Twitter and the Personal Learning Network

What are personal learning networks?The value of networks of people sharing common interests, and the idea of “networking” as a set of techniques to build and benefit from such networks, are not news. The term “social networking” was apparently coined by an anthropologist, J. A. Barnes, in 1954, and he defined the size of a social network as a group of about 100 to 150 people1. Internet technology has rendered such measurements outdated at best, perhaps even irrelevant… we see many paradigms, from massive entities such as Facebook to small collaborative working groups. There are other terms and nomenclature, but as an umbrella term I’m partial to “communities of practice,” which Etienne Wenger (2006) succinctly defines 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.2” The term I’ve seen quickly gaining traction and popularity over the course of my first year on Twitter is even more succinct: Personal Learning Network—”PLN” when you only have 140 characters at your disposal.

Boundaries & Conditions

140 chars

Hash tags


open, visible, public, exposed

Building or joining a PLN specifically on Twitter presents a unique set of boundaries and conditions. The all-encompassing boundary is the first half of Wenger’s definition: “groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something.” Ignoring 3rd party services like TwitLonger, the absolute condition is 140 characters (aiming even lower can encourage retweets as it leaves room for the retweeter’s name3). You tweet in whichever part of the cyberjungle you entered and if, somewhere out there, your tweet matches a concern or sparks a passion you might gain followers, you may even move someone to retweet your statement… and if, over time and your timeline initial attractions fade then you make adjustments—”unfollow.” You choose an image as your “avatar.” You can include a short “bio,” or use the field to establish a context. There are search tools to help you filter the tweets of others and you can use “hash tags” (those words preceded by #, a “hash” … the symbol formerly known as “pound sign” or “number sign”) to proactively make your tweet visible to anyone who thought to highlight the same word. Over time you gain competency, as you do so you’ll move from the periphery towards the centre of the community (Smith, 1999).

You don’t use these features and techniques indiscriminately or you may become extremely annoying. Twitter users “value information sharing and random thoughts above me-oriented or presence updates.” They do not appreciate “lack of context and misuse of @mentions and hashtags.” Of highest value to the community are tweets in the categories questions to followers, information sharing, self-promotion, and even random thoughts, all of which seem to bode well for the Personal Learning Network paradigm. Thanking people for retweets can help engage your followers and attract more, but there’s some evidence folk prefer these thanks to be in direct messages (“DMs,” which are only possible between mutual followers). See the links I’ve included at the end for more tips and the full text of this very recent study providing some of the first empirical evidence we have about what kinds of tweets are valued (André, Bernstein & Luther, 2012).

Emerging Practices. Our analysis suggests: embed more context in tweets (and be less cryptic); add extra commentary, especially if retweeting a common news source; don’t overuse hashtags and use direct messages (DMs) rather than @mentions if more appropriate; happy sentiments are valued and “whining” is disliked, and questions should use a unique hashtag so followers can keep track of the conversation.
-André, Bernstein & Luther (2012)

If you like exploring you can wander Twitter for months, follow anyone you wish, learning how the application works, how there may be subtle differences between the way it works on different browsers or on a phone. This time last year I woke up every morning to check in on #Tahrir, to see and hear first-hand what was happening and the photos that would be on the mainstream media later that night. In that sense Twitter can be a PLT, a personalized learning tool. But a true PLN is not just community, it’s a community of practice and so it must be about the second half of Wenger’s definition: taking something we do and learning how to do it better.

I came up with my original Twitter “bio”—Musician, educator, life long learner—in about 30 seconds when I was confronted with the field on the form, but slightly over a year later I like it and I feel it’s the me I like to be when I’m “learning to do it better.” It doesn’t accurately describe everything I’ve Tweeted, though. I hear relatively wide agreement that narrowing your set of topics promotes a strong, loyal follower base. It’s easy enough to maintain multiple Twitter accounts that my first pieces of advice for building a PLN are 1) use your avatar and the profile bio to describe yourself in a way that will attract followers with the same focused list of interests 2) reflect on that description as you tweet and (with plenty of room for variations in group dynamics) stay on topic 3) if you’re passionate about a topic and one community doesn’t take it into the fold, consider an alternate account; find other networks.

I’m a former middle-school music teacher, currently an elearning developer and a graduate student in education, living and working in Ontario, Canada. But I’m also an American citizen who, after a 20+ year political slumber, has become deeply concerned about the state of politics in the land of my birth, not to mention ways I see the rhetoric of fear and division encroaching on politics here. I get that those are not everyone’s pet topics.

Over the months ahead I hope to engage the many tech-savvy and tech-curious educators and interested others I’ve found on Twitter in any number of conversations about technology, learning, and experience design, perhaps entice a few to join me in a small collaborative project (to be described soon, and to take place on this blog/web site) so I’ve very recently started a separate Twitter account I’ll use mainly for politics. It’s not like education isn’t political or Canadians don’t talk American politics (quite the contrary, in both cases) and, as research now reinforces, it’s not that you mustn’t ever stray from a narrow set of topics. It’s an individual choice.

And so for this individual it’s knowing that my lifelong love affair with tangential, divergent thoughts and ideas is particularly vulnerable to Twitter’s internal workings. If I’m to have a hope of putting it all together it’s time for me to put at least some semblance of a lid on that box! I’ll still tweet and retweet the most compelling items that come my way from time to time, on any subject, but I’m going to focus on the three things I mentioned above; my goals are to get better at leveraging technology in the design of learning experiences and within the experiences themselves, and to interact with people who do that.

And so for the first time since I created my Twitter profile I’ve changed my bio. “Elearning developer” may be a big part of where I am, but seems far too narrow for where I want to go, so  I added “Technology-Enhanced Learning Evangelist.” If you think it’s too over the top please say so in a comment! In the meantime you’ll see me on Twitter, especially if you check the hash tags #edtech and #edchat.



Musician, Educator, Technology-Enhanced Learning Evangelist — Lifelong Learner

Notes, References and links

1. Who coined the phrase “social network?”
2.Wenger (2006), retrieved 2011-11-03
3. @shoq’s Twitter tips, retrieved 2011-02-15
4. André, Bernstein & Luther (2012) (PDF), retrieved 2012-02-05
5. TIME, 2012-02-04, Cool It With the Hashtags: How to Not Be Extremely Annoying on Twitter,, retrieved 2012-02-05
6. Smith, M. K. (1999) “The social/situational orientation to learning,” the encyclopedia of informal education,, Last update: Sept 03, 2009, retrieved 2011-09-29.


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