The phrase “Teachers work in isolation,” has long been used to describe the working conditions of educational professionals, including most middle level teachers.
Educators have found ways to solve this problem by creating departmental structures, transdisciplinary teaching teams, professional book clubs, and Professional Learning Communities, among other strategies. Often, these solutions help isolated teachers build networks and become lifelong learners without going far beyond the walls of their own school.
Some educators wishing to broaden their views attend conferences and graduate classes, which are still somewhat limited by geography, time, and budget.
Today, in addition to these options, there’s a great way to make connections to middle level professionals all over the world: by developing your own Personal Learning Network (PLN).
What Is a PLN?
At its most basic, a PLN is composed of the online people and tools that you most trust to help when you’re in need of answers, ideas, or inspiration. In the vein of lifelong learning, a PLN becomes your own virtual laboratory through which you can connect to others who share your passions and interests. At a deeper level, it is a deliberately developed network that helps meet personal learning goals, as well as your research and professional development needs.
The beauty of a PLN is that physical time and space aren’t important; you can independently connect through your own personal devices whenever you want. The main challenge is deciding what online tools to use, and then learning how to use them.
As with many new learning initiatives, the challenge begins more with your mindset than any process or procedure; you have to want to do it!
Why Have a Middle Level PLN?
There are several reasons to begin developing a PLN. First, and foremost, a PLN will help you avoid feeling alone and isolated, which has oft been cited as a reason for educator burnout and attrition.
Another reason to create a PLN is to pursue your own learning and improve your craft. Having interactive, personal, and almost instantaneous access to the thoughts, passions, ideas, and tips of other educators around the globe with similar interests, teaching responsibilities, and problems can certainly help you do that. In a sense, a PLN is an opportunity for Do-It-Yourself (DIY), mostly free professional development —and who doesn’t relish that?
Perhaps most important, understanding how to create, navigate, and purposefully use a PLN allows you to encourage your middle school students to do the same; they’re already using the tools of PLNs, such as Facebook and Twitter, just not efficiently, effectively, and ethically. Here’s where teachers come in.
What’s Out There?
Beginning a PLN can certainly be daunting because there are so many tools at our disposal. PLNs primarily use Web 2.0 tools, resources designed to be interactive and used for both reading and responding. As you begin, focus on a few of these tools in different categories. The key is to locate key information, aggregate and curate it, and then use it to communicate with others.
1. Locate. Your first task is to locate meaningful, trustworthy information, which alone can be intimidating. Most educators use tools such as Facebook, Google+, Pinterest, and Twitter for personal reasons, so it isn’t too hard to translate that into using them as powerful knowledge-building tools to connect to other middle level educators. If you’re new to developing a PLN, I suggest starting with Twitter.
After setting up your own account, use the Search Twitter box to choose a trusted middle level expert, leader, guru, or organization to “follow.” For instance, you can follow AMLE (@AMLE) to get updates on the organization’s important news and events.
Once you’ve followed a few people and organizations, click on the profile of each to see what other middle level experts the source is following and choose a few of those to follow as well. This will help you build your own network. Tweets from those you’ve followed will show up on your personal feed page, which you can check daily for news updates, tips, and hints.
Another helpful Twitter feature for locating information is its use of hashtags: standardized words and phrases designed for you to quickly locate what you’re looking for. If you type “education hashtags” into an Internet search engine, you’ll find complete lists of helpful education hashtags, such as #MSChat.
2. Aggregate and Curate. Because we live in an information age, it can be daunting to categorize and organize the plethora of available information.
Set up a Rich Site Summary (RSS) feed reader to help you separate and categorize, or aggregate the information. RSS is a format for delivering web content, such as periodical articles and current events, so you can keep up to date.
You can choose the content you want delivered to your feed. The RSS reader saves time by filtering relevant news and updates without your having to sift through so many sites yourself. With some RSS readers, you can organize and save, or curate your content by setting up folders with key terms, such as “teaming,” “advisory,” and “PBL.” Many news-related sites and weblogs publish their content with an RSS feed that is readily available to anyone.
Social bookmarking takes these tools to the next level. As you sift through the articles that your RSS feed reader has chosen for you, you may come across some you want to share with students, colleagues, or friends, or save for later research.
Social bookmarking sites can help with that. Two of the most popular sites are Diigo (www.diigo.com) and Delicious (https://delicious.com). They’re especially helpful when you’re too busy to read an article at the moment and want to go back to it later. Articles are often saved in a “cloud” so you have access to them on any device you use. Most allow you to tag articles with key words so that you can easily find them later.
3. Communicate. Web 2.0 tools are designed not to be static, but to allow you to communicate in return. The highest form of a PLN is to communicate your own thoughts, musings, inspirations, and ideas. You can do this by creating your own blog or wiki. You can also share topical and organized content by creating Pinterest Boards. One of the easiest ways is to tweet, use hashtags in your tweets, retweet, and reply to tweets of your followers. This will allow you to make and grow your PLN connections.
Suggestions for Getting Started
- Start small! It can be overwhelming! Choose one social media tool, one RSS feed reader, and/or one social bookmarking service to investigate per week for a few weeks. Also, focus on honing your locating, aggregating, and curating skills before you tackle communicating yourself.
- Don’t get overwhelmed by the amount of information out there! As you begin, read one or two articles a day.
- Allow yourself time to disconnect! We can all put down the electronics once in a while and do something else.
As you get comfortable using the tools of your PLN, begin to use them in your own instruction. Striving to build these tools into your teaching repertoire and encouraging your middle level students to use them, will help them develop the 21st century skills necessary for success.