Posted by Brianna Crowley on Wednesday, 12/31/2014
English teacher and instructional technology coach Brianna Crowley offers practical advice on creating professional learning networks built on intersecting layers of relationships.
This article originally appeared in Education Week Teacher as part of a publishing partnership with the Center for Teaching Quality. Reprinted with permission from the author.
—Photo by Sean Chaffey, via Flickr Creative Commons
Recently, a colleague asked me, “What is a PLN?”
She was taking a graduate course on technology implementation and was required to form a “PLN” using digital communities and tools. But after signing up for various wikis, Nings, and virtual professional groups, she was overwhelmed: “Do I have to actually log in and check all of these things on a regular basis?! Is that what ‘having a PLN’ means?”
Her question prompted me to articulate how I define a professional learning network (PLN) and how I have shaped my own.
A professional learning network is a vibrant, ever-changing group of connections to which teachers go to both share and learn. These groups reflect our values, passions, and areas of expertise.
Teachers build PLNs the same way they build any network: by investing time to find and connect with people they trust, who have shared interests and passions. To me, a PLN includes the organizations, communities, and individuals who help me learn and grow as a professional. My PLN also provides me with a broader perspective on education—beyond my classroom, school building, state, and even nation. It is a blend of face-to-face and digital interactions with professional buddies, mentors, and rockstars.
Although technology is often the vehicle to build connections, a PLN is about relationships. To conceptualize a PLN, envision three layers like the ever-widening rings formed when a rock is dropped into still water. The smallest inner circle represents buddies and mentors; a middle ring holds niche passion groups; and the outer layer comprises professionals and rockstars. The smaller the ring, the closer that group is connected to you in your PLN.
Let’s explore how to develop each of these layers of relationships and understand their role in professional learning.
Step One: Find the Professionals
Imagine you were moving to a new city. Initially, you would seek professionals to trust with home repairs, health, and even dry cleaning. You might find these people by asking neighbors and friends or using an online resource like Angie’s List.
Similarly, finding professionals for a PLN begins by connecting with educational organizations whose mission statements and resources align to your personal beliefs about teaching and learning. Join these organizations, get on their (e)mail lists, and follow them on social media. You can also connect with published authors, researchers, or speakers who have earned your respect. Follow them on social media, find their blog, and set up an RSS feed to notify you when they post new content.
My PLN “professionals” include the following organizations and individuals. I have memberships with these organizations to receive their print and digital publications, when applicable. Additionally, I follow them on Twitter and attend their yearly conferences to physically connect with other like-minded educators.
Step Two: Find Your Niche Groups
In addition to establishing your professional contacts in a new town, you might begin to frequent places connected to your personal interests, like a gym, coffee shop, or church. In these places, you will likely find others who have shared interests in cycling, well-crafted drinks, or faith. These places make you feel comfortable.
In a PLN, these comfortable places are those where people gather around similar passions or experiences. For teachers, those places can vary based on grade level, subject area, or personal passions. For example, those who teach English may participate in Monday night’s #engchat on Twitter or join author Jim Burke’s Ning groups. to discuss topics related to teaching English. Fourth-grade teachers might participate in #4thchat on Twitter while following Fourth Grade Friends’ Pinterest boards for great ideas to use in the classroom.
Educators who are are passionate about technology have, of course, many options for virtual connection: #edtech chat on Twitter, Google+ groups, and videos from the Teaching Channel on digital literacy.
There are literally hundreds of Twitter niche groups that hold regular chats. To add these communities to your PLN, you might attend a few chats a month that push your thinking and provide you with collaboration and resources around a shared personal interest. On Pinterest, you can do a simple search for terms that interest you and follow people or boards that provide you with great ideas.
Another way to find personal niche groups (without the frantic pace and public nature of Twitter) is through private communities like ASCD Edge, Edmodo Teacher Groups,CTQ Collaboratory, or Connected Educator's Book Club. These groups require a profile and provide a space for educators to go deeper in discussing topics and sharing resources.
Step Three: Find your PLN Buddies and Mentors
It’s important to have individuals in your PLN who you respect highly and who will help you grow. Buddies and mentors are those people who you feel connected to beyond one shared interest; they “get” you in some important way.
These people are your closest group in your PLN. You will read almost every blog post they write, and you would probably feel comfortable calling them on the phone or inviting them out to coffee.
Finding PLN buddies and mentors often happens organically through interaction with other PLN groups. Maybe you’re lurking on a Twitter chat and discover another educator who is sharing valuable resources, so you follow that person and thank them on Twitter. Perhaps you feel compelled to comment on a discussion thread that someone posted because it resonated with your own challenges or journey. Or you have an opportunity to chat with a rockstar at a book signing, and a more personal connection is formed. These are all opportunities to make and deepen connections over time.
These buddies and mentors become the foundation of any vibrant PLN. They expand your natural tunnel vision, transform your perspective, and encourage you when rock bottom seems near. You might communicate with them via Twitter, blogs, email, or Voxer. Or you could even ask them to go out for coffee once a month. Connection and interaction is key; the platform is merely the medium of convenience.
Feeling Overwhelmed? Stop!
The best part of a PLN is that it is personal. A “professional learning network” is ultimately a personal learning network.
It’s important to build your PLNs in a conscious way that makes you feel comfortable. After all, not everyone builds their face-to-face networks the same way, so why would our virtual networks be any different? Perhaps it makes more sense for you to start with individuals and work outward to niche groups and organizations. Or maybe you don’t like having your connections and attention divided into so many different directions. Join one organization, explore the niche groups, and connect with individuals who are already part of that community. Your attention will be focused in one place while your PLN still has varied levels of personal interaction and connection.
To my overwhelmed colleague who posed the question, “What is a PLN?” I replied with this: Find the virtual places that feel most natural to you. For me, that’s social media like Twitter and Facebook. After you choose a platform, follow the people and organizations that push you to expand your thinking and move past your comfort zone. That’s creating a sustainable PLN—one that will help you grow and feel more energized, not deplete you and create stress.
Like moving to a new place, the hardest part is the initial step. Stepping outside of your house to meet the neighbors, being willing to make a wrong turn to find your new doctor, or joining the local book club at the library all require risk.
But communities are essential for our happiness and survival. If your professional life feels stagnant and narrow, or your learning feels stale and predictable, perhaps it’s time to step outside the door and seek people who can breathe new life into your professional growth. Perhaps it’s time to build a personal, professional learning network.
Brianna Crowley (@AkaMsCrowley) teaches high school English and works as an Instructional Technology Coach in Hershey, Penn. She also serves as a teacherpreneur for the Center for Teaching Quality, where she helps teachers lead from the classroom. She blogs at Red Pen Reflections and is a member of the CTQ Collaboratory.