Can you name one thing that physicians, attorneys, architects, engineers, Web developers, and educators share in common?
While PD is critical in pretty much every field, educators — not surprisingly, given their bent for learning — have taken it to a whole new level. Beyond attending annual conferences and the like, they are building personal learning networks (PLNs) that enable them to acquire resources, seek and provide support, and connect with fellow educators across the globe. Teachers can also use PLNs to connect with their students’ parents, or others in their district, to foster conversation and transparency.
Wondering where to start? Here are three crucial tools for joining a PLN.
For educators, the go-to place to build a PLN is Twitter.
New to Twitter? Chances are, your colleagues, favorite bloggers, and conference presenters are already on it — and are talking about professional development. Not sure where to start, or whom to follow? There are a number of great hashtag chats to follow. A hashtag chat is normally set at a weekly scheduled time at which educators discuss topics or answer questions together. While Twitter allows for public conversations and the sharing of resources, it also fosters personal, one-on-one interactions through its direct messaging feature.
Some districts even create their own hashtags to allow teachers, students, and parents to share stories relevant to their school community.
Despite its popularity, Twitter can feel constricting and reductive, especially given its 140-character limit. To counteract this, several of Twitter’s superusers have established PLNs on other platforms.
Sarah Thomas is a quintessential example of an active PLN user — in fact, she even spoke about PLNs at the 2015 International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference, along with two educators from different parts of the country, whom she met, appropriately enough, via her PLN. Sarah coordinates EduMatch, which enables educators to connect and grow outside of Twitter (although there is, of course a dedicated Twitter hashtag for it).
EduMatch has its own site, which is rife with information, statistics, and upcoming events. Sarah regularly schedules EduMatch Google+ Hangout panel discussions that anyone can join. These are especially valuable, as they enable people to connect visually and aurally (albeit digitally) in a collaborative environment. Educators can be as involved (e.g., by presenting live during a Hangout) or uninvolved (e.g., by simply listening in) as they’d like. There is no requirement to show your face and share a story on Hangouts, but if you want to, it's easy — these are open to everyone.
Thomas also established an EduMatch group within Voxer, a free app that essentially works as a walkie-talkie in one-on-one or group chats. Using Voxer, dozens (even hundreds) of educators may share stories, ask questions, and provide support to one another. Users can listen to all, some, or none of the messages — and because these play automatically and consecutively, it’s almost like listening to a podcast interview or dialogue among educators. The Voxer group differs from Twitter because it allows people to talk as much as they want, and because often, hearing someone’s voice provides a deeper degree of connection than reading 140 characters on a device screen. What’s more, the interface is simple, and Voxer autopopulates any existing contacts on the platform, so you can start chatting right away.
The Voxer group is open to educators as well as ed tech companies. My company, Imagine Easy Solutions, has had great success with Voxer in finding beta testers for our tools, and in gathering feedback from potential end-users. To join the Voxer group, just get in touch with Sarah Thomas via Twitter or her website.
EduMatch truly embraces the idea of an open PLN. If you aren’t comfortable using Twitter, EduMatch provides several other ways to connect with fellow educators. For instance, it is also on Facebook and Instagram.
Slack is another brilliant educational tool for continuing PLN conversations outside of Twitter. A desktop and mobile application that allows groups of people to create “channels” in which they share information, Slack differs from Twitter in that it allows users to write as much as they want, share files, and connect with a targeted group all at once. It differs from Voxer in that it does not have audio capabilities.
While there are opportunities for Slack to be used at the school or classroom level, educators can also use it to broaden the reach of their PLNs. EdTechBridge, an education community (formed at SXSWedu) that has shown significant Twitter growth over the past two years, established its own Slack channel in 2015. Started by teacher Steve Isaacs and BrainPOP's Katya Hott, the goal of EdTechBridge is to connect developers, educators, and people working in the industry to build better ed tech tools. (EduMatch also has a Slack channel!) Slack allows lengthier conversations to happen over time (asynchronously) and is less immediate than Twitter, but still makes it easy to share (and find) content and resources.
A Final Word
There is no right or wrong choice for establishing, nurturing, or growing a PLN. While many find Twitter a great place to start, others may deem the slower pace of Slack, or the personal element of Voxer, to be more rewarding. Whichever you choose, there will be active participants from around the world and all areas of education to learn from, grow with, and provide support for — around the clock and across the globe.
Looking to sharpen your digital skills? Check out online or in-person ed tech courses using the Noodle classes search tool.