You may not know what one is, but you already have a personal learning network (PLN). It could consist of your mum and dad. It could be the colleagues you share a coffee with in the staffroom. It could be the friends you chat to on Facebook. At its most simple, your PLN is the people you go to for advice, support and training.
Traditionally, professional development was provided through training courses paid for by schools. Alongside day-long seminars, learning could be topped up with independent research or drawing on the experience of colleagues, asking them for new ideas or feedback on yours. The problem with this approach was teachers only had links with a small circle of other teachers at their own school, a tiny proportion of whom were likely to share their subject and interests.
But the explosion in the use of the internet over the last decade has opened up new opportunities. First came email; then came blogs. Teachers had the opportunity to talk about their work with like-minded peers across the globe. This was not necessarily easy, though - they had to go out of their way to flush out the work of fellow educationalists. Whether teachers who shared interests managed to find each other was at the mercy of fate. And Google.
But then came Twitter. The creation of the microblogging site meant teachers finally had an easy way of making contact, collaborating and, most of all, sharing tips and words of wisdom. Not only has this spawned thousands of personal and professional friendships, it has had an important pedagogical impact - a world of resources has been opened up to PLNs spanning the globe. Teachers are, for the first time, taking control of their own professional development, 140 characters at a time.
Alongside Twitter, the proliferation of other social-networking sites, forums, wikis, social bookmarking (a way of aggregating links to resources online) and professional networking tools, such as LinkedIn, mean the potential for teachers to interact is greater than ever before.
Leap into the digital world
James Michie's role as head of media studies at Chalfonts Community College in Buckinghamshire prompted him to explore the digital world. "That got me experiencing new things and finding websites to help me," he says. "I then stumbled across other teachers' blogs. Eventually I saw that teachers had begun sharing resources."
Mr Michie's PLN was born. And when he joined Twitter in 2008, it exploded. He soon had hundreds of followers and now estimates that his PLN is more than 2,000-strong. "I am still very close to the first 100 people who followed me; we have regular conversations," he says.
Twitter has become, as a contributor to the Teaching Village website (www.teachingvillage.org) puts it, "a big, noisy teachers' lounge. Everyone is talking at once. I might share a conversation with one or two teachers and catch fragments of other conversations around me. As I read the newspapers and group digests in my inbox, I share the good bits by sending messages to other teachers on Twitter".
Other niche forums for debate and discussion have also emerged. One of the most successful has been the Learning Lounge, created by Future Leaders, a programme that aims to cultivate the next generation of heads and senior school leaders, and has members across the country. Spurred on by the vast geographical distances between the teachers involved, chief operating officer Shirley Gaynor came up with the idea of developing an online space where they could connect.
"It's about creating a network where people have a sense of community," she explains. "That then becomes a place where they go to share ideas and best practice. Some of it is soft stuff - they might have had a bad day at the office and want to talk about how they dealt with that. Or when things have gone well, they might want to put up a blog post and other people can join in. It's completely non-hierarchical. You can reach out to anybody, anybody can respond, everybody feels safe." And it seems to be working: 80 per cent of Learning Lounge users log on at least once a week.
But with teachers across the globe tapping into this massive online bank of knowledge, the conversation is becoming bigger and louder. Not long after starting work on his PLN, Mr Michie had developed contacts as far afield as France, Spain, Australia and the US. Soon, he was being swamped by discussions about classroom incidents, resources, worksheets, videos and how-to guides. Much of it was interesting; only a small proportion was useful to him.
"The signal-to-noise ratio is very high," he says. "You have so much information coming in. I reduced the number of people I was following to around 300. I'll still talk to people if they come to me directly. But I was following hundreds of blogs. I've now cut it down to about 60. In the early stages of developing a PLN, you start grabbing everything that you can. Now I jump in where I want to jump in."
So everyone's PLN becomes uniquely tailored to their own interests, as Betty Ray, community manager for Edutopia - the George Lucas Educational Foundation's learning website - explains. "I am interested in virtual learning, brain-based learning, social studies, early learning and education media. So my PLN has individuals who match my interests. Yours would likely have some overlap, but be filled out by your interests.
"Educators engage around these common interests using social media. The culture of PLNs is to collaborate, offer feedback, share lesson ideas, offer resources. This makes for better teaching, and a powerful learning experience when you have positive, active connections around you who are supporting your growth."
This environment of pedagogical nurturing can only bring about positive benefits for teachers and, most importantly, pupils. "Now I'm learning about learning. I'm as much of a learner as the kids in front of me," Mr Michie says. "I used to focus on teaching video and film. Before, teaching radio scared me to death. Now I'm comfortable teaching it. I teach a wider set of briefs at GCSE and A-level, so the students benefit. I feel free to experiment."
And the significance of PLNs is only going to grow in the current economic climate. The traditional approach to continuing professional development (CPD) is based around Inset days and external training courses. In the age of austerity, schools have neither the time nor the money to make them a priority. The onus for professional development is gradually falling on the professionals themselves.
"A school is like being in a silo," Mr Michie says. "There's so much going on in the day-to-day running of a school that you don't get the same opportunities or breadth of perspective. There might be 20 of you who have similar interests; with the web, that is magnified a thousandfold."
Since retiring in 2008, former head Julia Skinner has devoted her time to setting up The Head's Office (www.theheadsoffice.co.uk), a blog where she discusses teaching and posts the best resources she finds on the web. The old approach to CPD no longer fits, she believes. "We would always send teachers on courses. They would have a lovely day, but then what did they do? It's incredibly heavy in finances. Schools haven't got the budget to get trainers in. It's going to come down to peer supporting peer."
For schools, the benefits of teachers cultivating their own PLNs tend to manifest themselves in a general improvement in teaching quality. But occasionally they are more tangible. Patrick Larkin, principal of Burlington High School in Massachusetts, US, hired two people he met through his PLN.
And it is this interaction between the digital and real worlds that is at the heart of the PLN, Ms Gaynor believes. While primarily focusing on the internet, Future Leaders does arrange face-to-face meetings to back this up. "Not everybody is comfortable speaking on a large forum. You do have to reinforce it with physical, face-to-face meetings. People find it more difficult to reach out to someone if they have not met them before. It really helps."
Ms Skinner agrees that more needs to be done to encourage less computer- literate teachers to get on board. "I had to look the letters PLN up when I first started. I'm very keen on IT, but there are lots of teachers who aren't. Some of them would be terrified by it. We need to get rid of the assumption that it's part of geeky culture and get it into the mainstream for everybody."
While digital media offers teachers limitless potential for development, it seems that the old-fashioned face-to-face chat still has an important role to play.
WHAT TO SHARE
Tips from Edutopia's Betty Ray on what to contribute through your PLN:
- Anything involving social media in the classroom is popular.
- How-to articles about practical uses for free technology tools in the classroom.
- Articles on specific classroom practices - for example, using blogs to teach students of English as a foreign language, or using video games to teach maths.
- Insightful commentary that can help to shift thinking.
- Grade or subject-specific topics like #sschat on Twitter (for social studies) are exceptionally popular, because the topics are focused and the discussion can be much more tactical.
- PLN Personal learning network - the people a learner interacts with and derives knowledge from.
- PLE Personal learning environment - where the sharing of information, knowledge and resources takes place.
- VLE Virtual learning environment - a web-based location where members share ideas and resources.
- Ning An online social network where like-minded people interact.