Personal Learning Networks_Context Book Report

A personal learning network, or PLN, is a deceptively simple idea.

Simply defined, it is “a set of connections to people and resources both offline and online who enrich our learning” (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011,p. 2).

We all have the bits and pieces of a personal learning network already in our lives — a variety of sources we seek out to inform our lives.  But, whether we are avid users of online information sources and social networking tools or novices in those arenas, we may not be very intentional about how we construct learning offline and online.  In fact, many may feel so left behind with the shift to all things online that they aren’t comfortable pursuing learning online at all.  In their book, Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education (2011), Will Richardson and Rob Mancabelli ask us to be proactive, bold and intentional about creating and contributing to a personal learning network.   In fact, their book is, on one level, a step-by-step manual for each reader to develop a personal learning network of her own.

But make no mistake, Richardson and Mancabelli have written a radical manifesto.  It is both a passionate, convincing call to action – what they would call “the compelling case” — and a detailed, scalable plan of action.  They seek to convince and guide individual teachers, corps of faculty and administrators, and schools to utterly transform and energize how they learn individually and collectively and how, ultimately, they facilitate the learning experiences of their students.  They hope networked classroom initiatives will inject passion for both teaching and learning back into the school day.

The book is arranged in logical building blocks, starting with the persuasive argument that our globally connected world has radically altered the learning landscape while our education system remains largely mired in tradition.  The solution to this increasingly unworkable divergence, according to Richardson and Mancabelli, is for individuals to take charge of their own learning.  We are encouraged to fearlessly, playfully and intentionally immersing ourselves in the wide world of information out there by creating personal learning networks.   Richardson and Mancabelli clearly outline the steps necessary for educators to develop PLNs and to then be ambassadors and practitioners of that approach in networked classrooms and schools.  Their case for PLNs is strengthened, and the action steps clarified, by a generous scattering of tales from the trenches.   The authors offer aspirational success stories from teachers and administrators while wisely including plenty of honest testimonies of the anxieties of first forays into PLNs in classrooms and schools.  They are clear that everyone starts somewhere but that the most important step is simply to begin.

Ideally, personal learning networks are places of give and take.  The novice may be more comfortable absorbing information and, at first, only cautiously dabbling in giving back to the network.  Richardson and Mancabelli describe a ladder of activity, or engagement, in online networks that may serve very well to describe the evolution of personal learning network participation from relative “spectators” to curators to active “creators” of content (2011, p. 54-55).  According to Richardson and Mancabelli, the real transformative power of personal learning networks is when participants begin to contribute to the whole.

Richardson and Mancabelli’s message is about transforming our classrooms and schools, starting with teachers first.  Teachers who have activated PLN for their own learning are in a much better position to help their students channel their relative comfort with online settings toward pursuing the things that they are most passionate about — to personalize and globalize their learning.    By opening learning up to all the sources that the  massive online network has to offer, teachers can re-position themselves from “sage-on-the-stage” to “guide-on-the-side” and co-learners with their students.

Richardson and Mancabelli’s basic charge — to grab hold of your own learning with passion and purpose  — is just as applicable for librarians.  To be of true service to teachers, students and patrons of all sorts, librarians need to be constantly experimenting with and exploring emerging pathways to information.  We need to model pro-active, passionate learning by cultivating and contributing to personal learning networks of our own.  Char Booth, in her book Reflective Teaching, Effective Learning (2011), encourages librarians to be gleaners of new ideas and reflective in their practice.  That’s great advice for librarians.  Yes!  But great advice for everyone else as well!  Beyond educators and librarians,  I think it is fair to say that the personal learning network model is a life-long learner’s gift.   A personal learning network is a smart strategy for organized, wide-ranging gleaning and formalized, transparent reflecting.   These are habits of mind that any life-long learner worth her salt would be wise to cultivate.  Personal learning networks help us make whole cloth out of the various strands of influence that we take advantage of and, hopefully, contribute to everyday.

As I read Richardson and Mancabelli, I was struck by the reasonableness of what they advocate.  It all seemed so sort of natural — an extension of, and a vast improvement over, what we already do.  Manual Lima, in this delightfully engaging RSA Animate presentation, confirms that hunch by placing networks of all sorts – and I would include PLNs among them — firmly into the cosmic order of things.

Richardson and Mancabelli passionately argue that personal learning networks are both a natural outgrowth of the vast information network now at our fingertips and utterly necessary.

If we are all just nodes on this vast, cosmic information network, then librarians need to Node Up!


Booth, C. (2011). Reflective teaching, effective learning: Instructional literacy for library

educators. Chicago, IL: American Library Association.

Richardson, W., & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks: Using the power of

connections to transform education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

RSA Animate (Producer). (2012, May 21). RSA Animate – The Power of Networks. Video retrieved from


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7 Responses to Personal Learning Networks_Context Book Report

  1. Pam says:

    Ruth: I haven’t read this book, but I sense that you have captured very well the authors’ passionate call to action! I am intrigued by what you’ve described as Richardson and Mancabelli’s “ladder of activity of online networks”. What are the “rungs” between “spectator” and “creator”? Thanks!

    • ruth says:

      Hi Pam,
      Here is a short answer to your question. The rungs on the ladder of participation in online networks, from bottom to top, are: Inactives, Spectators, Joiners, Collectors, Critics, Conversationalists, and Creators.

      But you might appreciate a little more detail. I went looking for the source that Richardson and Mancabelli site for the ladder, which was based on research conducted by Forrester Research. The study they cite is not freely available but I did find this Slideshare presentation, dated 3/1/2012 and entitled Understanding the Intricate Digital Behaviors of Young Consumers, by one of the authors of the study, Jacqueline Anderson:

      It shows the ladder in full detail with the activities associated with each rung. Their research is for marketing and business purposes but it is equally revealing for educators and librarians.

  2. Rebecca Donnelly says:

    Sounds like the book everyone should read for the PLN assignment! They make a good point about giving as well as taking. It’s easy to lurk and read and learn a little, but it takes some commitment to be an active participant.

    • ruth says:

      You’re right, Rebecca. It is easy to stay on the lower rungs of the ladder. I am a consummate lurker! Transtech is helping me move on up.

  3. tracy maniapoto says:

    I really enjoyed this book and found it hard to put down. I liked how the authors emphasised the timeframe for implementing change in stressing that a year is a good rule to work by. It does make sense though with such a shift from the traditional ‘thats how we’ve always done things’ to the 21st century approach. Getting everyone to shift at the same time would be great!

    I think you’ve captured the book beautifully in your report.

    • ruth says:

      I really liked it that they laid out a timeframe at several stages. I actually shared their timeframe with a strategic planning committee I’m on. I don’t think Richardson and Mancabelli are setting down a hard and fast timeframe but they do a good job of driving home the fact that for successful and complete uptake of a major shift — like moving to a network school — sufficient support and time are essential ingredients. Those two elements are sometimes sacrificed in the rush to adopt something new.

  4. joanne peace says:

    I will have to read this book to learn more about PLNs, especially if it’s hard to put down :). Your report has certainly motivated me. I love what you said that librarians must be “constantly experimenting with and exploring emerging pathways to information”–very well said and I agree. With our PLN assignment, I am going to be more intentional about how I learn. Thanks!

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