George Lucas Educational Foundation

Personal Learning Networks Are Virtual Lockers for Schoolkids

Students drive their education with custom-made Web pages equipped with RSS feeds.
Vicki Davis @coolcatteacher
Computer Fundamentals, Computer Science and IT Integrator from Camilla, GA
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Digital Know-How:

Vicki Davis and her student Hope discuss the current Google news.

Courtesy of Vicki Davis

While updating his page for Digiteen, a digital-citizenship project, a student asked me, "Have you heard of the Stop, Block, and Tell Program that is helping kids with cyberbullying?" Just moments later, another student informed me, "I found that teaching digital netiquette is one of the major issues in digital citizenship."

Some people may be surprised that these words are from my ninth-grade students during their original research for Digiteen. Breaking news happens daily in my classroom, where I've taught my students how to be in the know. The students gain this ability when they construct their personal learning network (PLN) at the start of each project.

A PLN becomes a student's virtual locker, and its content changes based on the student's current course work. When I assign them a term paper, the students comb the Web to sign up for information that will feed into their personalized Web page to construct a PLN for that topic. When they get a new project, they assemble another page.

"My PLN has RSS feeds to tie everything onto my iGoogle page, such as new blog posts, updates on the wiki, and so on," says my student Virginia. "I also have a feed from Google News so I can get live updates from the Web on recent examples of the topic I'm working on. It basically does the research for me."

Resources and messages come in from students' project partners around the world, and then a Really Simple Syndication, or RSS, feeder (also known as Really Simple Subscriptions) summarizes and puts the resources into my students' PLN Web pages. This feature helps them keep up with all the changes without a lot of hassle. When a project is over, they delete the old resources to make room for new ones.

I'm not surprised that my students become mini-experts using this method. After all, this amazing practice has transformed my life and provided me with the content to catapult my own blog, Cool Cat Teacher, to new heights. It now gets more than 200,000 views a month after just three short years.

Research Agendas

Perhaps the most telling response on the subject of PLNs is from my student Hope, who says, "My iGoogle page is very helpful and helps me keep things organized. It lets me know when my agenda changes." The fact that a ninth grader would talk about her own research agenda gives a glimpse into the power of the PLN; she is using a term here that is often reserved for grad students.

Click to enlarge picture


Hope's personal-learning-network page

Courtesy of Vicki Davis

Constructing a PLN is the essential skill that moves my students into the driver's seat of their own learning. It helps them sort through and manage the proliferation of online materials that jam the information superhighway. It is also indispensable to our project-learning curriculum, which includes challenging projects such as the Flat Classroom Project, the Horizon Project, and Digiteen.

Tony Wagner, from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, lists assessing and analyzing information as one of the seven survival skills in the new world of work. I think the ability to create a PLN is a fundamental information-management skill that will help my students succeed in the future.

How Does a PLN Work?

RSS technology enables the students to create a PLN. The RSS button, often called a chicklet because of its resemblance to a piece of Chiclets chewing gum, contains all the programming required to add customized sources of news and information to a PLN with just a click. These buttons are on just about every blog, wiki, and mainstream media Web site. Clicking the button provides a free subscription to that site's latest information.

An RSS reader is a Web site that puts together all this information in an easy-to-read format. Google Reader, netvibes, Pageflakes, Bloglines, and my preferred reader, iGoogle, are all examples of sites providing RSS readers. The RSS reader is the raw material for building a PLN. I teach the kids in my Computer Fundamentals course how to set up their RSS reader during the first week of class.

Like an empty locker, the RSS reader starts off as a blank Web page, and students must learn how to seek out sources of information to fill the page that will make up their research. The PLN is never complete, but it evolves to meet the changing needs of each individual project.

My friend Cheryl Oakes, a collaborative-content coach in Wells, Maine, uses Portaportal to create a PLN as the start page for secondary school projects. Some teachers and media specialists now make it their job to construct these project portals for students so they can direct where the kids go for information. It is very easy to build these spaces for students. However, I think it is vital that they eventually know how to customize their own spaces for learning.

PLNs Aren't Perfect

Some educators may be concerned that Facebook notifications and other notices from sites blocked by the school's firewall can get onto an iGoogle page. However, these notifications still do not give students access to the sites themselves. Also, some RSS readers allow users to add games and even full television programs. To handle this issue with my students, I make sure that every computer screen is viewable from my desk.

Students also share a copy of their PLNs with me as the first step of every project, and I periodically check the content of these pages for appropriateness. The PLNs are set to be their start pages when they log on to the Internet.


With PLNs, we can now empower the personalized learning we've been longing to bring to education.

I'm thrilled that my students know how to connect efficiently to great sources of information and can now construct an environment that will make them lifelong learners. And, truly, creating a self-directed learner is the pinnacle of educational achievement.

Vicki Davis is a teacher at Westwood Schools, in Camilla, Georgia, and the author of the popular blog Cool Cat Teacher.

Comments (12) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Vicki Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think that students should be introduced to the concept of a pLN as early as elementary. This can be done by carefully constructed portals made by librarians, integration coaches or teachers and should include a variety of sources, particularly the deep web resources that librarians wish more students would use.

When a project is kicked off, the link to the "portal" should be shared with students and parents as the place to start online research.

After students experience the helpfulness of such constructed places in elementary, they can have pages, like published netvibes or pageflakes pages that they could add to their own custom PLN.

I believe by high school that students should have a habit of constructing PLN's that evolve with their courses of study.

Vicki Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I remember as a child, teachers would often assign for us to read our parents' newspaper and select articles to explain. They did this because they wanted us to be able to assimilate information and draw conclusions.

Now, we are all suffering from information overload. The ability to manage all of this information is so essential - for all of us. I think that teaching my students how to construct a PLN is essential!

Leigh Zeitz (Dr. Z)'s picture
Anonymous (not verified)


Your use of the PLN is revolutionary. Having the students create an Informational Central to mine the Web and collect relevant information is what we truly mean when we talk about technology "making life easier."

I have used RSS to try to stay up with my ever-increasing list of important blogs and podcasts. RSS also benefits me by providing me with my electronic news and comics every morning to start the day. These are the entry-level applications for RSS. But teaching our students to create research PLSs by using iGoogle to harvest nuggets of knowledge allows them to emphasize the evaluation of information over the collection of it. It will enable them to have a more current understanding of a topic the previously possible.

Thank you for your article and I will be introducing the iGoogle PLN to my graduate students this semester.

Leigh Zeitz

Tracie Weisz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I have very recently started doing this with my students as well. I teach 3rd grade, and awhile back I created a teacher account and linked student accounts on gmail - I created the iGoogle page using just the teacher account, and use that as our homepage on our classroom computers that the students use. When I want to add gadgets or feeds, I do it on the overhead so the students can see what I am doing, and where the results (RSS, gadgets) end up. That way, when they go to the center, they know what new gadgets to look at and what new RSS feeds will be in their Reader. I also have them use GoogleDocs - I have folders for each student. I show them how I put these on our class blog (in Blogger). Although they don't have their own PLN's, they use the one I provide for them and are very much a part of it's creation, growth, and maintenance.

In the afternoons, I shift gears and teach a high school French class. I have had each of my students create their own iGoogle pages in much the same way, with links to their Delicious accounts as well. They have been very engaged in these and are actually excited about what they are able to do at home as well.

These PLN's are by far more successful as a teaching and learning tool than any textbook I have ever used. Best of all, my students (elementary and high school) can take this to their other classes, and other interests in their personal lives as well.

I have to add that the tips I have picked up on CoolCat Teacher Blog have helped me immensely with moving in this direction!

Vicki Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Yes, the PLN is one of those things we have to continually teach and reinforce. Sometimes the students go back and do things the "hard way" but I remind them and point back to the pLN. Time is scarce and when we can harness the power of an "intelligent being" - (in this case the intelligence we build into our pln) - then we can work more effectively and efficiently.

Love to know how it works with college students. The science is in selecting the proper sources - without good sources (i.e. google news search, google blog search, good newspapers, etc) the page is stale and useless but with good sources, research comes alive!

Vicki Davis's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow, Tracie - I want to know more!! You get it!! It works so well! I want to know more about what you've done. I will search for you, or if you want to twitter me a direct message or leave a comment on my blog, that will help me email you! I'd like to talk more and learn from you!! GREAT WORK!

Julie Morgenthal's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think this is an excellent skill for students to have. It teaches them to become critial of information and at the same time how to organize large amounts of information. I liked the idea that the author emphasized the idea that the update does not provide a doorway to a district blocked site. I also think it is important to note that monitoring the student sites were part of the lesson and ongoing. Where I think students have to learn to use technology, I see too often that in some classes, they are left to their own accord.

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Cheryl Oakes's picture
Cheryl Oakes
Collaborative Content Coach for Technology in Wells Ogunquit CSD, Maine

I know I am coming to this thread 5 months late, however, good articles seem to recycle! Vicki mentioned Porta Portal as a way for classroom teachers to provide links to their students. Absolutely, this is a great way to get a teacher or group on board with an online presence. However, as Vicki points out, we need to move our students into the position of managing their own online work and research. This is significant and really solidifies that the "teacher" is no longer the keeper of the content but rather the "facilitator" and arranges for all students to be in the drivers seat. It is hard work, but the payoff will be students who can navigate rather than be lead around. Nicely done, Vicki.

N. Jacobs's picture
N. Jacobs
4th Grade Math Teacher

Vickie this idea is inspirational. I have my computers set up as a center for students but I always thought it was disorganized with having the sites that I wanted the students to work on bookmarked. By setting up my iGoogle homepage as my startup page, the students will know at a glance what is accessible to them. I didn't know if it would work for an elementary class, but it seems to be working great for Tracie Weisz, and her 3rd grade class. I like the idea that this can be worked on at home as well. My class has a difficult time being organized. This is one way that I can show them that it doesn't have to be that complicated.

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