Reinvent My What? Understanding the Point of a PLN

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The week after returning from an amazing learning experience at both FETC and EduCon, I was invited to speak to a group of undergraduates studying education technology by John Brown, Clinical Assistant Professor of Education at the University of Lowell in Massachusetts. I had free reign on which topic to cover, so rather than take the “60 apps in 60 minutes approach,” and leave the students thinking, “what just happened?” I decided to share what I believe is more meaningful, especially for long-term success as a 21st century educator, and that is the importance of leveraging social media tools to build a professional learning network. Once a new teacher learns and understands how to develop and grow their PLN, they’ll be able to curate and add to their Diigo library more “60 Apps in 60 Minutes” resources than they could ever imagine. So, to accomplish my goal, and get the teachers-to-be to consider investing their time to develop a PLN, I didn’t dive into Twitter 101, although Twitter was the tool I recommended and demonstrated. Instead, I decided to take a more personal approach and share how I felt when I first started teaching. I felt alone.

I know this feeling is common for many new teachers. I remember my pre-connected days being alone in my classroom, hours after school had ended, grading papers, planning lessons, creating projects, designing rubrics, and researching the web. Aside from having to design a competency-based business curriculum from scratch by myself (I was the only business teacher in the school) I remember feeling overwhelmed with all of the other tasks I was responsible for. I yearned to talk with someone who could relate to what I was going through. I knew I needed support if I was going to make it through the first few years of teaching. Back then I also didn’t have the teacher friends I do now. The bottom line was that I didn’t want to be alone anymore.

So, I reached out to a colleague across the hall and he became a mentor to me. We didn’t teach the same subject area, but that really didn’t matter. As an experienced teacher, he was able to give me advice on how to handle all kinds of issues; everything from student behavior, to difficult parents, and one of those “gotcha” type administrators who focused more on my how classroom was decorated than my instruction. Had it not been for my mentor, who eventually became a great friend, I’m not sure how I would have been able to make it through those first couple years of teaching. My intention in sharing this story with the students wasn’t to scare them or to paint a dark picture of life for an educator. It was to underscore how insanely different the life of an educator can be in the 21st century and how it is absolutely unnecessary in today’s connected world for a teacher to ever feel alone.

Now an experienced educator, and one with a lifelong learning mindset thanks to the daily learning that occurs through my use of social media, I continue to seek out colleagues who I can learn from and be supported by. However, the way in which I do this has shifted dramatically. I am no longer limited to accessing colleagues who are across the hall, or even in another building within my district. This is not to say that face to face connection and collaboration isn’t meaningful, it’s actually my preferred method of interaction and why I love Edcamps, Google Hangouts, and a good old phone call, but because of social media and my willingness to reach out to others, I have been able to make connections with educators from all across the world. The ability to do this has completely transformed me as an educator and eventually led me to my new role in Burlington where I get to work with the absolute best students, teachers, administrators, and IT professionals. But the transformation of how I connect with others didn’t happen on its own, and I reiterated this with the UMass students. I must continuously put time and effort into maintaining and growing my network in order for it to stay relevant and applicable to my learning. And the biggest adjustment any connected educator must go through, once she’s brave enough to share her work, ask questions, and engage in discussion, is to learn how to accept criticisms and challenges. It’s certainly rewarding to receive affirmation from your peers when you take the time to share posts, links, resources, or ideas; who doesn’t enjoy a Twitter love fest? But being challenged, forced to think deeply about an issue, and sharing things that score low on the “Twitter coolness scale” makes us better educators.

After sharing my story with the students, I did cover the Twitter basics. I explained I don’t believe there’s a “right” way to do Twitter per say, but I did advise students to have a profile picture, rather than an egg, as well as a bio so others know who they are and what they’re interested in. I spent time decoding Twitter lingo used by educators, specifically hashtags, and shared with them the official Twitter chat schedule. I defined the concept of “lurking” and how that could be an entry point to becoming a connected educator. I shared my first #edchat lurking experience, how I was completely overwhelmed by the volume of Tweets, and how at first I simply didn’t get it. But over time, about a year or so, not only did I start to “get it” I became one of the moderators of the #digcit chat and have guest moderated #TEDEdchat, #edtechat, and this March I’ll be moderating #gafechat. Again, this all happened because of the time and effort I put into my network. Did that take time? Yes. Has it been time well spent? Absolutely! That was the message I wanted to emphasize with these undergrads the most; you get out of your PLN what you put into it. If you set up your account and then do nothing, don’t expect transformation to occur.

This message was a derivative shared by Lynn Hilt and Andy Marcinek during their EduCon session, “Reinventing Your PLN.” I didn’t stay for the entire conversation (there was one on maker spaces at the same time that I couldn’t miss) but what I loved hearing at their session was that becoming a connected educator takes effort and that over time, a connected educator may have to revaluate the structure and purpose of their network. As Lynn said, there are many educators who do what I mentioned above, go to a Twitter 101 workshop, set up their accounts, maybe even follow a few people or send a Tweet, and then they do nothing. They go back into their bubble and continue as they normally would. Unfortunately, I think this scenario occurs more often than not with people new to using social media for professional learning. I’ve experienced it first hand in helping former administrators and colleagues learn Twitter. The same challenges exist, and probably even more so with Google+. However a Google+ community, such as the Instructional Technology Coaches community can be incredibly helpful for educators looking to connect about a specific topic. Sadly, I still think the majority of educators aren’t connecting at all and that’s a shame. Rather than learning to reinvent their PLN, they’ve never even heard of the concept or understand how it could be used to transform their practice. This is disheartening.

So what’s the distinguishing factor between those who decide to learn how to use social media for professional learning and those who don’t? I wish I had the answer. Some people have the misconception that connected educators are constantly tied to their computers. The irony is that it is quite the opposite. Connected educators, as mentioned by Andy, can use Twitter lists, Tweet Deck, and G+ communities which allow them to organize and make sense of all the information coming into their streams and respond to others in seconds and on the go. They can get the app TweechMe, created by my fellow #digcit moderator Susan Bearden, to learn the in’s and out’s of navigating Twitter. Connected educators also know which chats will contribute to their learning and lead them to connect with new and interesting people. And they don’t just lurk, they are active participants! But if I’m getting what I need out of my PLN, why do I care so much about other educators becoming connected? Well, it’s because I care about students. There are amazingly talented educators out there who connect with kids and impact their lives in profound ways, but they don’t share their strategies, or if they do, it is within a very small group. When educators share with one another, we all benefit. We all become better and in turn, we have a greater impact on students. We also serve as role models to our students and show them in an authentic way how to use social media for learning.

For me personally, I continue to connect with educators from all over this world who I can learn from and some of these people have become close, personal friends. The fact that I can employ free tools including Twitter, Google+, Google Hangouts, LinkedIn, webinars, blogs, podcasts, etc. to access brilliant people; people who are willing to support me, just like my colleague across the hall did so many years ago, is reason enough for me to continue to promote the power of being a connected educator.

If you are a newly connected educator, what’s working for you? What do you find challenging? If you haven’t started to build a PLN, what’s preventing you from doing so? I’d love to hear your story and keep the conversation going in the comments section below, or you can find me on Google+.

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8 comments

  • PHENOMENAL post as always, Jenn. You gave me great links from your previous blogs to help do a Northeastern U. assignment on Twitter. Thanks for the great references and sites!!!

  • I can connect with the feeling of being overwhelmed with twitter. As a brand new user I find myself spending a lot of time on twitter, even asking friends and family members to help but its taking me a while to become comfortable. I guess the challenge for me is that I feel I am spending a lot of time and yet nothing has happened and I know this is mostly because I am a product oriented person, I am not a fan of the “process”. I can understand the potential value of being a part of a PLN but know that it will take me a while to become comfortable with the technology. I work in a small school and our team of teacher really works well together, sharing ideas and collaborating so I believe in the power of colleague support.

  • Thanks for this post Jennifer. I have 40 minutes with our entire faculty next week (March 3 2015) and planned to help them all create Twitter accounts. I have done some foundational work with them around best practices etc. You have motivated me to spend a little more time on “why PLN’s rock”. Thanks you! If you have any more advice for getting 100 teachers on Twitter in 40 minutes please let me know. I do have help from our “Tech Champions” so I am not going at it alone. Thanks again for the post.

    • Thanks for reading David! I hope the post helps! I also wrote one titled “10 Minutes on Twitter” and “When It Comes to Twitter, My Way is the Right Way” that you may want to share. It all comes down to teachers making a choice to give Twitter and other social media tools a try. They must have an open mindset and experience the magic of these tools for themselves otherwise they’ll never truly understand how it can change their practice. If you ever want me to Hangout into a meeting and speak with your teachers directly, let me know!

  • Jenn,
    We summoned the fail whale! I have run a lot of PD sessions that went really well but this was not one of them. I practiced creating accounts 3 times over the last few days and it all went well. But (and I should know better) when 70 people try to create Twitter accounts all at once from one IP address Twitter gets grumpy. It started asking for users to verify their account via SMS, then it just started giving people errors. Ughhhhh!! But I took the whole thing in stride and went into “demo mode” where I showed the staff how to dissect a tweet, how to search and use hashtags etc. Honestly they were very patient and in the end we survived. I followed the meeting up with a link to my presentation and other helpful resources so they are not totally left out in the cold.

    Thanks again Jenn for the inspiration. Keep up the good work!

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