Building Your PLN

Build Your Professional Learning Network (PLN): 
Expand Your BRAIN

This group of educators I engage with every day are a living, organic, knowledge base. They are real people with real experiences, and a wealth of knowledge. When I reference my network of educators I call them my "brain trust."

BRAIN = Brilliant Resources AInstant Notice
Source: Dan Rezac, Adventures in EdTech

by Miguel Guhlin (Find me on Plurk/Twitter at "mguhlin")

As a educator, probably one of the tougher challenges you face isn’t just keeping up with the technology, but rather understanding how to leverage it in your teaching and learning situation. While in the past, we were limited by the occasions that served as “learning experiences,” in the 21st century, learning isn’t restricted to a special event bound by time and place. We don’t learn just when sitting in a meeting, or at a conference or from 8:00 to 3:30 PM when school is in session. Today, we have the potential to tap into 
a flow of conversation, a web-based learning ecology, that we can learn from 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. While some call this a Professional/Personal Learning Network, a Professional Learning Community, Dan Rezac (quoted above) calls it a BRAIN.

Whatever you call it, you have instant access to a community of educators dying to share fantastic ways to help you transform teaching, learning and leading. All you have to ask yourself is, am I willing?

As someone who awoke to that fact just a few years ago, I am continually astonished at the rapidity of change. In fact, I had my first — and so far, only — panic attack in July 2005, when driving down the highway to work, I realized that the world is changing faster than I can keep up.

The only way for me to respond to that panic attack was to seize control, to realize that I do have some measure of control over how I react to rapid, tectonic paradigm-shifts that inflict terror because they transform the world around me. Not feeling it, huh? Well, that means you haven’t looked over the edge and seen it looking back at you.

The only way for all of us to deal with the current challenge to our particular approach to learning — aside from ignoring it completely, which is about as effective as ignoring an oncoming truck — is to seize the wheel and create our own learning network. As technology directors, people look to us to model learning new technologies. Are you taking advantage of all the resources you can to streamline the often messy learning process?
Where Learning Conversations Take Place
  • Classroom 2.0: A place for members to share links, Classroom 2.0 is a social networking site devoted to those interested in the practical application of computer technology (especially Web 2.0) in the classroom and in their own professional development.
  • *Educators: This is a group for educators to use to share bookmarks. It is completely open and anyone can join. It will have a set of standard tags to help us share things that you might use in addition to your tags.
    *EDuStreams: Easily track education-related broadcasts (EDuStreams). Find out more about those via the Education World
  • Broadcast Learning article.


Christopher Parsons shares that we need to do four things with the overwhelming amount of unorganized content — information, ideas, tips and how-to’s, and personal information — we receive; the kind of content that might be useful in the future but today might be thrown away or filed away in a way — paper notes, e-mail, bookmarks — that would not be useful and would probably be forgotten. Those four things are:
  • Read: Read/watch/listen to the entirety of the content that you are presented with.
  • Evaluate: Consider what the content means to you, and whether or not it is a source of information that intuitively seems appropriate/acceptable for a task at hand.
  • Critique: Moving beyond evaluate, seriously reflect on the material and then form your own opinion of it.
  • Write Share your critique with others, so they can engage with you and the original content to develop a cohesive knowledge-product.

In the past, reading, evaluating, and critiquing were done to different degrees by each of us individually. It was rare that any of us actually published our critiques for others to read. Now, it is possible for me to share how what I read, evaluate, and critique connects with my own personal learning and schema. That’s powerful, because individuals like you and me now have the power to publish at will to an audience of millions. The key thing to remember is that as we externalize our thinking, it becomes less of “I am an expert expounding on what I know” and more of “I am a learner, just like you, sharing what I’m learning so that we can learn together through our common errors and maximize our breakthroughs.” Consider that our understanding of learning is changing. We need to think of learning as an experience that happens when we connect with others.

If you fail to connect to the network of learners, you miss out on a global conversation about what you are passionate about. And missing out is a darn shame because it can save you time, energy, and increase your reach, no matter how brilliant (or not) you are. That’s a powerful idea. Smart people get smarter because they have access to the network of learners. People who are just starting out are able to learn as fast as they can to accomplish what they need to do.

When I meet folks who are just becoming aware of the global conversation — usually because I push them over the edge in a workshop — I like to share several tools with them. They are essential learning tools that every 21st century learner should have. Using them involves action, but it is the acts of use that cast out our fear of change. The act of building your own personal learning network (PLN) is your fundamental act of freedom. Start now.


Although hundreds of tools are available, you only need a few to get started. Please be aware that the purpose of these suggested tools is to externalize the knowledge-building you do every day. It is also to take advantage of the potential power of networked learning. Thousands of educators are online, and you can tap into their collective knowledge to ask questions and have conversations about what you need to learn. The only expectation is that you share with them what you know. Each no-cost tool listed below does it in a slightly different, but complementary, way.

Here are some to get started:
  1. Social Bookmarking -
  2. Build a PLN - Twitter for information stream and/or Plurk for deeper, threaded discussions.
  3. Get a Blog -
Let's take a more in-depth look at each of these! Please feel free to skip around.

1) Social Bookmarking - Get a account.

Ever wish you could access your list of links from any computer, easily share them with others, and publish them to a variety of web sites (e.g. blogs, wikis, Moodle)? If so, then social bookmarking tools make those tasks easy!

As wonderful as many social bookmarking sites are--several now feature highlighting, annotation, note-taking--they present problems due to cost. One free, longstanding service that remains is, a social bookmarking service, that allows you to bookmark (a.k.a. add to Favorites) web sites you visit that have relevant information. Once bookmarked, you can choose to share that web site link via email, add keyword descriptors (known as "tags") to organize the bookmarks. 

How To Bookmark
Relevant how-to links that you may find useful appear below:
  1. Social Bookmarking in Plain English from Lee Lefever
  2. How to Add Bookmarklets to Your Internet Browser
  3. How to Create LinkRolls (view example below)
  4. How to Display Tagrolls (view example below)
  5. Bookmarking Audio (MP3) Easily
  6. How to Bookmark with Delicious on iPad
Instructional Applications
Since is about being social, you can do some useful things with The list below is not exhaustive, so keep your eyes open:

a) Theme your Tags - If you know you are doing research on "CivilWar" use that phrase as a tag for all CivilWar resources you find online. Then, share the link to those resources online or via email with one link to your colleagues and/or students. For example, my Civil War links might look like this: and result in a list of resources I think are relevant to that topic.

However, you can also tap into a worldwide network of folks who are interested in the Civil War who may use a slightly different tag. By going to, you can find resources tagged in a variety of ways:
  • Civil_War
  • Civil War
  • CivilWar
  • Abraham_Lincoln
Check out this collection of links -

Some examples:
  • As a middle school, we are using to bookmark pages for our students (Actually, our Elementary teachers are getting into the act too). The direct benefit has been an easy clearing house for all our sites. All teachers add their links to just one place and that way students don’t have to go hunting around individual teacher websites for links.
  • In 4th and 5th grade, I was having my students post their bookmarks for their podcasts last year. The students were 4th and 5th graders and I gave them a base set of tags and then let a small group monitor and then create their own for the rest of the class.
  • I use a feed from my delicious page onto my different topic pages on my wikis. The kids use these for background reading and research in their own time. I also have a feed on some of my blogs from my delicious account - especially on notes pages for the kids as well - to use the same way.
Learning about tags can be a real time-saver! Instead of Googling information, start your search at and do keyword searches that look like this: where "keyword" is whatever you are searching for. You can "add" search terms or keywords by doing something like this:
You can easily find popular Civil War sites in this way:

You can also keep up with what's "hot" in people are bookmarking--by subscribing to this Twitter account:!/HotOnDelicious

b) Create LinkRolls that Fit On Your Web Site 
Use Linkrolls--accessible via HELP. The benefit of this is that you can easily embed a list of links from having to copy-n-paste them one by one--onto a wiki, blog page or Moodle HTML block or discussion forum. This makes sharing links with your student a breeze!

The word in bold (e.g. mgwrites) is the tag, or keyword, that I use to identify items I want to see in the sidebar when I'm bookmarking something. 

c) Syndicate Your Own Podcast Feed Using
Have a web server where you can post audio? Or, maybe you want to create your own favorite list of podcasts--that either you've created or linked to--and then share that with others? You can do that easily with Although we often think of creating podcasts by posting audio in blog entries that people can subscribe to--essentially, that is a podcast. Audio you can subscribe to!--you can create a Real Simple Syndication (RSS) feed using

One way to accomplish that is to tag all your podcasts as your "myfavpodcasts" and then view that list of links via 

As you can imagine, this makes it very easy for folks to subscribe to content. For example, if you click this link in GoogleReader, you can subscribe to some of my favorite podcasts. You can also embed RSS content in a variety of places, such as are some suggestions for accomplishing that!  Imagine bookmarking cyberbullying and digital citizenship information students and parents need to know and posting it on your District's (or your classroom's) Facebook page! 

Enhancing the Experience
There are also a variety of tools available that can enhance your experience. 

  • Tag Cleaner - After awhile, you may end up with very similar keywords/tags. The Delicious tag cleaner service can help you eliminate redundant tags.
  • - Enables you to pull web addresses shared via Twitter (read more about that below) and save them into Delicious bookmarks. This helps bridge the gap between services and maximize your time.
d) Create a Slide Show of Links - Taking advantage of a beta feature in, you can create a slide show of web sites using You can do this by clicking on "Browse these bookmarks" in the top right corner when looking at tags.

As you can see, this makes it possible to easily do a visual walkthrough of links, essentially creating a presentation based on the links. You can, of course, share the link to the visual walkthrough of web pages.

2) Use to build a professional learning network.

"I have learned more about what people are discovering from Tweets," shares Porter Palmer, an educator in a university Master's course, "than any single blog could bring me. I especially like it when my edublogger friends’ Tweets begin with, 'just blogged this…' I don’t have to guess when they might have updated. I can just click over and read their blog!" Twitter is a powerful Web 2.0 tool to facilitate communication and collaboration--globally. It enables us to get in contact with educators from around the world. Many 21st century teachers are out there. Find them and create a Twitter network that can be a support group, provide inspiring projects, and keep you in touch with like-minded people. All of you participating in a workshop, for example, can be a group.

You can use Twitter specific tools to connect with others. One of my favorites is the Twitter search tool, accessible at It allows you to search the many “tweets” that occur each day (view a search on Education) and subscribe to the results via RSS. (See the “Google Reader” section of this article for more on RSS). That way, real-time comments about what is critical to your work come to you. Whenever there is contact with other educators, I find my enthusiasm and energy for education renewed. That’s the power of communications. You select whose tweets you will receive so you can build your own professional learning network.

Many 21st century teachers are out there. Find them and create a Twitter network that can be a support group, provide inspiring projects, and keep you in touch with like-minded people. All of you participating in a workshop, for example, can be a group. Locate one another in and become a network.

You can use Twitter specific tools to connect with others. One of my favorites is It allows you to search the many “tweets” that occur each day (view a searchon Education) and subscribe to the results via RSS. (See the “Google Reader” section of this article for more on RSS). That way, real-time comments about what is critical to your work come to you.

Some Twitter specific tools:
  1. TweepML - Use this service to easily share groups of Twitterers with each other. Imagine that your entire organization's staff signed up for Twitter. Instead of each person going through the laborious process of becoming a follower, you could do it in one click with TweepML. Special thanks to Cory Plough and others for sharing this tool with me. Find out more online at
  2. Just Tweet It - This fun tool enables people using Twitter to find others with similar interests. I can imagine sharing this with educators who are just starting out who need help finding other edubloggers.
    Visit Online at
  3. Hashtag - This enables you to track a specific event--such as a conference like TCEA2009--using the Twitter network. You can encourage people attending a conference or learning event to share what they're learning about and then track them all using hashtags.
    Visit Online at
  4. TwitterMail - You can send updates to Twitter via email. When you sign up for TwitterMail, you are provided a TwitterMail email address. Send an email to that provided address and it is posted to twitter. This might be great for educators who live behind the "Berlin Wall;" you know, access is blocked by content filters in an effort to "protect" anyone from using the web inappropriately but with the more disastrous effect of preventing anyone from using it all. You can email your twitter updates out and receive them.
    Visit Online at
  5. StrawPoll - Ever wish you could use your Twitter account to conduct a quick poll, maybe, how many of you think Texas funds the state technology allotment at a sufficient level? Well, you can use StrawPoll to accomplish this using Twitter. Do your own surveys using Twitter...what a powerful way to get answers from your network of co-learners.
    Visit Online at
  6. TweetBeep - You can get email results of searches when people tweet a particular keyword (like a tag). What a great way to tap into the conversation about education and reform without actually having to sit there and watch it happen as it happens.
    Visit Online at

Whenever there is contact with other educators, there is hope. That’s the power of communications. I can’t begin to share the excitement I felt on September 19, 2000, while participating in a TeachMeet 7 taking place in Scotland. How did I find out about it? Obviously, I was not in Scotland. I was sitting at my desk working on work projects, when a “tweet” came in from Paul Harrington, an educator in Wales. As a result of his sharing via twitter, I was able to participate in the conference via my web browser and listen to speakers like Ewan McIntosh and others share what they are doing in schools in Scotland. Do you think that might have impacted my perspective about the power of global learning opportunities? How might participating in a dialogue with educators from around the world have impacted your perspective?

By combining the power of and Twitter/Plurk, I am able to track more easily ad-hoc professional learning opportunities as they occur, as well as have conversations about them before and after they occur. That kind of just-in-time learning, as it happens, can be very powerful for educators. I invited other educators to join and now we have a collaboratively updated list of EDuStreams —educational professional learning happening online via sessions that are appearing online. EDuStreams are actually video/audio presentations and conversations done by educators about topics they are interested in. Twitter/Plurk allow us to share those at will, while allows us to keep track of those opportunities and share them with others, even if they are not on Twitter.

You can also use a third-party service known as Packrati ( save your tweets to bookmarks. As they describe it, "We follow your twitter feed, and whenever a status you tweet or re-tweet contains URLs, we add them to your bookmarks. Optionally, bookmark URLs in @replies to you, and in tweets you mark as Favorites."

Example: Norms for Online Behavior
Find it here: with a list of educators to follow at

Social media can also establish pools of quiet reflection, where we may, with others so inclined, recline and ponder what has been shared. Such pools of diversity are rich in ideas because they allow individuals to share what they are thinking rather than being focused on just sharing content.

As a writer, I seek an audience. But now more than ever, I seek an audience that discusses what I've written, and more importantly, allows me to think about what others are sharing. It makes sharing more of a reciprocal dialogue than a casting of bread on the waters. 

Get started!

3) Start blogging.
Blogging is a process of reflecting on what you learn every day. How can anyone spend time blogging on top of what they do all day? The fact is that some of my best blogging research — when I decide on Future Blog Posts — occurs while I’m looking for something else. In fact, my focus during the day is learning something, either for work or to satisfy my own curiosity (which begins with a question or a wondering).

At the end of the day, early evening in fact, I quickly look back at what I tagged for a Future Blog Post, which is actually a “tag” I keep in Delicious. I might bookmark many items, but I only blog about those that are immediately relevant or connected.

In the past, I would copy-n-paste the link or the relevant quote or point that triggered my thinking into my blog program (e.g. Blogger) but now I just use the SHARE button on my GoogleToolbar. In that way, blogging for me isn’t a “special” activity, but part of everything I do. When I’m asked about what I know about a particular topic relevant to my work as a technology director, I am able to check my bookmarks. If I have spent time reflecting on the implementation of a technolgy-related project in my blog, I usually bookmark that as well and quickly can pull up the needed information. That work prepares me in advance for questions my job naturally throws at me.

So here I am again, coaching, and asking my students to trust that they will need what I’m requiring them to do: blogging, wiki-ing, social bookmarking, digital story creating, and online discussion. If they can get through my class, they will be able to apply those new skills to their teaching — and their students will benefit.

In a real way, this is a much different way of behaving and acting. Modeling it for our students is critical, as Cheri points out above, but understanding it ourselves is just as important. Before blogs (BB), I never would have done that (tag ideas, blog about my response/reflection, wikify my resources for others, podcast valuable conversations with other people for later listening). In fact, keeping a journal was a joke for me, even though I knew that every “good” writer kept one. It wasn’t until I started blogging — with a real audience reading it — that I understood the power of blogging everything.

Amy Gehran at Contentious Blog articulates this really well when she writes the following (via Teach-n-Babble):
A blog post is not (or at least, it shouldn’t be) a writing assignment you must prep for and deliver as a finished package…Blog your initial brainstorming…Blog your research and discovery…Blog your interactions. Did you just have an interesting conversation relevant to a topic you’ve been blogging? Ask the person with whom you conversed if you can blog the relevant portion, and whether you can identify them…The clincher to all this is to use your blog as your “backup brain” or at least as a public notebook. Why not get more mileage out of work you would have done anyway by changing your habits toward managing information and communicating publicly? Instead of keeping your thoughts, notes, and conversations to yourself, post them.

In my recent Blog Your World! workshop at the PBS/KLRN ICTT 2007 Conference, I shared it in this way, as perceived by one of the newbie bloggers, Juliet Ray at Deep Thoughts (drop by and give her a comment):

What an exciting day today is! I have created my first blog. Hello digital world, here I am! I look forward to using this site as a way of not only communicating with others, but to “externalize (Miguel’s new big word/concept I learned today) my knowledge.” Additionally, it will serve as a personal journal to assist in reflection on my journey through life.

This kind of externalization is useful to others. For example, back in 2005 I wrote a how-to for doing something in GNU/Linux operating system that used KDE as the GUI (as opposed to Gnome or the others out there). In September 20, 2007, someone found it and blogged about it…if I hadn’t externalized my knowledge, made a “backup brain,” then the information would not have been here for Jim Plumb to discover:

If you want to change the default view in the Linux file manager konqueror check out this article: I wanted to have the view in tree mode rather than the default icon view.

Another neat result of Jim’s discovery is that I rediscover my own blog entry when Jim writes about it or interacts with it. It makes me want to re-read the entry. In reviewing my social bookmarking network, I noticed Mark Ahlness had picked up on one of my favorite blog entries, The List Article. I hadn’t seen that blog entry in ages, even though every article I write is based on the structure outlined in it.

Blog what you learn, what you do. Soon, you’ll realize you know — and as importantly, discover more — about what is in your head than you think.
Example: LeaderTalk Blog for school district administrators at

Get started at Google's with an education-related blog about what you are learning and how it is relevant to your work. Ask yourself a few questions to get started, such as What are you most passionate about in your work? andWhat is the hardest thing you do in your work, and why is it challenging? Finally, share your successes — and failures – by answering such questions as What obstacle or problem have you encountered and how did you overcome it?
Some common questions technology directors might want answered include:
  • What backup software do you use in your district?
  • Have you considered switching from MS Exchange to Google Apps? How did you make the transition?
  • What special-education tracking software or web-based service are you using at the District level?
  • What kinds of audio/visual solutions are you using to broadcast school board meetings?

And many more. Responding to those types of questions in your blog and sharing resources with other educators via Delicious will enable you instantly to share ideas about important matters relevant to your work.


The tools discussed here can save a lot of time and energy as you try to join the flow of conversation. One of my favorite quotes — which came to me via Mark Wagner — is, “He who learns from one who is learning, drinks from a flowing river.” I hope you’ll continue to learn every moment and share that learning with others. The rewards are infinite.

About the Author

You can read his published writing or engage him in conversation via his blog at Around the Corner