Teachers are challenged to maintain their professional learning – to meet the changing needs of students, to stay abreast of developing and new pedagogies and curricula, to meet the high expectations of stakeholders
My research focuses on the question how do teachers experience professional learning through PLNs?
The aim: to use a qualitative, collective case study approach
Explore real life experiences of teachers who are using a PLN as a way to enhance their professional learning.
There is extensive anecdotal evidence that teachers are using PLNs to maintain their professional learning – there are twitter chats, blog posts, infographics describing the nature and suggested structure of a PLN. However what is lacking is extensive empirical research focusing on teachers’ experiences.
In the research literature – we are seeing a move away from traditional professional development models towards the broader term of professional learning. Even the term professional development implies a deficit model – the teacher is considered an empty vessel, who must be developed by an external agent in order to meet a pre-determined level of performance. Professional learning acknowledges the teacher as an active agent, a collaborative, co-constructor of knowledge. While we may have recognised this within the research, there appears to be still some disparity between what we know to be good practice and what actually occurs.
My research seeks to investigate the personal learning network, or PLN, as a potential avenue for addressing teachers professional learning needs, within complex and changing environments.
There are a small number of large scale research studies exploring PLNs, however my research is addressing the significant knowledge gap my critical review of the literature has revealed:
I am investigating the real life experiences of teachers to explore…
So, what is a PLN?
A PLN is:
The affordances of mobile and networked technologies enable teachers with a PLN to connect with individuals from all over the world, and to access a wide range of information and resources, whenever and wherever they need to.
A PLN is different to a learning community or a community of practice, although it shares some aspects. A PLN is driven by the individual’s goals and needs – each person develops their own PLN, whereas in a community of practice or learning community, often there are shared goals that the group is working towards. In a PLN, it is quite possible that there are many members who are not known to the individual – the network is constructed of a combination of strong and weak ties. In a PLN the teacher may make a connection to someone just once, when they share a particular resource, and may never make contact ever again; or they may access the information being shared regularly by someone without ever meeting them. They might also have strong connections with people who they may know in an offline capacity, or whom they have yet to meet, but with whom they communicate with frequently.
In a learning community or community of practice, it is more likely that the members know each other, and that they have strong ties with the majority of the group.
I am exploring the nature of teachers’ experiences of PL through PLNs through the lens of networked learning, connectivism and connected learning.
These concepts explain how learning may occur through social, networked and connected learning environments.
They stand alone, but also flow into each other.
Networked learning considers learning to be relational as learning cannot be limited or isolated to the individual’s own cognition or drawn purely from the social context and the interactions with it
it's the interaction between the individuals own thinking and the connections in the network along with the learning context that determines the learning.
Networked learning existed before the development of the Internet and social software as we understand them today and yet it is still informed heavily in its current iteration by these technologies.
Connectivism and connected learning have both been developed more recently
Connectivism provides a way for us to understand how we might learn through creating connections using social Technologies.
The founders of connectivism George Siemens and Stephen Downes : consider connectivism to be an emerging social learning theory
Connectivism suggests that knowledge rests across multiple nodes within flexible and open networks. Within this environment the learner actively construct their understandings by making connections between the nodes and seeing patterns and changes in patterns within the networks.
This means that in connectivism the potential to know is considered more important than what is currently known.
In connectivism the individual is central and drives learning to meet their own needs – from this we can see alignment with the PLN, which is driven by the individual according to their learning needs.
Connected learning views learning strongly through the lenses of cultural and social contexts.
Connected learning recognises the importance of the interaction of individuals and their contexts in the learning process.
Similar to networked learning and connectivism connected learning environments are based on openness, accessibility, transparency low barriers to entry and participation.
social software enables personal interests, interactions with Co learners as well as academic learning intentions to be drawn together to create an authentic and personalised learning space.
Connected learning also aligns with current research findings about teacher professional learning in that active collaborative and highly relevant professional learning opportunities are much more likely to result in changed practice.
Networked learning, connectivism and connected learning share several key elements, yet have defining differences.
When I placed the concepts in juxtaposition, to demonstrate core understandings the key similarities were…
This is an outline of my research design. I recruited through Twitter, Facebook and my own blog, using hashtags and groups to ensure my recruitment message was distributed beyond my own network. Through this recruitment I gathered thirteen participants. Each participant created a PLN map – a visual depiction of their PLN which they presented however they chose. Some used mindmapping, some drew diagrams, some created tables. We discussed this PLN map as part of the semi-structured interviews.
The participants were drawn from all over the globe, as reflects the affordance of a PLN – I used a combination of Zoom software and face to face meetings to conduct the interviews.
I am using thematic analysis to identify, analyse and report the themes that are emerging from the data. From this analysis, some interesting observations have already emerged, some of which I would like to share with you now.
These findings relate to the potential for PLNs to transform professional learning into an experience I term learning as a professional.
This transformed professional learning experience appears to be characterised by three tiers:
These tiers are interconnected and their experience is often blended.
The first tier was described by almost all participants in my research. This tier involves interactions through the PLN which enhance content knowledge and practice. It relates to the work the teacher is doing within their own classroom or within the context of their school. Examples of this type of experience are when teachers discover new resources, are inspired to remix or recreate resources or teaching strategies based upon new information, or interact with others to learn new methods of pedagogy.
The PLN allows participants to personalise their learning, by following individuals or seeking information relating to their specific need at that particular time.
As well as gaining learning that has practical, immediate implications for their classroom, participants shared how connections created through their PLN helped inform how they see themselves as professional teachers. This tier goes beyond the classroom, to focus on the teacher as an individual within the broader context of the teaching profession.
Making connections with others who offer support, encouragement or challenge helped teachers to formulate their sense of self – particularly when they were feeling isolated. Many of the teachers mentioned feeling isolated – either because they were geographically isolated, or the only one in their school who held their particular role. Even if they were in larger schools, some teachers said they felt alone because they had a sense of their identity as being different to other teachers.
Through the PLN, some teachers said they gained a broader perspective of how others enacted similar roles in different contexts, and this helped them develop a better understanding of different points of view, giving insight into their personal professional identity.
Sharing with others also helped teachers form their sense of their professional identity, as they gained confidence in themselves when others gave positive feedback or took their advice.
For a few teachers, their learning experiences included a third tier, where their professional recognition extends beyond their own classroom and their sense of self.
Traditionally teaching occurs within the four walls of the classroom – having a PLN allows these walls to be broken down, and sharing expertise publicly creates the potential for others to see the interests, practices and expertise of teachers in a way that was not previously possible. This can go even beyond the field of education, so the learning experiences shape the teachers’ career growth and enable them to share what teachers do to the wider world.
Some teachers shared that active participation in their PLN led to career growth, with a number crediting their online presence to helping them secure their current positions. Employers could see evidence of their work, and their professional sharing through they communicated that they saw alignment between what they observed and what they were looking for for their school.
Other times participation in the PLN led to invitations to present at conferences, consult at other schools or systems or write articles for publication.
Actively participating also allows learners to connect with what I term ‘network stars’ – leaders within different fields who share their work online – through the PLN it is possible for teachers to have interactions and learn directly from these leading practitioners.
The findings suggest that potential access to three tiers of learning opportunities autonomously and flexibly may transform professional learning to learning as a professional.
Developing the capacity to learn effectively through a PLN enables teachers to engage with learning that meets their needs on several levels –
A functional, classroom focused level, a situated, personally focused level and a connected, profession focused level.
Being able to access this transformed learning when and where they needed it most led many participants to observe that their PLN was essential to their learning. (QUOTE).
The experience of learning as a professional draws teachers from their isolated classrooms, enabling them to actively engage with others far beyond their geographical context, to become connected educators.
As I continue to analyse the data, I believe that further understandings of how teachers’ experience professional learning through PLNs will contribute to a theoretical understanding of the connected educator.
I aim to develop a conceptual model which may guide teachers towards innovative ways of working and learning as they share their passion for learning and teaching with others.
Beyond Safe Harbours
Teachers’ experiences of
professional learning through
personal learning networks.
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For school teachers, effective, ongoing professional learning is a lighthouse, burning
amid the swells of change, increasing complexity and growing accountability
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How do teachers experience professional learning through
personal learning networks (PLNs)?
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(teacher as active
(Calvert, 2016; Webster-Wright, 2009)
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The variety and depth of professional learning
experiences possible through interacting with
A significant knowledge gap:
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• An online network
• Connections with people, information & resources
• Strategically developed by an individual
• Providing access to informal learning
A personal learning network?
Knowledge is distributed and socially constructed
Learning is an active process driven by the learner
The learner is…
The learner is autonomous and driven by own goals
The role of social software is…
Social software enables connections & spaces for learning
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A qualitative, collective case study approach
Recruitment & Selection of 10
participants (Purposive Sampling
using snowball technique)
Data analysis begins
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Switzerland Russia China
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Transforming professional learning to learning as a professional
Tier two- enhancing
knowledge of self as
Tier one - enhancing
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Learning as a
Tier one –
enhancing content knowledge and practice
I'd been watching a lot of people talking about project based
learning...people who were sharing stuff in that
space...watching what she was modelling I suppose really
helped me believe that I could do it as well. And I also contacted
her... So that interaction led to me working with a team in Year
10 at my school on project based learning. (Jas)
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Learning as a
Tier two –
enhancing knowledge of self as a professional
you find yourself surrounded, sometimes, by people who just don't
understand what it is that you're trying to do, or what it is that you're
trying to say, or how you're trying to do things, you feel isolated and
you feel alone. And having an online PLN, again it makes you think
oh! I'm not alone! there are people out there who are trying to do
things this way. (Stell).
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Learning as a
Tier three –
enhancing professional recognition
Yesterday…there was an email, from one of the producers of the Feed
on SBS...she was looking to put together an item for The Feed on the
future of the Maker Movement. I'd been tweeting about the Maker
movement from the conference in Sydney, my name came up, she
went straight from there to Twitter, got the email address that's
associated with the account, and now she wants to come over with a
film crew and film something at the school. (Sean)
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Learning as a
Learning as a professional
When teachers learn as professionals, they acknowledge their desire for continuing
growth of their expertise, and they open themselves to learning about their own place
within the wider profession of education.
I really think that PLNs are becoming more and more impossible
not to have. I think as a professional educator I don't see how
you can function effectively and grow well without something.
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Towards an understanding of teachers as connected teachers
Teachers’ experiences of professional
learning through personal learning
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