The ‘internet’ providing us with web 2.0 platforms has made a dramatic impact on our learning opportunities in terms of time and place (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016). We now have access to information that we can locate from any given hour from any given place, to enable us to pursue our personal and professional learning. This ‘connected learning’ according to Ito et al, is defined as a ‘broadened access to learning that is socially embedded, interest-driven, and oriented toward educational, economic, or political opportunity’. (Ito,Gutiérrez, Livingstone, Penuel, Rhodes, Salen & Watkins, 2013).
At it’s most simplest, ‘connected learning’ is the power of making learning relevant. Learning that is both integrative and successful as it connects students to self-chosen services and systems as a result of the coordination between interpersonal connections and resources, that form networks that provide new spaces for individuals to use the support of a diverse range of people and resources to learn and grow as professionals. (Trust, 2012) . Connected learning is the connections between people and information via networks.
With technology and it’s connective learning opportunities we become ‘connected educators’ whereby we can grow professionally by self -selecting others to connect and collaborate with. ( Nussbaum-Beach, Ritter Hall, 2011) This is not a formal title but rather a definition of educators ‘who are activity and constantly seeking new opportunities and resources to grow as professionals’ (Whitaker, Zoul & Cass, 2015, p.xxiii).
Broad, holistic, and flexible networks are essential for us as educators as we navigate our constantly shifting professional landscapes. The availability of such expansive PLNs, and their capacity to respond to each educators’ diverse interests and needs offers possibilities for supporting the professional growth of ‘whole educators’. (Trust etal, 2016)
As connected educators in this lifelong learning process, the most important outcome from our PLNs is that they are ultimately beneficial to student learning. (Trust et al, 2016) . Essentially we know that these networks and their learnings have the potential to impact every student that we teach and by modelling such process of development students can ‘see the value in having their own personal learning networks’. (Trust et al, 2016)
What is a PLN?
The phrase “Teachers work in isolation,” is not an issue for most teachers whom are not limited by geography, time, and budget. But for some of us with these limitations a great way to make professional connections is by building a PLN (Professional Learning Network). In it’s most basic form a PLN is made up of people and tools found online through which you connect and learn with by sharing passions, ideas, and receiving answers ideas and inspiration. (Weiler, 2018). These networks are ‘uniquely personalized, complex systems of interactions consisting of people, resources, and digital tools that support ongoing learning and professional growth’(Trust, etal, p.35, 2016). and have been likened to a set of self-created ‘nodes and links’. (Wenger, Trayner, & de Laat, 2011, p. 9).
These learning networks provide peers who are able to create and connect through support, feedback and tip sharing (Nussbaum-Beach & Hall, 2012; Tour, 2015) and links them together through the use of ‘social software’; ‘software that is supportive of group interactions according to Shirky, ( Dron & Anderson, 2014). such social software includes email, chats and social curation to social networking. Some of the more popular platforms available are Twitter, Facebook, Website Blog, Pinterest, Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, Google + and LinkedIn. Such technology has changed the way that we learn through opportunities for greater connection, creativity, active learning, accessibility, usability, knowledge curation and so on (Don & Anderson, 2014).
PLNs allow the learner to be in control of the learning process and consequently learners are empowered through the interactions that occur, the connections that are made and the knowledge that is shared. However, one must be mindful that just because we are involved in these online communities it does not necessarily follow that we are active. The real power of our PLN is that in the knowledge that one is actually only one part of a much wider network – and interdependence means that sharing is the key (Nussbaum-Beach, 2013).
My PLN Journey-
My PLN journey is based on my passion for every child having the opportunity to become a successful reader through my studies in the university subject, ‘Reading and Writing Difficulties’; my experiences as an after school tutor having significant success with phonics for struggling readers and my many years of teaching in early childhood education.
Starting my PLN was a rather daunting and overwhelming experience as I was building my PLN from scratch. A lack of knowledge and familiarity is known to be a common stumbling block. I really had no idea as to where to start. Being confronted by so many choices of tools and resources made my task more complicated. Initially Twitter, a blog of my own and Pinterest were the most obvious choices for me. I started as a very nervous newbie on Twitter, a slow pinner on Pinterest and a nervous challenged blogger for my blog. These were all platforms that I had had no involvement or knowledge in prior to the setup of my PLN. I also set up a Rich Site Summary (RSS) feed reader on my web browser but never went back to use that.
My original PLN-
Twitter according to Trust is a good place to start as it is less demanding in terms of time and is a great source for collective knowledge. (Trust, 2012) My Twitter setup began by hash tagging, #explicit synthetic phonics instruction together or separately and also searching in the twitter box for anything related to synthetic phonics programs and their related teachings. I also took opportunities to click on the profiles of a few I was following to choose new identities to follow. I gradually had interactions on Twitter ranging from likes, new followers and short conversations with other individuals. This was a slow steady process.
I was gradually adding new individuals to follow and slowly attracting new followers but I was still slightly fearful and uncomfortable regarding connecting online with others in this ‘unsecured’ way. Through this fear It was becoming very evident to me that I needed to make a meaningful connection to connect with other like-minded individuals, to truly become a connected educator (Nussbaum-Beach & Hall, 2012; Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011) by finding a higher form of a PLN using Web 2.0 tools where I could whole heartedly communicate my own thoughts, reflections, inspirations and ideas. This was to be my blog. I also set up Pinterest in order to share some topical and organized content through the creation Pinterest Boards. This would allow me to make and grow my PLN connections. (Weiler, 2016)
When starting out on Twitter I began contributing in a passive capacity, retweeting the thoughts, ideas and resources of others. To supercharge my PLN ( Oddone, 2018 ) I added extra hashtags. The next step of my learning was through the realisation that the networks supporting my PLN were still all supportive of ‘weak ties’ ( Dron & Anderson, 2014). so consequently the linking of my platforms (blog, Pinterest & Twitter) was now a necessity. These weak ties were enabling me to casually fleet in and out without any rapport or substance and meaningful connections were few and far between. I needed to plan and build my network properly to avoid the big link sharing party that I was currently involved in. I had fallen into the trap of thinking that having lots of connections made it a worthwhile experience (Don & Anderson, 2014). . (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011) however networked learning is not linear.
My impulse was to rush into grabbing lots of connections to gain momentum on Twitter but I was also questioning the value of such a reaction. It became clear, as research suggests, that in order to have a meaningful PLN I needed quality communications rather than quantity. ( Nussbeaum-Beach (2013) Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011, (Oddone, 2018) I was just sharing and regurgitating but now needed to share more on an open network.
My second PLN-
My current map differs from my original map in that it expands on each of the original nodes, and the focus has become more about interactions with others rather than just where I manage to source my ideas and information from. Whilst some of the nodes (Twitter/Blogs) have seen more growth than others, none of them have remained static. Facebook provided me with limited online connections and not much motivation so I spent minimal time there. Twitter was the my most exciting area of interaction with limited but insightful connections. These connections have allowed me to actively seek opportunities to collaborate, share and learn from others (Baker-Doyle, 2017) including a diverse selection of individuals across the world. Twitter, blogs, and Facebook, allow teachers to expand their connections beyond their local networks and seek knowledge and opportunities that might not otherwise be available. (Trust et al, 2016).
I discovered that the Twitter community that formed part of my network was more active than my Blog or Pinterest so I decided to step out and share a blog post, along with an invitation to visit my blog, as having played both roles as a consumer and contributor the time had come to step out to become a true connector. Unfortunately I had no response in that moment. I then made an infographic which I shared to Twitter as to reinforce Oddone’s view ((Oddone, 2018) that creating and contributing will supercharge your PLN as you connect and engage in different ways with different people. However it did not arouse the interest that I had expected.
The majority of my time was spent on Twitter where I was gradually building up new followers and solely following a few new individuals as well. I started following the larger literacy groups and businesses Orton Gillingham OA , Dyslexia MNC, Five from Five because hashtags effectively connect you with varying individuals across different platforms. (Oddone, 2018)
PLN’s live or die according to the quality of our connections with other people, so if I was to continue to grow mine I needed to be more actively contributing (Oddone, 2018). So I bravely stepped out and shared some personal experiences of mine and also challenged some views that I didn’t agree with and surprisingly gained several new followers with renewed respect for teachers and their voice in the education system. During this process I learnt from the best bloggers that by constantly linking your blog to Twitter you get the best results but I didn’t have the courage to do this at this stage. Being confident in one’s capacity to successfully interact online effects the evolution of a PLN (Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, in press 2018).
In terms of Kay Oddone’s research, (Oddone, 2018) my initial step into my PLN was reflective of (Alex) The Time Manager. As a quiet, private individual I found developing and controlling my PLN challenging and confronting with the merging of my private and professional life. I feel as though I remained in this category throughout my PLN development as I continued to be a more passive, anonymous identity. I was always aware that to be a truly connected learner I had to take the initiative more in starting and leading connections.(Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011). I am beginning to find my way and feel slightly less inhibited when contributing to the wider public. I feel I fit into the Emerging quadrant as I feel that my coherence (digital identity) is high but my interactions have remained low (Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, 2018).
In terms of Oddone’s levels I have remained consistently at the Technical Level.
- Pedagogical: ‘Everyday problem solving’ practicing, ‘technical questions and answers’.
- Personal: ‘Limited sharing of personal information’.
- Public: ‘Recognis[ing] the professional capital of other individuals within the network and following ‘network starts’ to access high quality information and resources’.
According to Lupton we develop three different digital identities through our interactions which are unique and can vary from high to low interactions. I am operating at the primary stage in terms of my online digital identity development, according to the frameworks set out by Lupton et al (2018, p. 6). I classify as Emerging: High coherence and low interaction as my online activities and my professional identity are aligned but my interactions are less public and my network still remains significantly elementary. I make tiny quiet footsteps of likes, shares and comments online; my identity on Twitter is conservative and quiet and my social media and web based technology has minimal involvement.
‘Building my own PLN has given me a voice, a seat at the learning table and a voice’
So what have I learnt from this process of creating my PLN? I have learnt that I am a worthy professional with valuable knowledge, ideas, thoughts and resources to share. I felt respected by other individuals on Twitter. My PLN has accentuated the value of the web tools to create a digital world, where we as educators, can learn together in a space, that is supportive to a range of people and resources. (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016).
Although I have grown immensely in my digital identities I am still far more confident within my day to day professional teaching identity. I do feel that I have had the courage to participate ‘actively’ in some previously unknown areas. My next step is to continue working towards making my digital presence more seamless and shifting towards a higher level of coherence (Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, 2018, pp. 11-13). I still find that I lack confidence in what I say and share online possibly due to my feeling like a student as opposed to a teacher in my PLN. This was a common concern in the research of Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson. I am still ‘setting the stage’ in regards to interacting professionally online.
A PLN can be viewed as integral to the 21stcentury connected educator’s do-it-yourself lifelong learning mindset (Nussbaum-Beach & Hall, 2011). And as such my PLN is a part of my professional development that will be constantly changing according to my learning needs and interests, as they evolve throughout my career. ‘Shifting students from a student identity to a professional digital identity [thus] involves explicit development of digital literacies, digital citizenship and professional learning networks’ (Lupton, M, Oddone, K, Dreamson, N. 2018, p.22).So as teachers it is vital that we make a concerted effort to develop our PLNs.
In Nussbaum-Beach & Hall’s text (Nussaum- Beach & Hall, 2011), the main criteria of a connected educator is an individual who is self directed, uses inquiry learning, is open minded, capable of deep reflection and engages and instigates in collegial conversations (Nussbaum-Beach & Hall, 2012). While I feel that I am all of these things, I can see that I am just learning what a connected educator should be. I plan on being a more active participant in my PLN platforms by uploading more content and engaging more with those around me, sharing and discussing rather than just liking and retweeting. I feel that more effort and involvement will create more genuine and lasting connections.
I have thoroughly enjoyed the nervous challenge of this task to develop my PLN. My project finished with an added treat on Twitter as we were all elated to receive new evidence via a new research document that reinforced our passion for the necessity of teaching explicit, systematic phonics to beginning readers for reading success. Yay!
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