Back in my day, if a student were interested in a particular field of study, she would be limited to her guidance counselor or at best, members of her local community to mentor her. But the world is wide open for students today who are looking for advice. Thanks to Twitter and other means of social media, a student's network of mentors and counselors has expanded to include educators and experts from all over the world.

They're called PLNs, or personal learning networks, and this fall, thousands of students from around the country will use them to get connected with specialists in their field of interest whether they live down the street or across the globe. PLNs were created by a loose consortium of teachers several years ago as a way to connect students from one school with teachers in another who could enhance their learning. Today, nearly 10,000 students use PLNs via social networking tools — namely Twitter — to connect with experts for instruction, help or advice. PLNs have also been used to match students with other students or teachers with other teachers looking for information on a particular topic.  

The best way for kids to benefit from a PLN is to work with their guidance counselor or teacher to search Twitter for possible leads and put out a call for advice. At the very least, parents should monitor the conversation to make sure that any expert who responds or connects with their kids is on the up-and-up. The great thing about Twitter is that people from every walk of life are on there; the bad thing about Twitter is that people from every walk of life are on there.

It's not clear yet how the latest slew of laws and regulations regarding teachers connecting with students online — like Missouri's Facebook law — will affect PLNs. It could certainly change things if a teacher were prohibited from connecting with any student on the Internet. That would be a real loss for students and teachers.

Has your child ever used a PLN? Would you consider using one if you (or your kids) were interested in a topic not well-represented in your local area?

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