Networking is a concept that has been a key component of career development for a long time. The advent of social media has made it easier than ever before to expand your networking efforts beyond just the job search. Building a network online is especially important for online students and educators. While traditional students can rely on campus activities and face-to-face services, you will need to find other ways to connect and engage with professionals in your field. With readily available social media tools and techniques, you can conveniently gather new information and perspectives from a wider range of sources. I encourage you to think of networking as a way to augment the learning process through the development of a Personal Learning Network (PLN).
What is a Personal Learning Network?
A PLN helps you extend your knowledge base beyond your academic program – each new addition to the network opening doors to new people and resources. Generally speaking, your PLN is what you want it to be. Your network will be unique to you and can include, but is not limited to, the following people and resources.
- Instructors – past and present teachers
- Mentors – experienced professionals willing to share their expertise
- Colleagues – co-workers and classmates who share your interests
- Employers – past and previous supervisors
- Industry Leaders – authors, academics, and practicing professionals in your field of work or study
- Professional Associations – organizations that set standards and maintain professional certification for your field
- Student Groups – sponsored by your school, this may include honor societies
- Publications – journals and other publications that focus on your field of study
- Conferences – events that bring professionals in your field together to share information and network
- Blogs and Websites – sponsored by individuals, businesses, and organizations, providing an endless array of information to you online
You will need a way to organize your network so that you will know where to find specific people and resources when you need them. There is so much to sort through and process, consider how you might aggregate and/or filter this constant feed of new information. A list of tools I recommend is provided below. All are web-based and free to use, although many do require registration.
- Twitter – A "microblogging" tool where users share information and links in messages that are no longer than 140 characters. You choose who and what to follow. There are also organized Twitter chats. (Try #lrnchat if you are interested in education and training!)
- LinkedIn – A professional networking site that allows you to post a resume-like profile and join group discussions. Check out the Student Guide and Group Directory (Once you are logged in you can search groups by topic/keyword.)
- Facebook – There are new Groups, Communities, and organizational Pages forming all the time. Find the ones that are helpful to you and join or "like". Your school may even have Facebook pages.
- Feed Readers – Services such as Feedly and Google Reader allow you to subscribe to websites that have frequent updates, like news sites and blogs, and access them all together in one place.
- Ning – Another social networking site that has been very popular in education circles. These sites include member profiles, discussion boards, and other features for networking. Take a look at the Educators PLN as an example and search for Ning groups in your field.
- Aggregators – Tools such as TweetDeck and Hootsuite help you organize multiple streams and accounts (like Facebook and Twitter) so you can access them with one screen using one login.
With so many potential components and tools, where do you start?
- Join an existing PLN – LinkedIn, Ning, and Facebook all offer the opportunity to join existing groups of professionals. These groups already have members, ongoing discussions, and lists of resources. This can be a great technique to get started.
- Create your own PLN – Develop your own custom newsfeed using a combination of the tools listed above. You may already belong to professional organizations and student groups, or have a list of industry leaders that you would like to follow. Start with these people and resources and build your network from there.
Remember, there is no right or wrong way to build your PLN since it is unique to you. Your PLN may be a combination of existing PLNs and additional resources that are meaningful to you. A PLN is also continuously evolving. As your interests, classes, and jobs change, so will the components of your network – as you add new discoveries and move out of areas that are no longer relevant.
You can start anywhere, but it may be best to pick one tool and give it a try. You'll find that some tools and techniques work better for you than others, so allow time for trial and error. Building an effective PLN takes time.
Once you've set up your initial PLN, how will you interact? It's not uncommon to focus on receiving information in the beginning – listening in on discussions and collecting resources. As you get more comfortable with the tools, consider sharing your point of view and recommending helpful resources to others. As your PLN grows, you become part of other people's PLNs!
- Explore – Seek out new sources of information and continue to refine your list.
- Expand – Add people and resources outside of your field, outside of your geographic area, and see how your PLN changes.
- Share – Contribute resources from your network to help others grow their networks resources.
- Be professional – Put your best foot forward. You never know who you'll meet.
- Reach out – Ask questions. It's an acceptable assumption that those who have made themselves available to be contacted are open to engaging with others.
- Read more – Learn more about PLNs from education and training advisors Sue Waters, Silvia Rosenthal Tolisano, and Jane Bozarth.
The goal of building your PLN is to assemble a group of people and resources you can turn to with specific questions. This endeavor is about opening up new opportunities and creating new avenues of support. There is so much available to you immediately via social media and networking tools, so now is the time to get started.