Face-to-face interaction has its benefits, but busy educators who want to ask advice, offer opinions, and engage in deep discussions with colleagues are increasingly turning to professional learning networks—online communities that allow the sharing of lesson plans, teaching strategies, and student work, as well as collaboration across grade levels and departments.
“You get a chance to see what some of the best teachers in the field are doing, and you can do it on your own time at home,” said Kellie Viera, a reading teacher at the 2,330-student Manatee High School in Bradenton, Fla. “I used to stay in my comfort zone and only go to people in my department to find out what they were doing in the classroom, but now I interact with other content-area teachers I might not have contact with in other settings.”
As budget cuts continue to limit district-level training opportunities, PLNs take an organic, grassroots approach to professional development. Administrators and teachers say such networks reduce isolation, promote autonomy, and provide inspiration by offering access to support and information not only within the walls of a school but also around the globe.
Professional learning networks have energized a movement of sorts, as educators create meaningful connections on their own through social networking that encourage innovation and help them model what it means to be a lifelong learner.
“This is a really good shift because it puts teachers back in a place where we’re recognizing them as professionals,” said Steve Hargadon, who created Classroom 2.0, the largest education site on the social-networking platform Ning. “The deeper message here is that this is a complete reversal of how information typically has gotten transferred, and it’s a reversal that represents a larger story in education.”
‘They’re Catching Fire’
Also known as personal learning networks or professional learning communities, PLNs can be part of a self-contained, password-protected schoolwide effort or a mixed bag of social-networking and bookmarking sites such as Edmodo, Twitter, Diigo, and Delicious. The past four years alone have seen the launch of thousands of personalized education sites that allow threaded commenting, immediate feedback on teaching methodologies, and extended professional development through videos, blogs, podcasts, webinars, and slide shows.
Edmodo’s growth has been fast and furious, in part because it looks, feels, and acts so much like Facebook. Since launching in September 2008 with an announcement on Twitter, the secure social-learning network had amassed 3 million users worldwide by September of this year and was on track to hit 4 million by the end of October, up from just over 1.5 million users in February. In August, more than 2,000 educators attended EdmodoCon, its first one-day global virtual conference, with an average stay of 4 hours 10 minutes. (Organizers had expected about 200 attendees.)
Teachers in Nevada’s 310,000-student Clark County school district, which includes Las Vegas, have been using Edmodo as an instructional tool for two years; students can be given a secure, password-protected username to share homework assignments, conversations, and class notes. But the teachers recently discovered how it can also serve as a tool for sharing best practices in such a geographically dispersed school system. Math and science teachers, for example, started separate online groups to talk about ways to raise student achievement. Administrators plan to experiment with cross-content connections sometime this academic year, though participation will be voluntary.
Some of Clark County’s elementary school principals turned to Edmodo last spring after the district announced plans for new common-core standards and several other initiatives. Their discussions lasted through the summer and are ongoing, for which administrators are thankful.
“Frankly, in a district this size, to get that many people together on an ongoing basis would be impossible,” said Sara Stewart, the district’s project facilitator for instructional technology. “This is coming from the bottom up, so these are people working on the front lines saying, ‘This is what we need. Let’s talk about it and learn from each other.’ That’s why it’s so powerful.”
Some schools are creating their own PLNs to help time-strapped teachers pool resources. For example, Florida’s Manatee High started one three years ago to ease the transition to a new core curriculum and other mandated changes.
“We use back-end information to see what our teachers are clicking on, so we can meet their needs and offer more resources,” said Assistant Principal Laurie Kitchie, a co-author of Constructing an Online Professional Learning Network for School Unity and Student Achievement, published this fall by Corwin. “And with an electronic file cabinet, things don’t get lost. We have a record of what we did two years ago, so we never have to reinvent the wheel.”
The school’s PLN has been such a success that administrators recently launched another site with resources available to the public.
The Denver public school system, meanwhile, is creating separate PLN groups for new teachers—there are more than 400 this year—and instructional superintendents.
“We want them to be contributing on a districtwide level without feeling like someone has a thumb on them saying yes, no, or maybe all the time,” said Michael Wacker, the district’s coordinator of online professional development. “We’re just launching these, but they’re catching fire.”
Learning the Ropes
For all their conveniences, professional learning networks are not always easy for newbies to navigate.
“It is so easy to get lost and become aimless and not accomplish anything,” said Vicki Davis, a technology teacher and information technology director for the 435-student Westwood school district in Camilla, Ga. She stays on track by aggregating her favorite sites with Google Reader and syncing RSS feeds with iGoogle, her personalized home page.
“A lot of people start building a PLN and then get overwhelmed, because they’re getting all this email from different networks that don’t have anything to do with them,” added Ms. Davis, whose Cool Cat Teacher blog draws a quarter-million hits a month. “A PLN is more like planting a garden than planting a tree—a tree is going to grow no matter what, but a garden you have to tend.”
Developing a virtual green thumb may take some time.
Pernille Ripp, a 5th grade teacher for the 450-student West Middleton Elementary School in Middleton, Wis., recalled her early attempts to join the Edchat crowd on Twitter: “I felt like the new kid in a small high school who didn’t know the social rules. I knew something cool was happening, but I had no idea how to be a part of it. In essence, I was standing in the cafeteria with my tray held high, hoping someone would take pity.”
Someone eventually did, and now many of Ms. Ripp’s projects stem from online discussions she has with teachers around the world, including one that links her own students with 5th graders in South Korea and Egypt.
One of the hardest parts of developing a PLN is remembering that virtual conversations can present unique challenges, according to Shelly Terrell, a co-creator and co-organizer of EdChat, which features Twitter discussions for educators, and other online education projects.
“We have to be careful what we say and how we say it, because the tone or message could be misread,” she said. “We also must realize what we write is published online for a large audience. If we encounter situations where someone disagrees with us in a rude way, we have to take steps to cut off the interaction.”
‘Creative World Out There’
The way PLNs are being used continues to evolve, with applications for mobile phones and other hand-held devices gaining in popularity.
Yet despite their breakneck growth, PLNs are still not legitimized in many districts, where “the outlook has always been that professional development is something that is done to people,” said education consultant Lucy Gray, who started the Global Education Collaborative, a network with more than 5,000 members in some 120 countries.
“I don’t think this is rocket science, but you won’t understand it unless you participate in it,” Ms. Gray said. “It’s all about professional generosity, spontaneity, synergy, and synchronicity. There really is a richer, more creative world out there.”
A world that, with all its digital possibilities, seems to hold most of the answers for people like Theresa Allen. A teacher and the technology coordinator for the 550-student Cathedral of St. Raymond School in Joliet, Ill., Ms. Allen heads straight to the keyboard when she gets stumped. Two hours after posting a dilemma recently, she’d received six responses from several states, including one accompanied by a step-by-step instructional guide for solving the problem.
“Gosh, how would I have handled things before?” she wondered aloud, thinking back to her early years as an educator. “I probably would’ve asked the other teachers in my school. And my mom’s a teacher, so I’d ask her—and then I’d have to ask her to ask the teachers in her school. This way is so much easier.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Networking Professionals