Personal learning networks: A hack to maintain competence

(From the EiC: The ICE blog welcomes guest author, Swami.  It seems appropriate that Felix follows his own advice and gets help from his network with this post – Jon)

By: Felix Ankel and Anand Swaminathan

“The measure of intelligence is the ability to change.”

Albert Einstein

You are a new #meded leader responsible for leading medical education programs to produce practice-ready graduates.  You assemble a skilled team, attend #meded leadership courses, and participate in national meetings.  How do you develop a discipline of continuous learning and adaptation for yourself? Can a personal learning network (PLN) help?

Theory behind PLNs

Humans are hard-wired to learn and to network. (Geek warning, this is influenced by our mirror cells and eusocial traits). Many leaders network with people in their fields. The most successful leaders cultivate weak links at the periphery of their networks. Weak links (or weak ties) are individuals who span multiple networks or disciplines. Mark Granovetter first published “the strength of weak ties in 1973, long before Facebook, LinkedIn, and Researchgate existed.  It is now one of the most often cited articles in the social sciences. Cultivating weak links outside of one’s traditional professional network allows for insight from diverse points of view, more effective decision making  and co-creation of successful programs.

Swami’s network. Example of a personal learning network (PLN) 

When I started in education leadership 5 years ago, I was tasked with scheduling our resident academic conference (aka academic half day). I wanted to overhaul it. My challenge was that I’d only experienced our way of doing it. How could I build something different when I had no experience with anything different? I needed a network of educators to expand my own thinking and experience.  I became interested in building my PLN to surround myself with smart people who think differently.

I started with the traditional route of network building: go to conferences, meet other educators and build relationships. The problem with this approach was that it required travel, (expensive and time consuming) without guarantees that I would meet the education leaders that I needed to meet. After a couple years of this unsuccessful approach, I discovered virtual networks existing in the Free Open Access Medical Education (FOAM) movement. Travel, geography and time were no longer an issue. Unfettered access became simple.  I now have a robust heterogeneous PLN that has allowed me to collaborate with people around the globe.

Swami’s PLN


Regardless of whether you pursue the traditional or FOAM approach to PLN building, consider these five pieces of advice.

  • Be authentic. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do” – S. Jobs. Pursue your passion.
  • Be courageous. Don’t be afraid to get out there. Take a risk and get involved. This means emailing leaders you respect, approaching them when you see them at conferences and getting involved in FOAM.
  • Be deliberate. Build relationships with people you like working with. The best output comes from people who enjoy working together.
  • Be generous. Give back as much as you take. Say yes when your network asks for help on projects, edits or advice and give back to junior educators when they come calling.
  • Look for weak links. Search out people outside of your discipline and your location. Engage with people that are at the periphery of more than one network or discipline.

Following these steps, you’ll find yourself with a robust PLN that will challenge you to constantly improve yourself.


  • Christakis N, Fowler J.  Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives — How Your Friends’ Friends’ Friends Affect Everything You Feel, Think, and Do. Back Bay Books, 2011
  • Granovetter M.  The Strength of Weak Ties.  The American Journal of Sociology 78:1360-1380, 1973
  • Surowiecki, J. The Wisdom of Crowds. Anchor Books, 2005

Author: International Clinician Educators Blog

The ICE blog: Connecting Clinician Educators around the world. Visit our website at!

9 thoughts on “Personal learning networks: A hack to maintain competence”

  1. Hi Swami
    I very much enjoyed reading your post. Your concept of PLNs is very closely aligned to the concept of Personal Learning Environments (PLEs). The concept of a PLE was first described in an unpublished paper in 2001 but began to gain traction in the educational literature from 2006 when writers such as Milligan, Downes & Atwell revived it. Milligan’s original concept of a PLE was a system that helps learners take control of and manage their own learning supporting learners to:
    • set their own learning goals (possibly with the support of teachers)
    • manage their learning, both content and process
    • communicate with others in the process of learning
    One might see PLEs as taking advantage of the new technologies for learning, for example establishing international communities of practice online via Twitter, although its also worth considering whether the PLE concept is in itself disruptive technology, placing the learner more in control of their learning with the teacher scrambling to keep up.
    Thus far (and I’d be really happy to be corrected) I have found no reference to PLEs in the health education or medical education journals. If anyone is keen to find out more about the PLE concept, I’ll be presenting on it at the ICE Workshop at ICRE.

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