No matter your career path, professional development is critical to not only keep up with the latest trends or news in the field, but to use that knowledge to improve your professional brand and success. Educators, however, have taken this to a new level—beyond annual conferences or in-services—through building robust Personal Learning Networks (PLN) to learn, grow, seek support, and meet fellow educators from around the world.
We are all familiar with the concept of social networks, where one shares photos and articles, and connects with others. PLNs serve a similar purpose, but from a different angle. Rather than sharing photos from birthday parties or that latest viral video, PLNs encourage and enable personal growth within a respective field through different tech tools. For educators, the go-to place to build a PLN is Twitter. Teachers can also use a PLN to connect with their students’ parents, or others in their district, to foster conversation and transparency.
New to Twitter? Chances are your colleagues, favorite bloggers, or conference presenters are already on it. Not sure where to start, or who to follow? There are countless hashtag chats to follow and participate in. A hashtag chat is normally set at a weekly scheduled time, when educators discuss topics or answer questions together. Twitter allows for public conversations and sharing of resources, but it also fosters more personal, one-on-one conversations through its Direct Messaging feature. Some districts even create their own hashtags, where teachers, students, and parents can share stories and increase transparency throughout a school community.
Despite its popularity, Twitter can feel constricting when it comes to forming meaningful dialogues, considering its 140 character limit. Several of Twitter’s super users have brought the concept of PLNs to new avenues, using different technologies besides social media. Getting people to download, use, and enjoy a new type of technology is a tremendous challenge, but several educators have achieved this task (which even some ed tech companies can’t do!). Let’s review a few examples of forming new connections in a PLN, and continuing to grow professionally outside of Twitter.
Sarah Thomas is a quintessential example of an active PLN user—in fact, she even spoke about PLNs at ISTE with two educators from completely different parts of the country, whom she met via her PLN. Sarah coordinates EduMatch, which enables educators to connect and growth outside of Twitter (although there is, of course a dedicated hashtag for it).
There are several ways in which EduMatch connects people outside of Twitter. To start, EduMatch has its own site, with information, statistics, and a calendar with upcoming events. Sarah regularly schedules EduMatch Google+ Hangouts, where anyone can sign up to participate in a panel discussion. These are especially valuable, as people connect face-to-face, with audio (albeit digitally), in a collaborative environment. Educators can be as involved (presenting live during a Hangout) or uninvolved (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—there is no long-winded submission form to participate; it’s open for everyone.
Another way that EduMatch expands PLN growth is through its Voxer group. Voxer is a free app that essentially works as a walkie-talkie, either in one-on-one or group chats. The interface is simple, and it auto-populates any existing contacts currently using Voxer, so you can start chatting right away to get a feel for how it works.
Sarah established an EduMatch group within Voxer, where dozens (possibly hundreds) of educators share stories, ask questions, and provide support to one another. Users can listen too all, some, or none of the messages—and because they 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 hearing someone’s voice provides a deeper degree of connection than reading 140 characters on a device screen.
The Voxer group is open to educators, and ed tech companies as well. My company, Imagine Easy Solutions, has had great success in finding beta testers for our tools, or to gather feedback from potential end-users on our marketing material. 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 Personal Learning Network. If you aren’t comfortable using Twitter, EduMatch provides several other ways to digitally connect with fellow educators to learn and grow together—it is also on the ever-popular Facebook and Instagram social networks.
Another brilliant tool to continue PLN conversations outside of Twitter is Slack, which is a desktop and mobile application that allows groups of people to create “channels" to connect and share. Slack differs from Twitter in that it allows you to write as much as you want, share files, and connect with a targeted group at once. It differs from Voxer in that it does not have audio capabilities.
While there are opportunities for Slack to be used at a school-wide or classroom-wide level, educators can also use it to nurture their PLN. EdTechBridge, an education community established at SXSWedu that has shown significant growth on Twitter 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. (EduMatch also has a Slack channel!) Slack allows lengthier conversations to happen over time, is less immediate than Twitter, but still makes it easy to share (and find) content and resources.
There is no right or wrong choice for establishing, nurturing, or growing a PLN. While many find Twitter as a great place to start, others may find 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—whenever it’s needed.