Posted by: crudbasher | June 13, 2011

Tips for Teaching About PLNs

I teach in the Faculty Development department at my university. It’s a wonderful job where I get to interact with our amazing faculty! One of my favorite classes to teach is a 3 hour session on Personal Learning Networks (PLN). I get to do it every few months so I have been through a lot of iterations. I would like to share some of the techniques and examples I have developed with the hope that others who want to share this important concept can build from it.


I use a Keynote presentation on a projector in the classroom. Each student has a laptop with Firefox (for Diigo), Tweetdeck (for Twitter) and Google Reader (for RSS).

My PLN class focuses on 3 concepts. Finding info streams, filtering the streams, and storing the streams. To do these things, I teach Google Reader using RSS feeds, Twitter to get more current info, and Diigo to store the info. I stress that there are other alternatives to each of these.

Breaking the Ice

A PLN is actually not a new idea. In fact we start building a PLN from birth. Each of us has people in our lives that we learn from. We also get information from more traditional sources such as TV and Newspapers but now there are more ways to do it. Everyone around you has knowledge and experience we can learn from.

An important ideas here is to know that everyone’s PLN is different. I use this as a metaphor:

(cc) Wikipedia Commons

A Bonsai tree requires a great deal of time and effort to sculpt it and no two are exactly the same. They also start from a single seed and will grow over time. This is exactly like a PLN I think.

Exercise 1: I believe that every person has at least one thing that they are good at in life.  On my Keynote I give the class a shorted link to a shared Google Spreadsheet. There is only one column in it which asks “What are you an expert at?” I put the spreadsheet up on the screen so they can see it being filled in in realtime. It’s a cool example of rapidly gathering information. I then pick a topic off the list and ask who put it up. I then ask that person a question about that topic and let them answer it (usually in great detail heh).

The point of this exercise is to show them the vast amount of expertise in just our classroom. Imagine how much more is in the millions of Internet users. You just have to connect with them and you can get info on anything!

Here is a great RSA video I play at this point.

RSS Feeds

I talk a bit about RSS feeds and how they work. I had a video but it seemed overkill so I dropped it. I talk about how you can get the Internet to come to you instead of having to check it, which saves tons of time.

Exercise 2. I show them Google Reader and have everyone add some of their commonly visited sites to their Reader. I also show them the power of using Folders to organize sites. We spend 5-10 minutes adding sites. I follow this with a 5 minute break which people can use to keep playing with Reader.


I find that many teacher have a negative opinion about Twitter.  They think it’s either overwhelming, or it’s filled with trivial, shallow ideas. That’s like having a negative opinion about a telephone. It depends on what you are using it for.

I play two videos right away to help visualize these issues.

I talk about how you can follow people, but more importantly you can follow ideas in the form of hashtags.

I talk about how you don’t have to start a PLN from scratch. You can “borrow” someone elses. I tell them to think about a leader in their field.  By looking at this leader’s twitter stream, we can identity common hashtags and other people worth following. I call this “shadowing” an industry leader. It’s a great way to get started with Twitter.

Exercise 3. I have them sign into Twitter and send their first tweet. I talk about how nobody heard it because they aren’t being followed yet. We then create a hashtag and tweet to each other. I also send a tweet to #edchat and ask for a shoutout on our new hashtag. The students usually feel pretty amazed when strangers say hi on their new “channel”. 🙂

I go over Tweetdeck and how to set it up. We then take a break where they can play a bit.


Gathering all this info doesn’t do you any good unless you have a good way to store it and retrieve it later. I use Diigo for this using the Diigo toolbar in Firefox. (there’s a good toolbar now in Chrome too).

I go over the basics of Diigo and have them highlight, bookmark and tag an article. I then explain Diigo groups and how they are a valuable source of filtered and tagged articles.

Graduation Exercise

I let them play for a bit, then we have a graduation exercise. First, I have them join a Diigo group I setup for them. I then have them put the RSS feed for the group into Google Reader. Then, each student has to find a story they are interested in on Twitter, open it, highlight several sections, bookmark it to Diigo and the Diigo group. It will then show up in their Reader. So within a few minutes we have electronically generated a whole bunch of stories and they can see the whole PLN process.

As I said, I love teaching this class. These techniques have greatly accelerated my learning so I want to share this with my peers too. I hope these ideas will help others spread this around too in their schools!

I would love to hear about any other metaphors or exercises others use in their classes! Feel free to add anything in the comments!



  1. Great…plain and simple. Love this. Thanks!

    • Thanks much for stopping by Tamara! I hope this is useful to you.

  2. Thanks for sharing this. I’ll be using later in the year!

    • Yeah I really enjoy teaching this because I know how much a difference it can make to people.

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