I would like to present a brief summary of my current PhD research. I am currently completing my research through Queensland University of Technology, in Brisbane Australia, and will be completing my study at the end of this year. I am exploring professional learning through online Personal Learning Networks, or PLNs.
In my research I define a PLN as an online network, where individuals make connections with people, information and resources. It is strategically developed by an individual, and it provides access to informal learning.
There is an absence of literature which explores the stories of teachers who are using PLNs for professional learning. I interviewed thirteen teachers and asked them to create a visualisation of their PLN, to investigate their thoughts, feelings and actions when they interact online with others to enhance their professional learning.
One of my research participants used the metaphor of a cocktail party for how she learns through her PLN. At a great cocktail party, you talk a little with other guests, you drink a few exotic cocktails and you meet new people. Through her PLN, she contributes new content and information, she consumes resources and ideas and she makes connections with others who share her interests.
Understanding how learning might be experienced through a PLN aligns with networked learning, connectivism and connected learning. The data revealed how teachers blend collective participation, a connected learning approach and the affordances of social software to experience learning as a connected professional.
Learning as a connected professional elaborates on existing understandings of professional learning, and presents a complex, multi-faceted experience of professional learning. The experiences of learning occur across a spectrum of levels – a technical, functional level, an exploratory level and a connected level. Let’s look at each part of the model in turn.
Professional learning through a PLN offers teachers the opportunity to interact across three different arenas. Teachers engaged with their PLN to meet a wide range of learning purposes. This was reflected in fluent movement across the arenas, in response to their own needs and the unpredictable nature of the network. Not all participants experienced all three arenas, however the majority described at least two.
The pedagogical arena was described by all participants in my research. This arena relates to the work the teacher is doing within their own classroom or within the context of their school. Interactions range from a technical level involving everyday problem solving and simple question and answer interactions to the far more complex connected experiences, where teachers work online with others to create new content knowledge through collaborative inquiry.
As well as gaining learning that has practical, immediate implications for their classroom, participants shared learning in the personal arena, which informs how they see themselves as professional teachers. At a technical level, teachers share very little personal information. As teachers’ confidence and empathy grew, there was the development of an authentic presence, that reflected the teacher as an holistic individual.
Some teachers experienced learning within the public arena – where their professional recognition extended beyond their own classroom and their sense of self. A growing understanding and presence within the PLN led to advantages including personal career growth and opportunities to contribute and advocate to the profession at large.
My research also revealed that although every PLN was different, certain elements were identifiable across experiences. PLNs aligned with connectivist principles of autonomy, participation and diversity across connections. Each of these elements existed at technical, exploratory and connected levels.
The PLNs were driven autonomously by their creators – however how this autonomy was exercised differed between participants. For those at the technical level, autonomy was a case of choice and control – being able to access learning when and where needed. At the connected level, the learners sought their autonomy to learn as an express of self. The PLN provided the channel through which their need for constant challenge and learning was met.
The teachers who participated in this research also valued their capacity to engage with diverse voices through their PLNs, even if some did not do so on a regular basis. All participants expressed the value in being able to connect beyond their own context, however exactly how diverse their connections were varied from those outside of the school with similar roles to broad connections from multi-disciplinary and diverse backgrounds.
Interactivity, connectedness and openness were common experiences within the PLN. Some participants made use of the participatory nature of their PLN on an as needed basis, whereas for others, participation was part of a regular routine. As teachers become more connected, they demonstrated greater levels of interactivity and openness, contributing their own content and leading others in collaborative knowledge construction.
It emerged from the findings that teachers who engage with their PLN for professional learning demonstrated particular attributes. Participants were networked learners, were active and self-directed learners and that they demonstrated social network literacy.
Initiating and developing an online personal learning network necessitates skills and strategies to understand how informal learning might occur within a loosely configured, uneven and continually changing social structure. At a technical level, knowledge exchange happens most commonly from one fixed point to another. Learning occurs through an increasing number of modes and channels, as dialogue and fluency within the network increases.
Engaging with professional learning through a PLN requires learners to be active and self-directed. Being able to take control of when and where learning takes place, and what is learnt is one of the advantages that almost all participants highlighted through this research.
The findings of this research indicate that those participants with higher levels of social network literacy were more likely to experience learning as a connected professional. Those with stronger social network literacy are not only able to make effective use of social software to work effectively with connections, they also have an understanding of fundamental network concepts including connectivity, interactions and interdependence
This research reveals that initiating and maintaining a PLN that enables learning as a connected professional requires more than an account on a social media platform and several individuals to follow or friend. Transformative pedagogical, personal and public learning opportunities are more likely for active, self-directed learners who nurture a network of diverse connections. The conceptual model of learning as a connected professional provides teachers with an overarching picture, while the framework offers insight into the ways experiences of learning are formed by the learner’s purposes, their attributes and the qualities of their PLN.
Transforming professional learning with Personal Learning Networks
PhD Candidate, Faculty of Education,
Queensland University of Technology
• An online network
• Connections with people, information & resources
• Strategically developed by an individual
• Providing access to informal learning
She’s talking about a PLN –
a Personal Learning Network!
I interviewed thirteen
teachers based in different
countries. They also created
visualisations of their PLNs.
“How do teachers experience
professional learning through
personal learning networks?”
You talk a
You drink a
“It’s like a good
cocktail party!” *
Says one research
Learning as a
Arenas of professional learning
Embedded in social software
The PLN may offer
learning in different
Enhancing content knowledge and practice.
Stays up to date with
implementation of pedagogical
& curricula changes
Seeks advice and inspiration to
design or redesign pedagogical
approach or curricula
Enhancing knowledge of self as a professional.
Confidence and empathy
grows through reciprocity,
feedback and advice
Expanding sense of self as
educator informed through
interactions mediated by
Enhancing professional recognition.
within the PLN through
increased interactions and
PLNs can have
Driven by autonomy
Expression of self as
Takes advantage of
capacity to tailor learning
to professional interests
While the notion of autonomy within PLNs is accepted, a key finding of this research is how this
autonomy is demonstrated, and the way this relates to the experience of professional learning
through the PLN.
Connections associated with
any aspect of
encouragement in personal
interest areas and general
The teachers who participated in this research also valued their capacity to engage with
diverse voices through their PLNs, even if some did not do so on a regular basis.
Most participation based in
consuming resources and
Realises benefits of
contributing, and is building
confidence to share more.
Research participants in this study demonstrated a participatory approach when they
described their professional learning as an outcome of actively and openly connecting and
interacting with others.
Learners may share
similar capacities… Social network
Shares information through
an increasing number of
modes and channels.
Recognises dialogue and
interaction as methods of
Initiating and developing an online personal learning network necessitates skills and strategies to
understand how informal learning might occur within a loosely configured, uneven and
continually changing social structure.
Active self directed learning
Increasing engagement with
others through PLN to explore
personal professional interests
not addressed by school.
Developing confidence to share
own resources, advice and
feedback in dialogue with others.
Engaging with professional learning through a PLN requires learners to be active and self-
directed. Being able to take control of when and where learning takes place, and what is
learnt is one of the advantages that almost all participants highlighted through this research.
Social network literacy
Expanding interactions across
different platforms and creating
diversity within PLN.
Developing an understanding
of strategies to leverage
opportunities to collaborative
Participants in this research who experienced learning as a connected professional demonstrated a
strategic understanding of social networking, and used the affordances available to them to
enhance their learning so that it became transformative across all three arenas – pedagogical,
personal and public.
The PLN offers
opportunity to learn
as a connected
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