The What and Why of a Professional Learning Network
It is a great time to be an educator in the United States, and, simultaneously, it is the worst time to be an educator in the United States. On one hand, the advances in technology afford educators benefits never before available to advance their knowledge of their profession. On the other hand, the economy, culture, and misconceptions of education have enabled politicians and business leaders to vilify and attack educators and their profession.
No matter how old the profession, those who work in a particular field have always had the ability to communicate with one another to compare notes and improve services. The form of communication began with face-to-face contact in early civilization and evolved to a more digital form in today's age of technological advances. Technology has always improved communication methods by enabling all—not just professionals—the ability to consult, collaborate, and learn from others. This has progressed from the earliest printing presses to the most recent smartphones.
Chat Among Yourselves
Members of any profession need to communicate and collaborate with colleagues to understand and improve their skills. Face-to-face collaboration is personal, but is limited by boundaries of time and space. Participants must have a common time and place for collaboration. Digital collaboration has no bounds of time or space, and collaboration can take place anytime with anyone, anywhere.
Education professionals must deal with two components that are changing and developing on a daily basis: content and culture. They must use ever-changing content to develop learning skills in students who are being influenced and changed by an ever-evolving, technology-driven culture. If educators are not collaborating, learning, and developing their professional selves to maintain their relevance, they will never be able to effectively reach their students.
At one time, educators could count on texts and journals to keep them up-to-date with all that was new in education and the world. With the advent of evolving technology, all of this has changed at a pace faster than anything we could have predicted.
The New Networking
How do educators know what they should concentrate on to deliver the most relevant content to their students? How do instructors keep up with the latest research on learning and the best methods to deliver it? How do teachers keep up with the latest technological tools for learning? How do educators stay relevant today?
Educators need to develop a network of other educators to collectively answer these questions. They have the wherewithal to do this on a grand scale—technology enables them to increase collaboration beyond any of the boundaries that have limited them in the past. Collaboration has taken a global perspective. This network of professionals will enable all the advantage of collaborative learning with no regard to time or space. Imagine personalized learning 24/7, anytime, anywhere. This is known as a digital professional learning network (PLN). It takes 20 minutes each day for an educator to check in with their PLN and maintain relevance, but those who love to learn will be sucked in for longer.
This PLN could be the answer to education reform. It is a personalized network of sites and people. Like fingerprints and snowflakes, no two PLNs are alike. A PLN is developed by an individual to meet her needs. It is a compilation of many sites and many people connected through social media. Many Ning sites that are part of PLNs are subject-specific (e.g., English Companion) or generalized for all educators (Classroom 2.0 or The Educator's PLN) or professional education organization sites (ISTE or ASCD EDge).
It could offer not only the right questions to ask, but also the answers that others have found. Here is the rub: This PLN can be achieved only through technology use. Many see technology use as a need to leave their comfort zones. Some see it as a generational obstacle, and feel that it's for the young. Technology is not a generational thing, it is a learning thing. It may be outside many educators’ comfort zones, but comfort zones are the biggest obstacles to education reform.
The time has come for educators to accept that they no longer have a choice about technology. To maintain relevance as educators, they need to employ relevant technology learning tools for education, connect and collaborate with other professionals to improve their skills and knowledge within their profession, and use PLNs to improve their profession and hold off the barbarian politicians and business people banging down the gates of education. For the students’ benefit, educators need to lead the reform with their expertise and not live with the reactionary, mandated policies of politicians driven by myths, polls, and taxes.
Tom Whitby is an adjunct professor of education at St. Joseph's College in Brooklyn, N.Y. In his former life, he taught English for 34 years at the secondary level and was a leader in the New York State United Teacher Locals for 30 years. Whitby has founded a number of educational groups on LinkedIn, including the Technology Using Professors Group, and has been recognized with an Edublog Award for the most Influential Educational Twitter Series, Edchat, which he founded.
ASCD Express, Vol. 8, No. 9. Copyright 2013 by ASCD. All rights reserved. Visit www.ascd.org/ascdexpress.