How a Grumpy Professor Developed a PLN

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Question of the Week

ISTE Standard for Educators 1C challenges professors to “Pursue professional interests by creating and actively participating in local and global learning networks.”

But what if networking is not our forte, offline or online? What if we don’t quite understand how to get engaged on social media? Is that a requirement for teaching now? So here’s my question to explore:

How can a professor meaningfully build, maintain, and contribute to an appropriate Professional Learning Network (PLN)?

Background

I’ve been on the internet since the 1990s.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve tried to give my online identity a makeover. Or, how many times I’ve tried to make over my in-person identity match my online identity. Or is it identities?

Since the 1990s, I’ve moved my online presence from browser-based chatrooms to Geocities pages, America Online, MySpace, Xanga, Facebook, Blogger, Second Life, federated social media, Disqus, fast-forwarding to pandemic TikTok. There’s no telling how many times I’ve opened and trashed accounts.

Why all the platforms (communities)? Why all the starting and stopping?

I think it’s because even though I live in my head, I do want to share what’s going on up there (in there?) with someone. I want to share because I hope my mental explorations and cogitations will be of use from someone. And heaven knows that I need help getting answers to questions, too. It turns out there’s a name for that: the personal learning network (PLN).

Professional Learning Networks (PLNs)

The Textbook Definition of PLNs

According to Trust et al. (2016), the term “Professional Learning Network” was coined by Toobin in 1998 to describe “a network of people and resources that support ongoing learning,” (p. 17). Trust et al. go on to elaborate that rather just being learning communities or social media sites, “PLNs are broader, multifaceted systems, that often incorporate multiple communities, networks of practice, and sites that support both on- and off-line learning. Researchers have yet to explore PLNs as complex systems of people, resources, and digital tools.”

My Definition of PLNs

I like that point. A PLN is not just one coffee chat club, or one website, or one app. A professional learning network is all of the helpers that make you your professional…you. Quote me on that!

Communities

As my colleague Jason Lau pointed out when we were chatting about PLNs the other day, it’s also important to remember that PLNs are a two-way street. It’s not really a network if we only take and take and take, is it? I don’t think so. I think there has to be some sort of mutual support.

Perhaps that support comes in the sharing of ideas back and forth. For example, Professor A speaks at a conference and Professor B is in the audience. After the talk, Professor B approaches Professor A to provide a book suggestion or a recent podcast episode that might provide additional texture to the talk.

The support could also come in the form of sharing ideas you discover within your own network so that ideas you appreciate can spread. Example: Professor A gives a webinar. Professor B attends. At a coffee chat, Professor B shares Professor A’s ideas with Professors C-F.

Our PLNs can (and should!) include people and discipline outside of the profession. There’s so much we can learn when we combine perspectives and expertise. Think about what a composer can add to a screenplay. What can a philosopher add to a class on neuroscience, or a historian to a course on medical ethics?

Information Itself

Speaking of unexpected network connections – I’ve currently taken an interest in how our understanding of economics influences our culture. I’m enjoying reading Hirschfield’s Aquinas and the Market and Soper’s Post-Growth Living. The former is a mix of history/theology/economics, and the latter is a mix of philosophy/environmentalism.

Hirschfield led me to Soper. Soper led me to posthumanism and actor network theory (the idea that things can have agency), and both of those concepts have deepened my thinking on networks. As Turst et al. explained above, PLNs include networks of people, but also of tools and resources themselves. Perhaps networks themselves have agency. Roger Clarke explores, “Information wants to be free,” (and goes on to discuss whether that means in price or in freedom to spread).

I’ll leave the question of object agency and ontological value in inanimate objects to the philosophers. My point is that information is valuable to us, and information combined with people interested in people and information is even more valuable.

In other words, we need to find like-minded people with good information to build a valuable PLN.

Building a PLN

Inputs

There’s no one single killer app for building a PLN. In my opinion, a diverse PLN is a healthy PLN. Different apps, different fields, different mediums – it’s all part of the PLN. Here’s how I do it:

When I want to learn something new, I usually do an internet search to find a credible organization interested in the subject. Then I search for another one to gauge whether the first one was more “out there” than I realized. If I can, I subscribe to the organization’s newsletter and/or social media sites. This is a fairly passive way to learn more about a given subject (although organizations and people like Google will know more about you and your search interests). These days I use an RSS reader like InoReader or Feedly to collect all blogs of interest and bring them to me – kind of like having a digital paper delivered to my digital doorstep.

When I attend (web)conferences and enjoy a speaker, I always try to add them on LinkedIn and/or Twitter. If they have a blog, I’ll follow it.

You can even have social media feeds sent to your RSS readers these days. The downside of doing that is that you miss out on conversation opportunities – whether you participate or just learn from pre-existing threads. Which brings me to –

Outputs

As active as I am on social media in terms of reading, my own posts do not generate much discussion. This can feel, well, sort of heartbreaking – to put yourself out there and to hear from no one except spambots. (Hi, spambots!)

However, I have found that the way I can get the most engagement on subjects of interest is to…ask questions. If someone posts something interesting, we can often “at” them questions or encouragement and begin asynchronous conversations that way. Just last week, I asked a friendly scholar about some Canvas suggestions they made, and they readily shared their slide deck with me as well as an invitation to watch an upcoming presentation. The scholar’s advice immediately changed a Canvas LMS practice I’ve had in place for five years. That’s a PLN in action! I’ve also had luck talking to lesser-known screenwriters about writing, musicians about recording techniques, and libraries express appreciation for book reviews of local authors. You never know who is listening!

I should mention that randomly scrolling Twitter is an awful idea. In fact, someone has articulated a term for our modern bad news consumption of social media – doom scrolling. I’ve done a lot of doom scrolling in the last few years and I REGRET ALL OF IT.

Instead of randomly looking at what’s trending or which celebrities are fighting about politics, we should curate who we’re following, check out who they interact with and the hashtags they use. Through some curious clicking, I quickly found the following hashtags that have generated a lot of great info for me as a professor: #humanizeol (humanize online learning) #digped (digital pedagogy) #lawyerslivingwell (mental and physical wellness advice for attorneys – it’s not about mansions or yachts).

I mentioned above that my own content doesn’t generate much buzz. What does get buzz is sharing what I learned with others by emailing articles of interest to people I know are passionate about a subject. Those bespoke missives mean more and can potentially connect future research partners or colleagues. I also share interesting articles, posts, or TED Talks on LinkedIn. It’s not “my” content or work that is important – it’s the ideas and the sharing. Remember – information wants to be free!

Cultivation

Interests and needs change over time. We could probably re-evaluate our PLNs every so often to see whether they match who we are now or who we used to be. For example, I’ve added more posthumanist philosophy sources to my feeds now than I had six months ago. However, I’m less interested in management blogs now than I was six months ago (since my job description changed – I didn’t give up on being a manager!).

Time

Building a PLN takes time. Time spent reading articles and walking the dog and asking a colleague what they’re working on and reading a magazine outside of your field – time well spent! As professors, we’re searching for truth, I think. And knowledge is light, and disciplines let us shine light from different perspectives. So it’s not a waste of time to shine light, and to shine it from any direction we can, and to show others how they can shine a light.

TL;DR

Find good people with good information, and share good information. It’s good, light-shining work.

References and Suggested Reading

Clarke, R. (2012, July 13). Roger Clarke’s “Information Wants to be Free …” [Blog]. Roger Clarke’s Web-Site. http://www.rogerclarke.com/II/IWtbF.html

Daniel G. Krutka, Jeffrey P. Carpenter & Torrey Trust (2016) Elements of Engagement: A Model of Teacher Interactions via Professional Learning Networks, Journal of Digital Learning in Teacher Education, 32:4, 150-158,DOI: 10.1080/21532974.2016.1206492

Kipnis, A. B. (2015). Agency between humanism and posthumanism: Latour and his opponents. HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory, 5(2), 43–58. https://doi.org/10.14318/hau5.2.004

Osborne, N. (2012). Social Media and Actor-Network Theory—Continuing Professional Development in Collaborative Social Media Spaces. Continuous Professional Development in Collaborative Social Media Spaces. https://sites.google.com/site/cpdaandsocialmedia/review-of-the-literature/social-media-and-actor-network-theory

Pinkham, R. (2017, September 25). Getting Started on Twitter? Do These 10 Things First. Constant Contact. https://blogs.constantcontact.com/the-first-10-things-to-do-when-getting-started-on-twitter/

Soper, K. (2020). Post-growth living for an alternative hedonism. Verso 50.

Trust, T., Krutka, D. G., & Carpenter, J. P. (2016). “Together we are better”: Professional learning networks for teachers. Computers & Education, 102, 15–34. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.compedu.2016.06.007

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