I have been teaching English to international adults at a school in Brisbane since 2008. The school provides high-quality professional development, and I work with a supportive teaching team. Using social media can further improve a professional learning network (PLN) by increasing the number and quality of connections. In this post, I will examine whether my PLN was enhanced by incorporating social media.
Learning Networks and Their Importance
Humans have been sharing knowledge since they first learnt to copy each other (Siemens, 2008). Learning networks eventually incorporated methods that no longer required face-to-face communication such as books, the Internet and Web 2.0 technologies like social media. Even in the early 1970s, researchers suspected future learners might seek out knowledge rather than being directed by teachers (Illich, as cited in Siemens, 2008). Researchers also realised the more advanced technology became, the more multimedia would become important (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles, & Turoff, 1995).
Social media and Web 2.0 have enabled numerous diverse learning communities to appear and flourish (O’Hear, as cited in Downes, 2010). Networked learning happens where technology provides connections between teachers and learners, learners and other learners and learners and resources (Jones, 2015). Learning is the result of the connections between these nodes in the network (Haythornthwaite & Andrews, 2011). Learning the required meta-skills is perhaps as important as what is learned because those skills have lifelong value (Dron & Anderson, 2014). In connectivism, knowledge is ‘in the connections’ between people, and learning is the strengthening of and movement through those connections (Downes, 2012, p. 504).
For many teachers, networked learning occurs every day via interaction with colleagues, training and observation, with the majority of it being informal (Siemens, 2005). The value of knowledge increases when it is shared (Tobin, 2017). As PLNs have personal aspects, they often contain many diverse opinions (Oddone, 2018a). This means they are an excellent way to explore new possibilities.
Good PLNs can help users focus on the most relevant current events and content. Quality professional development can help teachers avoid burnout or apathy because those that feel good about their industry feel energised. They might then transmit this enthusiasm to their students (Summey, 2013, p. 99). According to Olsen (2012), learning networks utilising the Internet are powerful due to their potential to be continuously updated, thereby retaining relevance. Meanwhile, traditional company-created training resources can quickly become irrelevant or even worse, misguiding. Company-provided professional development is often substandard or attempts a one-size-fits-all training provision (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016). In contrast, DIYPD, do-it-yourself professional development (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011), is powerful because the learner chooses their own path. Additionally, social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter have one important advantage over face-to-face methods: they give the learner time to respond. This helps users to craft more accurate and thoughtful responses (Harlen & Doubler, 2007).
My industry is education. In this experiment, I have narrowed my focus to teaching English to speakers of other languages (TESOL). My PLN is much larger than this focus and includes other areas such as classroom management, music production and sport. Those other areas interconnect with each other and would show as a web if included on my PLN map. However, for simplicity, the map below shows my TESOL PLN’s status in January, at the experiment’s beginning. To improve my PLN, I decided to change the way I interacted with it via social media. Social software includes famous brands such as Twitter and Facebook, but in a broader sense, it is a method of sending data to wider connections than just your friends or colleagues (Downes, 2012). I decided to make more Twitter connections, follow more blogs, post more often on social media, share resources via my blog and participate in Facebook groups. I have coloured the nodes and connections on the initial map grey because my interaction with the network was mainly one way. I only read my feeds and did minimal connecting, commenting, creating or sharing. I failed to appreciate that it is not the publishing that is important, it is the connecting (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011).
In 2018, I took my first steps into developing a more valuable digital identity. The experiment was designed to run for six months, from January to June 2018, when I would assess whether the process was worth continuing. I wanted to see if my ability to learn and help others would improve by increasing social media usage, so I created and shared the following items:
- A blog post about my opinion regarding mobile phone usage in adult ESL classrooms. I wanted teachers to question why phones are often banned.
- An infographic showing tips for making presentations more interesting. I wanted to pass on some tips that have helped my students.
- A communicative activity for practising vocabulary. I wanted to pass on an activity that gets students moving.
- A Kahoot quiz I made for use in class. I wanted to share my classroom game resources and save other teachers’ planning time. Additionally, I share all of my kahoots here.
I also blogged about my progress:
- Starting my Professional Learning Network Journey
- False Starts: My Professional Learning Network History
- My Professional Learning Network: Day 1
- My PLN Update 1
- My PLN Update 2
Finally, I attempted to instigate discussion in Facebook groups, and I used Twitter to post opinions, questions and replies.
Results: Critical Incidents and Analysis
I was thrilled to learn how active the TESOL community is on social media. There are so many generous and inclusive teachers helping their colleagues. Numerous opportunities for interaction appeared, which allowed my PLN to grow substantially. The maps below (click to enlarge) show my PLN’s growth by June 2018 compared to the initial map from January.
Twitter was the platform I was most familiar with before starting this experiment. By tweeting more, using hashtags (TESOL, ESL and EAL amongst others), pinning a top tweet, retweeting, answering questions and linking to my blog, my tweet impressions blossomed over six months with over two and a half thousand impressions in May 2018, a marked increase over the seventy-four in December 2017.
Only gaining minimal likes, replies and retweets (see gallery below), I felt slightly disappointed. Perhaps these will increase over time as I acquire more followers and my PLN status increases.
However, when responding to other users’ tweets, I experienced better interaction and noticed meaningful relationships with other users starting to grow. Examples include Cecilia Nobre, Svetlana Lupasco, Sandy Millin and Nathan Hall. These users are inspirational in the way they use social media to connect, share and create. I hope to develop leadership qualities like theirs in the future.
Another valuable interaction was with James Villarrubia about his website, Mt. Cleverest, which creates quizzes and worksheets from any webpage. Thinking about textbooks encouraged me to interact more with my PLN’s face-to-face side, so I participated in a project to update my school’s General English textbook. I provided some constructive criticism of the current book and suggested some new activities.
Tweetdeck helps me monitor hashtags. Here are some edchats and hashtags I have followed among others:
- #TESOL / #ESL / #EAL
I joined one of the #AusELT chats. The topic was teaching speaking and giving meaningful feedback. At first, it was difficult to follow the various threads, but I eventually discovered how to follow multiple conversations. The chats are very useful because they give you some material to engage with beforehand so you are primed for the session. I was able to make some comments and gained a few likes and follows. A future learning implication is I need to become more comfortable using technical vocabulary to describe my teaching.
Facebook gave me some satisfying interaction with the groups I joined, and I was pleased to see that friendly banter, disagreement and constructive criticism are encouraged. I joined the following Facebook groups:
Learning networks like Facebook groups are much more flexible than traditional, planned programmes of learning where learners are often seen as ‘customers’ (Lewis and Allan, 2005). In virtual learning communities, there is much more emphasis on sharing, creation, autonomy and collaboration. Although organisations can create them, these communities are being established more and more by learners using social media. According to Lewis and Allan, these groups can overcome the traditional barriers of geography and time, allowing learners to connect throughout the world. Below are two interactions I had talking about teaching conversation and pronunciation. It was great to be able to provide some useful resources.
My favourite critical incident has been the responses to the question I posed in the Private English Teachers Reloaded Facebook group. I wanted to know members’ opinions about classroom phone bans. Two agreed with the ban, and the other two acknowledged it was a problem. While their views did not notably influence my blog post, it was thrilling to get a quick response and made me more confident about interacting with Facebook groups in future.
Another important critical incident was realising WordPress is just as effective as Twitter for generating debate. Receiving likes for the opinion-related blog posts I made has given me the confidence to keep on posting my thoughts and ideas. I made eight blog posts in all (not including this one), generating thirteen likes and attracting ten followers. I am currently following thirty-five bloggers and find reading their content fascinating. I had a satisfying interaction with Matthew on his Muddles Into Maxims blog about supervising teachers on a teaching practicum. I realised I have gained experience over the years and have something worth saying. I realised lacking self-confidence was stopping me from taking the next step in my career. I felt I had nothing worth mentioning and nobody would want to listen to me. Starting was the hardest thing, and once I got going, I realised how much I had missed being genuinely reflective about teaching like I was all those years ago as a trainee teacher. Rather than feeling negative about minimal responses to my tweets, I have learnt to focus on the reactions and valuable interactions I am starting to have. It is not about quantity or follower numbers. Some nodes in a network are more important than others (Siemens, 2005). It is about my network’s strength, what I can learn and what I can help others do. People don’t have to like or agree with my opinions. I have learnt to be braver, to have ideas and be willing to justify them. Knowledge is becoming obsolete faster than at any time in human history (Siemens, 2005), so it is natural there should be disagreement. Connectivist principles state diversity of opinion is where learning and knowledge lie (Siemens, 2005), so not only is disagreement unavoidable, it is necessary.
Being able to interact with these bloggers makes me feel much more connected than in the past. The research and writing process has been satisfying and beneficial for my teaching. While researching the topics I had to acquire new social media, photographic and web skills. I feel I have learned much and will continue to blog. I was proud to publish Give Way, my research into connected learning and Scratch, and feel this is a marker for the writing quality I would like to produce in the future. Put Your Phone Away! is the first opinion piece I have written and is part of a necessary step for me to voice more personal opinions in my PLN.
Late on, I realised Instagram could be a powerful teaching tool which allows me to connect with other teachers and institutions. Influential accounts include English Teacher Joe and English, Baby. I have only just scratched the surface in the final few weeks of the experiment and am looking forward to investigating Instagram further.
I like using social media, so I often get distracted and learn unexpected things. Sometimes I feel inclined to comment on subjects I was not researching. Knowing I can always find what I need has encouraged me to jump in and out of learning, so I tend to learn in shorter chunks but with more frequency. This ‘learning episodically’ (Olsen, 2012) is widespread amongst learners today and in line with connectivist learning principles. Having the capacity to learn is more important than what you actually know and deciding what to learn is, in itself, learning (Siemens, 2005). Knowing how to assess content relevance against my current needs is an essential 21st Century skill and one I should pass on to others (Olsen, 2012). According to Wainwright (2018), the time-poor reality for most modern learners means it is imperative that content on any learning network or platform is easily accessible, which is important to me when choosing social media platforms.
Thinking about my PLN makes me feel energised about learning. My PLN heroes have inspired me to produce content and help others like they do. Although I enjoy using social media, I understand its use does not determine a network’s worth. Instead, it is how the individual members, the network nodes, use social media which defines whether the PLN is successful (Oddone, 2017). Way (2012) lists some responsibilities of PLN members such as checking feeds, retweeting, answering questions, supporting members, being positive, being mindful of privacy and keeping language respectful. Members must participate and contribute honestly. This ‘two-way street’ is vital for strengthening the network (Way, 2012). A participatory culture is one where resource consumers also add to the resources by using their skills to share, remix or create (Jenkins, Ito & Boyd, 2015). I realise strengthening participatory culture through interaction and creation is my responsibility. Maintaining and caring for the connections will ensure learning continues (Siemens, 2005). I must also pass on the skills I have learned in this experiment to my students so they too can benefit.
My Digital Identity
In early 2018, I had limited interaction with my PLN beyond occasionally retweeting on Twitter or posting conversation resources on this blog. Maybe I understood the idea of networking, but not the concept of developing a PLN. The maps below show how my network has dramatically expanded in six months by increasing my contributions and interaction.
In June 2018, I am a ‘global connectivist’ (Oddone, 2018b). Interacting with other teachers around the world in places such as Canada, Spain and Brazil, I feel energised by diverse opinions and contexts. Using my PLN is similar to conducting research, assimilating information via social software and constructing my own views and knowledge. A recent example of this process is my blog post on using phones in the classroom. I examined academic research and interacted with members of an international Facebook group to find their opinions. Understanding my limitations, I search for high-quality information and experts when required. Helping other members of the PLN is as important to me as elevating my own knowledge. I feel excited to use my PLN, and I interact with it multiple times each day.
Lupton, Oddone and Dreamson (2018) identify three aspects which make up learners’ digital identities: digital footprint (the evidence of our interaction and how the web customises itself for us), digital literacy (our abilities to use the technology) and social network identity. Before the experiment, my Facebook and Instagram identities were personal but now have a professional aspect. Twitter continues to be a professional identity as it was before. Leveraging the social media technology required in this experiment has raised my digital literacy level. Examples include creating infographics, understanding the etiquette required and using the platforms. I have moved from low interaction, where I worked in isolation, to high interaction, where I work with others. Coherence has started to increase as I have begun to integrate tools into my natural workflow and my online identity has started to mirror my offline practice.
The chart below shows progression in my PLN mapped to criteria developed by Kay Oddone (2018c), who created a conceptual model of learning as a connected professional. This model draws upon connected learning theories and her research.
Using the descriptors listed in her presentation, I realise my PLN usage and interaction became more sophisticated as the experiment progressed. Generally, I have gone from passive and sporadic Twitter usage to interaction, curation and creation across other platforms and groups. For example, in the personal arena at the outset, I limited my personal data sharing and had no profile photo.
I have some development to do. In the personal arena, I need to be more authentic as I hold back somewhat, perhaps because I am quite private. So, I would like to take more risks by sharing personal reflections. The mobile phones blog post was a positive step towards this, and I intend to post on more topics this year. In the public arena, I need time to establish myself in the PLN and start sharing my content knowledge and practice like the heroes mentioned. For self-directed learning, I would like to create high-quality resources and initiate more learning opportunities. For social network literacy, I want to combine my online and offline areas more and start thinking about patterns and trends. Kay’s framework has helped me to establish what I have achieved and identify future directions.
The graph below uses the transformative teacher framework, created by Kira Baker-Doyle (2017), to show how my teaching style and beliefs changed during the experiment. With the advent of social media, teachers now have a voice and can influence social change (Baker-Doyle, 2017). Example issues include human rights and sustainability (Love, 2010).
Teachers move through technical, emerging, participatory and leader stages. In the beginning, teachers notice inequality but do little to make change happen. In the leader stage, teachers influence the world through collaboration. In most categories, I have progressed from the emerging to the participatory stage. During the experiment, I started questioning systems of inequality, becoming more aware of my PLN’s diversity, revealing more personal interests, seeking and offering advice and looking for more opportunities for students to tell their stories. To progress to the leader stage, I need to work harder for change, participate more in my PLN, provide classroom activities that encourage cultural change and develop better storytelling skills. Leaders need to foster ‘fringe thinking’ and ensure new ideas can be brought to fruition quickly (Siemens, 2005).
Conducting this experiment has shown me the value of PLNs, and I have been amazed by how much more connected I have felt to my profession in such a short period. My TESOL PLN has grown to be a much more interactive, informative and professionally useful part of my life. I learned that I have opinions and that I should not be afraid to voice them. I discovered that I like creating resources and learning how to use new software (social and computing). I will continue what I have started. Using the frameworks discussed above as my guide, I will act upon the improvement targets I have identified so I can become a connected leader, an advocate for change and a teacher who encourages his students to follow the same path.
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PLN Images by the author
Graphs created using Visme