Teacher professional learning, also known as professional development, is becoming increasingly important in the 21st century. Educators need to harness new technologies and pedagogies in order to develop the complex skills that students require to participate in higher education and future work opportunities (Darling-Hammond, Hyler & Gardner, 2017). However, in a time of rapid change, traditional teacher professional development has failed to keep pace with the needs of modern educators (Oddone, 2019). As a result, teachers are increasingly turning to social media to meet their individual professional learning needs in the form of a Personal Learning Network (PLN) (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016).
For the purposes of this analysis, a PLN is defined as a set of personal connections that are developed online, through various social media platforms, in order to facilitate professional learning (Oddone, 2019). Learning through a PLN is a socially active process and is underpinned by a number of theories including networked learning, connectivism and connected learning (Oddone, 2018). These theories when applied to a PLN, reflect an openly accessible network that connects learners driven by particular learning needs with others who share the same interests (Ito et al., 2013). Technology and social media platforms enable the network connections to occur, facilitating a continual cycle and flow of up-to-date information between the individual and the network (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016; Siemens, 2015). It is within this context, I began my journey towards developing my own PLN and becoming a connected educator.
Planting the Seeds
As an experienced primary school teacher, I was becoming increasingly despondent within the lack of meaningful professional development in my school. Our compulsory professional development revolved around interpreting student performance data and NAPLAN results rather than new, innovative teaching practices. Personalised learning experiences were non-existent and I had little agency over my learning needs (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016). I was missing authentic collaboration and connection with colleagues who shared the same values and interests (Nussbaum-Beach & Ritter, 2010).
The concept of developing a PLN to better support my professional learning needs in the area of reading promotion in schools, was both exciting and daunting (Novak, 2015). I had been an early adopter of social media back in 2007, but had rarely used it for professional purposes and was more of a ‘lurker’ than an active contributor or participant (Cook, Johnson & Stager, 2015; Jenkins, 2006). I knew learning in a PLN would be a “two-way street” and I would need to give as much as I received in order to have an engaging and effective learning experience (Way, 2012). It was with this knowledge I began planting the seeds of my PLN.
Initial PLN Map
My main focus area for developing my PLN was the promotion and development of a reading culture in schools. This area particularly interested me due to my Masters studies in Teacher Librarianship as well as my observations of students’ reading practices as an experienced primary school teacher. I had recently noticed, in my educational setting, a decline in the number of students reading for pleasure. I was keen to develop my PLN in this area and explore practices that supported a reading culture in schools.
Please click here to view full-size – Initial PLN Map (use controls to zoom)
In my initial PLN map, I identified with the connecting practices of a Linear Linker, with most of my online interactions limited to linking activities such as searching for new learning resources or information to solve an immediate teaching need (Oddone, 2019). I had limited interaction with the outside education community and was cautious of connecting with people I did not personally know. Although I would share resources to my small PLN of known work colleagues, I did not share widely or engage in online conversation with unknown connections (Oddone, 2019).
Using the Transformative teacher developmental framework as a reflective tool, I placed my PLN practices at this time in the emerging quadrant (Baker-Doyle, 2017). I used social media and other digital technologies as a consumer of information and would use it to locate information and resources. I would seek advice from peers when necessary and research areas of personal interest online. However, my professional digital identity as an educator had not developed (Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, 2018).
There was little alignment between my digital literacy capabilities and professional life. The aspects of my professional digital identity – digital footprint, digital identity and network identity, were limited to personal interactions on social media and not transferring across to my professional identity as an educator and aspiring teacher-librarian (Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, 2018). Although I had a moderate level of digital literacy, I had not developed the confidence to build a participatory, professional profile and identity.
Growing my PLN
In a bid to overcome my isolation and quench my thirst for professional interaction, I took my first steps towards becoming a connected educator by turning to Twitter (Casas & Zoul, 2015). Twitter is known for its focus on professional learning where networks of educators are able to connect in order to share ideas, information and questions on topics of personal interest (Way, 2012; Dron and Anderson, 2014). With a growth mindset and a passion to learn more about the promotion of a reading culture in schools, I set out to become an active and valued participant in my fledgling PLN (Richardson and Mancabelli 2011; Chattopadhyay, 2016). I knew that in order to build my PLN, developing relationships with other members of my network would be key (Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter, 2010).
A simple way I started developing relationships within my PLN, was following people with similar learning interests to myself and then sharing articles of interest within this network. Quite quickly, I discovered sharing quality information with others, combined with relevant hashtags, was a powerful way to build connections (Richardson and Mancabelli 2011). I enjoyed the positive response I got from others as a result of sharing and it highlighted the importance of a spirit of generosity – giving more than I receive (Casas & Zoul, 2015). This was also reflected in my first critical incident that occurred in late March, related to an article I shared on reading promotion.
As a result of this article, I was then tagged in a post by a Library Advocacy organisation, which led to an increase number of Twitter followers. This in turn built my confidence to continue sharing useful information within my growing PLN, as well as my ideas and opinions. I was engaging in stretching and amplifying practices in the pedagogical arena to further expand my network and learn more in my interest area, in order to remix and share with my PLN (Oddone, 2019). I was beginning to understand the importance of sharing knowledge and resources with others as a way to contribute to a professional knowledge base, while at the same time developing my own professional expertise and skills (Krutka, Carpenter & Trust, 2016). It also highlighted the connectivist nature of a PLN where it is important to cultivate and maintain connections in order to facilitate continuous learning and growth (Siemens, 2015). It was at this time I also created a Pinterest Board to curate and share articles of interest related to the promotion of a reading culture.
About a month into developing my PLN on Twitter, I was surprised by how inspired and energised I became from sharing, interacting and following the posts of like-minded professionals (Novak, 2015; Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016). I found my interest in promoting a reading culture, to be an active topic, with my network consisting of diverse individuals and groups including authors, teachers, book reviewers, academics, libraries and advocacy groups. After being constantly exposed to interesting ideas, new literature and articles I was feeling empowered to implement new ideas and strategies in my classroom practice (Novak, 2015). My increasing confidence was reflected in the blog post I wrote at the time – a critical incident for me as it was the first time I had openly shared personal reflections, thus illustrating an example of amplifying practices in the personal arena (Oddone, 2019). I was becoming more confident to start sharing my ideas with my PLN (Wall, 2012) and this resulted in further stretching and amplifying practices such as beginning an instagram account, to document my learning and classroom practice.
Watching my PLN Bloom
As I began to expand my professional network across various platforms including Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook, I noticed increased interactivity which led to my final and most profound critical incident. It seemed my investment in “connecting, communicating and collaborating” with others had finally started to reap rewards and I began to see the power of a participatory culture (Novak, 2015; Jenkins, 2016). My critical incident related to the sharing of my blog post – Promotion of a Reading Culture. The blog post consisted of an infographic I had created as well as my thoughts and opinions on the importance of a reading culture in schools. This post was well-received on Twitter and resulted in many comments, retweets and visits to my blog. The post was later shared on Facebook by an Australian Library association group resulting in more likes and further redistribution.
Through engaging in inquiry, knowledge building and then sharing information in the area of reading promotion with my PLN, I felt my professional digital identity was beginning to emerge (Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter, 2010; Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, 2018). I was amplifying learning in my PLN through creating, remixing and distributing knowledge in the public arena (Oddone, 2019). The positive, supportive response from others was encouraging and helped build my confidence to continue developing my professional identity and share further knowledge, reflections and ideas with my PLN (Oddone, 2019; Krutka, Carpenter & Trust, 2016). As a result of this new found courage, I authored another blogpost where I reflected on the growth of my PLN as a result of my initial blog. I discovered that the more vulnerable, generous and authentic I was in my interactions with my PLN, the better the response I received from others (Chattopadhyay, 2016; Skyring, 2017).
Final PLN Map
Please click here to view a full-size presentation of my final PLN Map. Use arrows to scroll through the presentation.
As my final PLN map reflects, I have come a long way in my journey towards becoming a connected educator. From planting the initial seeds, to watching my PLN finally start to bloom, I have noticed a significant shift in my practice, mindset and professional identity. I no longer feel isolated as an educator and recognise the importance of seeking opportunities to connect and collaborate with like-minded individuals in order to grow and develop professionally (Casas & Zoul, 2015; Nussbaum-Beach and Ritter, 2010). Through actively engaging in my PLN to build new connections with others, discover and share information, I started to experiment with new reading promotion strategies in my classroom practise and then finally reflected on my new learning (Krutka, Carpenter & Trust, 2016). Becoming a connected educator means I am able to share my knowledge with others and model the benefits of connected learning to both colleagues and students (Casas & Zoul, 2015).
How I connect with my PLN has also evolved and I now identify with the practices of a self-directed sharer. I share a strong affinity with a “need to know, and a need to share” philosophy and enjoy building and sharing knowledge in different ways across various social media platforms (Oddone, 2019). My blog post Growing my PLN – Part 2 , shares further reflections on these practices and my need to manage the time demands of a growing PLN. I am actively engaging in more stretching and amplifying practices, demonstrating a move away from my previous role as a consumer of information towards that of a “prosumer” – someone who both produces and consumes information (Oddone, 2019; Dron and Anderson, 2014). It reflects a shift towards a participatory approach in my professional identity and practices (Baker-Doyle, 2017; Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, 2018.)
On final reflection, I have discovered that I enjoy connecting and sharing with other professionals through a PLN. I have found using social media to build a learning network to be a positive experience and the perfect antidote to professional isolation in the classroom (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016; Casas & Zoul, 2015) My confidence has increased and I am starting to find my professional voice and feel empowered as an educator (Novak, 2015). My knowledge in building a reading culture has increased exponentially and I have a greater understanding of best-practice and current children’s literature as a result (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016). I would like to continue this learning journey and in particular focus on writing regular blog posts to further contribute to discussion and knowledge in my areas of interest. Lastly, I am mindful of the need to manage my time effectively and balance developing my online PLN with my professional work obligations.