In our hyper-connected 21st century, knowing where to find teaching resources or tips from other educators in your field can be both thrilling and daunting. Some call this process building a Personal Learning Network (PLN): “a system of interpersonal connections and resources that support informal learning” (Trust, 2012, pg. 133). InsideTeaching (@InsideTeaching) is one such example, where graduate students connect with each other in-person and digitally to share resources about teaching in higher education. While the idea of PLN is not new, many teachers today use social media to create their personalized, digital PLN. In these informal professional development networks, Twitter is often a platform of choice for teachers for its immediacy in finding practical solutions, answering questions, and finding resources related to teaching.
We sat down with Mary Wever (@WeverWorld), Director of Certificate Programs for Michigan State University’s MA in Educational Technology (MAET) (@MAET) to talk about the benefits and challenges of digital PLNs. Our interview provided some helpful insights about the importance of PLN’ s for 21st century teachers, along with some tips about how to get your digital PLN started.
Q: There is a lot of talk about PLNs in education. What does a “PLN” really mean?
A: Think of it as a map with you at the center. For example, who do you go to when you have questions about classroom management, student engagement, or teaching students with diverse backgrounds? Who’s your go-to person? These people are probably close in your PLN map. But now with the Internet, you also have access to more resources online. Your PLN then also becomes a resource. Before, if I had questions about something, I would just reach out to a specific person directly, but now, I can reach out to a much broader audience online by just posting something on Twitter. It’s 2016, you have access to the whole world.
Q: Why is it important for today’s educators to build their PLN online?
A: It’s easy to think that you are the only one doing what you doing, But even though you are teaching the same content as others, you might be doing it in a very different way. You might think you are on an island, but in reality, there are people out there who share the same values as you. And when you can connect with those people, it can give you confidence in what you are doing. And it also opens you to trying new things. That’s important in teaching.
Q: How do you see the role of social media in expanding traditional PLNs?
A: Having a close-by, face-to-face PLN can be really useful because you get to know people really well. But it also limits you because you’re not having an outward perspective, or not looking at what other people are doing in other areas that could benefit your students. By being on social media, you are able to meet people who are doing similar things as you that can share resources and also connect you with other educators. This expands your PLN. The power of connection is unreal nowadays. Through social media, you are able to talk to people abroad, people who have a large following, people who write books, etc. These people are accessible, and there is no time or space restriction.
Q: What would you say to someone who might not be familiar or comfortable with social media?
A: Start small. Use one platform to get started. If you are already on Facebook, go with Facebook. You don’t even have to participate in your PLN at first, you can simply like pages, share articles, and maybe comment on your own posts. See what reactions come out of it. Learn the language of that platform. If you’re on Twitter, follow people, favorite their posts, participate in an EdChat.
There are many social media for teachers: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, or Voxer are some platforms where you can start building your PLN. For more tips on using social media in your teaching, check out our previous posts on social media basics and hashtags for teaching.
Q: You mentioned Twitter EdChats. What are they?
A: It is when a group of people come together on Twitter at the same time to talk about a topic of interest. You search for their hashtag and follow the live stream. Quickly, you’ll notice that there is a conversation going, and you can follow it at that time, or later on if your prefer. You can also just watch, or fully engage and respond to others. Some Edchats have a specific list of questions that you can answer. It’s just great to see so many perspectives on education.
Q: Do you have any advice about building a PLN?
A: Yes, here are a few things to think about as you get started:
1) Consider the professional identity you want to project on social media and in your PLN. What you post, share, or like online becomes part of your identity in a way. Some people feel more or less comfortable with using their personal accounts for professional activities, and vice versa. It is a good idea to think about what you envision your PLN to be like before diving into it.
What organizations and people are innovative in your field? Who posts articles, blogs, and/or posts/tweets that you enjoy reading and challenge you? Also, sometimes, the boundary between your personal and professional identities online can be blurry. You may want to create a different account for your professional identity, or use only certain platforms for your PLN.
2) Follow and connect with a variety of people and organizations. Because we choose the people we want to follow–usually like-minded individuals–social media can give us a false idea of what the world is like. It’s important to Include people you don’t agree with. It will make your PLN more diverse and it will challenge your thinking.
Ideas or opinions that make you uncomfortable can also open our perspectives. Look into people’s reactions to a post to form your own opinion. There’s always multiple sides to a story! And paying attention to these multiple viewpoints can give you an idea of new people to “Like” and/or “Follow.”
3) Get involved in your PLN. Being active on social media by sharing posts, crowdsourcing ideas, commenting, or by writing your own content is a great way to grow your PLN. Sometimes, however, sharing a source can seem like an endorsement of the idea. You may want to check who the original author is, and who the intended audience was to make sure you agree with the content 100%.
You might have seen “RT not endorsement” or “Tweets are my own” on social media. Some people do that in their bios or profile descriptions to clarify their views. Consider adding such disclaimer on your account if you would like. Also, as Mary points out, you don’t have to always come up with new content to be involved. You can curate others’ content through retweets and shares, pose questions to crowdsource ideas through your questions, and even just “favorite” or “like” something that another person posts.
Ready to start building your own PLN? Here are a few accounts to “Follow” on Twitter and/or like on “Facebook”:
Inside Teaching MSU shares tips and resources about teaching
MSU Hub is an innovative space for people to collaborate on new ways to learn, research, deliver instruction, and collaborate
EduMatch connects educators around the world around similar interests
Inside Higher Ed provides news, jobs postings, career advice and events for college and university faculty, adjuncts, graduate students, and postdocs.
Faculty Focus publishes articles on effective teaching strategies for the college classroom, both face-to-face and online.
Edutopia is a blog that shares evidence and practitioner-based learning strategies that empower you to improve K-12 education.
NPREd discusses a variety of topics related to education across grades.
How do you connect with other educators on social media? Share your experience with us in the comments below.
Trust, T. (2012). Professional learning networks designed for teacher learning. Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 28(4), 133-138.
Macià, M., & García, I. (2016). Informal online communities and networks as a source of teacher professional development: A review. Teaching and Teacher Education, 55, 291-307.
Sarah Gretter is a PhD Candidate in Educational Psychology & Educational Technology at MSU. Her research focuses on Media & information literacy. Specifically, she is interested in the competencies that educators should acquire to successfully help students understand the functions of online media and information in our digital lives. She is also interested in student acquisition of 21st century digital skills, including media & information literacy, computational thinking, and online citizenship. Follow her on Twitter: @SarahGretter and check out her website: www.sarahgretter.org.
Erik Skogsberg is a PhD Candidate in Curriculum, Instruction, and Teacher Education (CITE) at MSU. His current research focuses on pre-service teacher (PST) development toward the inclusion of youth literacies, digital literacies, and culturally sustaining, dialogic pedagogies in the secondary English classroom. He has facilitated courses and professional development focused on teaching methods, disciplinary and youth literacies, digital literacies and educational technology, and teacher mentoring. In his current role as the Teacher Learning Designer in MSU’s HUB for Innovation in Learning and Technology and the MSU Graduate School, he supports graduate teaching assistant professional development across campus. Follow him on Twitter: @erikskogs.