How Teachers Create Personal Learning Networks on Social Media

June 17, 2016
Jerry Pettigrew
Colored pencils next to a stack of books.

“Do you have colleagues who seem to be able to stay on top of the latest issues, trends, and resources in education? They make networking look so easy and you're wondering, ‘Where do they have the time to do this, and where are they getting all this information?’’’ (0:01) begins Jerry Pettigrew, a CPI Global Professional Manager, at the top of his interview with Tom Whitby, founder of #Edchat and author of The Relevant Educator, a book about how connectedness through electronic media and forums helps empower educators.

Whitby understands that the internet can be an overwhelming ocean of information, but it can also be an irreplaceable asset if you know where to look. In this interview, Tom will show you how to create a personal learning network to connect with other educators and discover resources to help you have more impact, find solutions to problems, invigorate your lessons, and keep your passion ignited.

How 40 years of classroom experience transitioned to social media expertise

Tom Whitby taught English in secondary school for 34 years. That exceptional record of service was followed by six years as an adjunct professor of education for St. Joseph’s College in New York. In 2005, Tom became aware of how he could leverage his hands-on experience through social media, specifically through the LinkedIn platform. As Tom learned the platform, he started five different groups centered around educational issues and connected with other educators around the globe. It was through LinkedIn that Tom became aware of Twitter, because in the LinkedIn chats many educators said that Twitter is where they were finding the information they shared.

Once Tom understood the power of Twitter connections and hashtags, his Twitter network grew exponentially, and today he has over 70,000 followers on the platform. Tom explains: “One thing led to another, and after that I started on Twitter the first successful chat, education chat called #Edchat. Many people are familiar with it because Edchat itself has become a hashtag that people just put onto any educational tweet these days, and it extends the range. So if you've got 10 people following you and you put a tweet out, only those 10 people see it. But if you put a hashtag on it, anyone following in that hashtag will see that tweet and there are literally thousands of educators who follow the Edchat hashtag.” (3:58)

Developing a Personal Learning Network (PLN) for educators

Tom’s next step in building his outreach through social media was the development of a Personal Learning Network, or PLN: “Once we established Edchat, which is a weekly chat that educators get involved with, we started out probably with a thousand educators back then, involved in that chat, and then things just started growing from there. That's when I found out about Ning, which is a place where you can go and develop communities. And I developed what was called The Educator's PLN, PLN standing for Personal Learning Network. And I established that community for any educators interested in finding sources, in strategies to create a PLN, and that was called the Educator's PLN. That's still active today with about 18,000 educators from around the world,” explains Tom. (4:36)

Other media

After the great success Tom enjoyed building his PLN, he began blogging, creating My Island View, a series of blogs subtitled as “Educational, Disconnected Utterances.” Tom’s latest blog at the time of this post is entitled “Can Educators Ignore Social Media Any Longer?”, and it makes the case that “Education as a profession needs to recognize and accept the fact that we live in the 21st century and social media enables change that can happen much faster, and affect greater groups of people than any technology of the 20th century, including radio and television.”

After establishing My Island View, Tom went a step further and created a radio show through Bam! Radio, a network of educational radio shows that is totally web-based. On his Edchat Radio show, listeners can access over three years of weekly Edchat Radio content.

The influence of social media on education

When Jerry asks Tom to describe the profound effect that technology has had on education in the last 10 years, Tom elaborates on what he sees as the two biggest influences brought about by social media, and how they combine to create incredible networking power: “I think the two things, the two biggest influences social media has had on education is, number one, through collaboration; number two, through transparency. The idea that collaboration—the best thing I can do is give you an example. When I was an English teacher and I had 11 people in my department, if I wanted to teach something in Shakespeare, I could simply turn to the 11 people in my department and say, ‘Has anybody got any great ideas that I can work up a lesson on Shakespeare?’ and those 11 people would all help me do that.

But if I said to them, ‘Colleagues, I need to do a lesson on Shakespeare, but I want to incorporate some technology into that.’ they couldn't help me because many of them were not technology-based. What they would do is they would come to me for the technology ideas. So I had no one to turn to at that point. I was limited to the people that I had in my building, and limited to the skills that they had.

Now, with the advent of social media and connections I can make through collegial sources, I now have access to anybody in the world that I want access to. So I've expanded my network of sources, collegial sources, to a point where I don't need to depend on those 11 people anymore. I can go to other experts in the area, not even in the area, anywhere in the world.” (6:38)

Common misconceptions about social media     

Next, Jerry asks Tom to speak to some of the common misconceptions that educators might bring to social media. “Oh god, there are so many,” replies Tom. “Number one, I think the biggest problem people have is this whole idea of privacy, and the other problem is everyone feels that they're going to be attacked by somebody on the internet who's going to hurt them in some way. I think the worst thing, especially from a parent's point of view, the worst TV show that was ever on TV was To Catch a Predator where each and every week, they would come out with another predator that lured somebody or connected with somebody on the internet and then went on to sexually abuse them. Sexual abuse on the internet, yes, it is a terrible thing, and yes, it does happen, but quite honestly over 93% of all sexual abuse happens face to face. It has nothing to do with the internet, and it's family members or close family friends or clergy that are involved with it. So the idea that many, many schools banned the internet for as long as they did to protect kids was kind of foolhardy when we didn't ban family picnics, we didn't ban people going to church.” (8:18)

How to develop your own Personal Learning Network (PLN)

Jerry then asks Tom if he could describe to listeners the basic ideas behind PLN’s and how they might go about creating their own. Tom explains: “Again, a Personal Learning Network is very simple. It is a network that you actually develop on your own. You pick and choose the people who you want to connect with. Twitter is usually the backbone for a PLN because it gives you very easy and quick access to your collegial sources, and you're limited in the number of things that—characters that you can use so you have to be very succinct in contacting people. So it cuts out a lot of the usual nonsense that goes along with educators talking to each other. They get wrapped up in more than they have to. So you have to be to the point asking very specific questions and getting very specific answers.

So in using this, you develop colleagues on Twitter that you can go back and forth with. But it's more than just Twitter because what you'll find out is that as you're involved with this network of sources, people will ask you if you can get on a Skype call or if you can do a Google Hangout. These are all things that you begin to learn about that gives you more face-to-face connections with people. So you're expanding your own knowledge of technology and digital collaboration.

And it's a process to get up here and talk about this. You've got to remember, I've been doing this for several years now, and because I've been doing it for several years, I've been able to accomplish a great deal. And I could talk about that, but that kind of scares somebody who hasn’t done anything at all, which is one of the reasons why we wrote the book [The Relevant Educator].” (9:50)

The worst advocates for connected learning versus the benefits of a PLN

After describing the PLN formation process, Tom goes on to issue a warning about who to watch out for while you set up your own PLN: “The worst advocates for connected learning are connected learners because they tend to talk about all the wonderful things that they're doing, and it scares the hell out of people who think, ‘Oh, I'll never be able to do all of that.’ So you've got to remember that the whole key to this is directing your own learning.

So you use the Personal Learning Network to direct your learning, and you determine what it is you need to know to move on. But the beauty about that is that not only can you direct what you need to know, you also find out that which you don't know. You're being exposed to things that you've never been exposed to before. You're talking to teachers who may be doing the same thing in completely different ways that you're starting to look and get a different opinion about or a different viewpoint. And that helps a great deal in learning your own profession.” (11:24)

How and why educators can use Twitter to connect with other educators

One of the best and simplest ways educators can start to use social media to network with other educators and receive timely answers to pressing questions they may have is through the Twitter platform. Tom explains: “Well, Twitter, I think, is the best because it is so simple to learn . . . a very good way to build up the people that you follow, if you go to the chats for instance that take place on Twitter because there are chats covering every aspect of education. There's the third grade chat, the fourth grade chat, the fifth grade chat. Every state has their own chat for educators. There's the California educator's chat, there's the New York educator's chat, and also specific subjects: English chat, social studies chat.

If you go to these chats, what you have the ability to do is to involve yourself in these chats and then follow the people who are putting in worthwhile comments within the chats, people who are adding value to the chat so you can follow them on Twitter. Another way to do it is once you find an educator, you go to their Twitter profile and you see who they follow so you can follow more and more people that way. Many people have what are called lists when you go to their profile. For instance, I have a list on my profile called My Twitter Stalwart List. These are about 150 people who I follow on Twitter who I've been following many of them for seven, eight years, and they're the real stable of people that I go to for ideas.”

You could simply go to that list and follow everybody on that list. And then what begins to happen is that on your Twitter feed now, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you start getting education tweets coming through from all of these people. And you can pick and choose those that you want to access.” (12:22)

The biggest obstacle to change

Next, Jerry asks Tom what roadblocks educators might encounter as they attempt to leverage social media platforms to network with other educators. “The biggest obstacle to change are comfort zones,” begins Tom. “People don't like to leave whatever it is they're comfortable with, and most educators today were not necessarily brought up or educated with the use of technology and integrating technology into what it is they do. So it's like another level of thing that they have to learn and that is—it’s a problem.

People often say that many teachers are fearful of technology so therefore they're not going to do that. I've really come to believe that it's not a fear of technology, because technology isn't going to hurt anybody. It's just a fear of change. Everybody wants change but nobody wants to change, which is one of the big problems we have in getting people involved with any kind of digital collaboration because there are things that you have to learn in order to make it effective. I think these things can be learned in a step-by-step basis. As you get involved, you tend to take on more and more.”

For instance, if you spent 20 minutes a day just looking at Twitter, you're going to learn a great deal for your own profession, and that's all it takes is 20 minutes a day. The real secret to that, though, is that you're going to enjoy what you're doing and you will spend more than 20 minutes a day at some point. And it will begin to consume more and more of your time.” (16:46)

The payoff

Near the conclusion of the interview, Tom talks about the payoffs that come from negotiating the various social media platforms and why they are so important: “. . . the payoff is great because of the change that you have in your own profession, the way you deal with things, the way you reflect about things, the way you approach lessons. Because you're getting input now not just from the people within your building but you're getting input from people virtually all over the world who can add to what it is you do.” (18:20)

Enjoy the interview for more great practical tips on leveraging social media to up your teaching game.

The Relevant Educator

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