Critical reflection on the development of my Professional Learning Network (PLN)
I have known about professional learning networks (PLNs) and teacher collaborative practices in online learning environments for many years. In fact, in 2012, I wrote over 10 000 words on the topic as part of my Master of Education studies. I also created a web page to share my ideas and resources. I walked the walk, I even talked the talk presenting my ideas at a state conference in the same year. Over time, I fell out of love with my PLN. I still valued the potential of my PLN and the people in it, and I looked at my Twitter feed from time to time, but I did not interact except for the very occasional retweet. The web page I created still exists and membership has continued to grow (340 members at present), but as I found in my research in 2012, most members are ‘one-time or occasional users who find the web site through a Google search and join in order to be able to access the lesson ideas, worksheets or assessment items found on the web page’. It is not a participatory community.
Fast forward six years and I have begun a second masters (this time in teacher librarianship). Social media is now six years older and the affective, social and cognitive potential of Twitter and other social media is now increasingly evident.
It was time to re-visit my PLN and so began chapter two in my PLN journey.
I am still interested in education but, for various reasons, I wanted to use my PLN to learn more about information literacy. I have been passionate about teaching information literacy for some time, taking a lead role within my teaching department and creating videos to help both teachers and students at my school (and other users on YouTube). Information literacy is the ability to locate, manage, use, think critically and make judgments about information (ALIA, 2016; CILIP, 2018). These skills are now a requirement of many education curricula throughout the world but, in the era of fake news, conspiracy theories, and discussion about Russian meddling in the US election, Crimea and Syria (among many other similar topics), these skills are also essential for day-to-day life in society today.
I began to rekindle my PLN. I turned again to Twitter and began following relevant information literacy hashtags, individuals and groups [see my initial PLN map]. I also followed the blog of Elizabeth Hutchinson, a chartered librarian from the UK, signed up to the OZTL Listserv and joined two relevant Facebook groups. For the first couple of months, my participatory approach was, once again, at the exploratory level (Oddone, 2018c). I consumed resources and information. I realised the benefit of contributing and I was slowly building confidence to share more, making relatively simple, straightforward comments on blogs, posts and tweets. My digital identity could have been described as participatory – high interaction, low coherence (Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, in press, 2018). I was engaging with others in my digital networks but this did not necessarily align with my professional identity online.
In six years, nothing much had changed in terms of the way I used my PLN. However, in the past month, a number of critical incidents have helped me develop a greater appreciation for the potential of my PLN. Creation and participation have helped change my perspective.
A significant turning point in the development of my PLN was the creation of a blog and infographic which led to a profound shift in my thinking. Throughout the various groups in my PLN, I was regularly seeing (and contributing to) discussion and questions about the use of online research databases – comprehensive, searchable collections of mostly peer reviewed and quality controlled information articles from journals, newspapers and magazines (among others). Furthermore, a recent survey that I had conducted at my school had revealed that there was considerable uncertainty about how to use and access databases so I decided to ask my PLN for advice and research how to increase student and teacher awareness and use of databases. The creation of the blog and infographic had two aims – to help both my online and face-to-face community. In this sense, I was using my PLN to engage in learning based on my needs, interests and broad goals (Krutka, Carpenter & Trust, 2016).
The process of creating the blog and infographic led to social, cognitive and affective benefits from my PLN. My first real online interaction with other teachers within my PLN demonstrated a technical approach in the pedagogical arena and in active self-directed learning (Oddone, 2018c). My question to my PLN sought advice on how to encourage greater use of research databases, thus a technical question and answer which was limited to my immediate needs. When many people responded to my question, this helped increase my connections with other people and supported my professional growth, gave me more confidence to ask questions in the future and taught me the power of active ownership of my professional growth (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016). In seeking cooperation and collaboration from my PLN, I was able to initiate my own professional learning, experiment with new ideas, build upon individual and shared knowledge and harvest the collective wisdom to create my blog and infographic (Tour, 2017; Krutka, Carpenter & Trust, 2016; Nussbaum-Beach & Hall, 2012).
The post was a success! Over 1000 people have viewed the blog post and infographic and I have received numerous positive comments on the blog and through the OZTL listserv, over 100 likes on the Facebook groups that I posted it in and a number of requests to use the infographic. I have responded to comments which has often opened up conversations about broader issues related to my topic, and given me inspiration for future blogs. I was also able to make contributions to other people’s learning when additional challenges connected to databases were raised by people in the comments. Furthermore, the retweets, likes and comments led to additional followers on my Twitter account. Sharing the blog and infographic were invaluable to me because it allowed me to more clearly see the value of the multidirectional process of distributing knowledge, skills and resources within affinity spaces (Krutka, Carpenter & Trust, 2016). Hegarty (2015) also notes that obtaining feedback from supportive peers within a PLN is especially essential for people new to open environments if individuals are to develop autonomy and a high level of self-efficacy in using participatory technologies. I feel that this was particularly evident in my case. Another critical moment that also built my confidence and awareness of the potential of my PLN, was a screen shot sent to me by a friend who is studying teacher librarianship at Charles Sturt University. One of her lecturers had posted a notice to all TL students that my blog and infographic would be a ‘useful resource’. It revealed to me that when you post content, you never know who will see it and although you may not receive direct feedback, this doesn’t mean it isn’t having an impact (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011). On the ‘participation ladder’, I had long been a spectator, reading blogs, tweets, watching videos and rarely commenting but, in becoming a creator, the response from my PLN has allowed me to move forward, learn, explore and connect and it has helped me see that I really am part of an active online community and there are like-minded others within my PLN (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011). I believe that I have received cognitive benefits from my PLN allowing me to reconsider my goals and thus this has led to a shift in my teacher professional identity and roles (Trust, Krutka & Carpenter, 2016).
In order to gain further traction for my blog post, I also contacted Elizabeth Hutchinson, whose blog posts had inspired me to write my blog. She responded giving me positive feedback on my post and informally mentoring me about how I might interact within my PLN in the future. Furthermore, positive responses from the OZTL community have now also encouraged me to ‘give back’ and add value to my PLN. Although I am only operating at the foundational level for much of Bridgstock’s Connectedness Learning Model, I have learnt a lot about the value of reciprocity and strong tie professional relationships (Bridgstock, 2017). My social media and face-to-face connections have also led to an offer from an experienced TL to be a learning and career mentor (I am meeting with her this week).
In 2012 (chapter one), my very first foray into PLNs left me stuck at the foundational level. That is, I investigated the characteristics and processes involved in navigating professional networks and discussed the benefits of PLNs for teachers, but I did not really interact and thus was not really operating as a connected learner. I wasn’t truly walking the walk. Chapter two saw me operating in much the same way but, in chapter three, I have begun to see that responding and creating content is how to reap real benefits (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011). The map of my final PLN is multifaceted and contains a diverse range of individuals and organisations from throughout the world with whom I am now beginning to connect with. I am now realising that the power of PLNs comes through the dialogue, interactions and connections that are created and the knowledge that is “remixed, re-designed and re-imagined” and where everything is interconnected (Oddone, 2018b; Ito et al., 2013). The interactions, experimenting and sharing within these affinity spaces have allowed me to see the value in the multidirectional process of engagement around shared interests or aims, skillsets, content generation, creation of various forms of knowledge and contributions of teachers (Krutka, Carpenter & Trust, 2016). The key change is that I am now an active participant in my PLN and have adopted Whitaker, Zoul and Casas’s (2015) Key Connector Three and I have embraced the three C’s – communication, collaboration and community.
Throughout the past three months, my social network literacy has improved. I am increasingly contributing to other people’s learning by writing personal responses to blogs, offering opinions, answering questions, sharing resources and celebrating the successes of others. While I was initially operating on the technical level, interacting on limited platforms, I am now operating within the exploratory level, expanding interactions across different platforms and creating diversity within my PLN (Oddone, 2018c). For now, I am not necessarily a conversationalist or a critic on the participation ladder but I am beginning to test out these identities (Richardson & Mancabelli, 2011).
The strength of professional learning networks is the ability to engage with a diverse range of voices and make connections across spatial and temporal boundaries (Oddone, 2018c; Krutka, Carpenter & Trust, 2016). In order to grow connections, there must be active interaction and contribution to the network (Baker-Doyle, 2017; Nussbaum-Beach & Hall; 2012). I knew that I needed to participate but I had struggled to find my online voice (Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, in press 2018). I am confident in making connections within the classroom and within my school community but I could not transfer this to my digital PLN. I was happy to share my teaching resources online, but not my opinion. Initially, I was even afraid to ask a question. I now have an emerging professional digital identity – high coherence, low interaction. That is, I have begun to establish my presence online using social media platforms. Furthermore, my online activities generally align with my professional identity, although I still feel more confident interacting in less public ways, such as via Facebook (Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, in press 2018). I am operating at the foundational level of learning to build a connected identity and I will need to further explore roles, identities, practices and construction of self to advance to the intermediate level of the Connectedness Learning Model in the future (Bridgstock, 2017). I have now embraced the opportunities of PLNs to allow for anywhere, anytime, do-it-yourself learning (Nussbaum-Beach & Hall, 2012).
I see myself as a self-directed sharer (Oddone, 2018a). That is, I value the potential of PLNs and believe my PLN should constantly change. I place great value on the sharing of knowledge and information and I am expanding my capacity by using a variety of social software. I have learnt that my PLN can be an exciting third space to experiment and bridge my personal and professional identities and passions (Baker-Doyle, 2017).
In the future, I would like to connect more like Kay Oddone’s ‘people person’ or ‘evolved connector’ (2018a). I aspire to further develop my PLN in such a way that it will become a story of my development and professional relationships over time and where I regularly connect and share and thus I’d be more likely to see my PLN as mesmerising, exciting and fun because I have built my reputation over time. Ideally, my professional digital identity will be at the leading level – high coherence, high interaction (Lupton, Oddone & Dreamson, in press 2018).
While I am not at the capstone level of developing social network literacy, I have revised my PLN strategy and am beginning to navigate social networks more strategically and effectively for professional purposes (Bridgstock, 2017). I’ve only just started exploring the potential of social bookmarking and I would like to enhance my information retrieval and resource aggregation skills by using social bookmarking and other digital tools to filter and organise the resources and ideas that I gather from my PLN. Aggregating sources is an important digital literacy skill and the thought processes required in organising these sources of information will help my personal learning and contributions to my PLN and thus enhance my online professional identity (Tour, 2017).
In the short term, I would like to build on and work with the connections that I have made, stay active, participate, establish online and face-to-face mentoring relationships and ultimately build greater complexity of interactions with my PLN in order to grow, strengthen and maintain my connections beyond the foundational level (Bridgstock, 2017). I really enjoyed the learning and creativity in the creation of the blog post and infographic and I would like to continue to create content in the give and take spirit of a PLN. While I believe that I have the dispositions of an open educator willing to share and demonstrate transparency, I am only just beginning my journey as a connectivist educator.
Krutka, Carpenter and Trust (2016) use the metaphor of windows and mirrors to discuss the benefits of PLNs. The re-invigoration of my PLN (Chapter Three) has been just that – a mirror to re-assess and reflect on my past experiences and practices and a window to see new possibilities in becoming a networked and connected learner. The story is just beginning.
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