interesting for this type of research…(as well as longitudinal, ethnographic methodologies) – but I do need to limit the scope of this project (it is only at Masters level after all…) so will be making do with whatever data I can feasibly obtain!
      I’ve also considered – and still considering – the use of some sort of social network analysis to get a visual picture of the participant’s network and structural characteristics – which contributes to the body of data (good to have a variety of data sources in a case study….) and provides another stimulus for exploration in interviews. This is where visual tools for network mapping (like you mentioned on twitter) may come into play.
      Thanks also for the insights on how you consciously enhance the diversity of your network – it is fascinating to hear of the decisions that people make regarding who and how they connect with. It is a great tip – and I’ll be checking out those twitter handles you mention! I am not as explicit about adding diversity to my network, although I always look for opportunities to connect and interact with people who have different backgrounds through online experiences like moocs or chats.Consciously following people with highly divergent backgrounds and perspectives is a great idea.
      Thanks for helping me reflect and think out loud on the methodology of my research Frances!! Always appreciate your input and having the benefit of your experience to reflect on.

  3. normanjjackson says:

    Dear Tanya
    I enjoyed reading your article and appreciate the way you are trying to develop a model that embeds the learner in her environment and purposes as well as the tools and structures she uses.

    I lead a social enterprise in the UK called Lifewide Education http://www.lifewideeducation.uk/
    From your writing I can see that we share many beliefs and values about learning and personal development.

    We produce a quarterly magazine Lifewide Magazine and each issue explores a different dimension of lifewide learning. The June issue will explore Personal Learning Networks and I was wondering whether we could include your article in the magazine. I attach a link to the magazine so you can see the format and the sorts of themes we have addressed.. We have a readership of around 500 – mainly people working in higher education.

    I very much hope that you are tempted by our invitation. Please get in touch if you like the idea.
    warm regards


    • tanyalau says:

      Hi Norman,
      thanks so much for your comment and letting me know about your publication. It certainly does look like we have common interests and I like the combination of theoretical and practical perspectives covered in your magazine. Certainly happy for you to include this post – thanks for the offer. Happy to adapt or ammend it if required to suit a magazine format. I’ll contact you via your site. Thanks again for dropping by and making contact!

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