Technology - Pick of the crop

26th February 2010 at 00:00
Connecting with other teachers in your subject area via blogging sites and social networks can help you to find relevant support

While the amount of information available on the web is steadily increasing, the number of hours in the day is staying the same. So, short of removing the need for sleep, keeping up with new information and developments can seem overwhelming.

However, technology offers opportunities to "filter" the web, using sites or online communities to recommend or guide you towards content, rather than searching for everything yourself.

For teachers, these tools and communities can extend their Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) far beyond the school walls. The idea of PLNs is nothing new. We always have some network that surrounds us in our work, whether colleagues in the staffroom or even a single book that is an ongoing source of ideas and inspiration.

What is powerful about PLNs that incorporate digital tools is that they can extend across geographical, institutional and disciplinary boundaries. This means that you can communicate with almost anyone - whether a teacher in America or a TV boss.

The ability to extend a PLN can be particularly helpful for developing innovation in schools. Innovation is often defined as occurring at the intersection of disciplines - where challenges in one discipline are met with the solutions of another. Perhaps now, more than ever before, digital tools offer educators opportunities to engage in these different sectors and bring their discoveries to their work in the classroom.

While PLNs can offer teachers inspiration from other disciplines, they have an equally important role in supporting them to engage with professionals working in the same field. Hearing ideas from others teaching the same subject and delivering the same curriculum can be a vital support for practical day-to-day work in the classroom, both technically and socially. While this can happen in the staffroom, PLNs that incorporate digital tools support teachers to engage with a wider number of people. If teachers are the only ones in their school teaching their subject, or lack support, these networks can be a great place to bounce ideas around with others in the same position.

Part of the challenge of creating a PLN is deciding which areas to engage with. PLNs are individual to the person who created them, so it is difficult to describe a "typical" network - where you get resources will very much depend on who you are and how you work.

Finding people on microblogging sites such as Twitter can be a valuable source of information. When you find someone you think is worth following, you can also check their Twitter followers to see where they get their inspiration, and follow them.

Often if someone is on Twitter, they will have a blog as well. It is relatively easy to find a blog through searching the name of a "twitterer" or vice versa. Blogs often offer RSS feeds or email updates, and signing up to these can save you time by bringing the information to your inbox.

Social networks using platforms such as Ning can provide a more specific source of links for teachers; in fact it's hard not to find a Ning for the area you are involved in. Try searching Google for your area and Ning.

Social bookmarking sites such as Delicious and Diigo are a good source of web links and save research time. Sign up and search for links relevant to your subject area.

Using these tools to build a personal learning network is not just passively taking in information. Networks are increasingly about engaging with each other. This could mean exchanging messages on Twitter or having online video conferences.

Digital tools can offer educators huge opportunities to extend their PLNs further than ever before. It is important that they are not seen as an "eitheror" to those support networks we are part of on a daily basis, but rather a powerful means to develop skills and inspiration that is open to all.

Kieron Kirkland is a researcher at education RD charity Futurelab -

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