Literature Review: Professional Learning Networks

This literature review on professional learning networks was created as part of my participation in the graduate course Learning Technologies & Organizations at the George Washington University.

Introduction

Organizations seeking to leverage the unique skills and knowledge of individual members create communication, collaboration, and information sharing networks. Formal networks let members share knowledge within a secure space while protecting sensitive information. While developing employee skills these networks are intended primarily to serve the interests of the organization. Individuals may also seek out information and opportunities for collaboration for a variety of reasons. Connections within and outside their organization are intended primarily to serve their own professional interests. The people and resources used to pursue these interests are referred to as Professional Learning Networks.

Social media has emerged as a platform for serious work and professional engagement; Web 2.0 tools such as blogs and wikis offer a platform for interaction with others on a global scale. PLN’s offer a learning community perfectly suited for social constructivist approaches to learning (Dede, 2008). Increasingly, connected professionals are creating informal, self-directed, self-managed Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) using social media to improve practice, engage in professional dialogue, encounter current innovations and trends, and advance their careers. A PLN’s malleability makes them unique to each participant serving different purposes at different times (Carmichael, Fox, McCormick, Procter, & Honour, 2006).

While it seems self-evident that skills developed outside the organization could, directly or indirectly, benefit the larger enterprise[i] (Checkland, 1994), the extent to which that is the case is unknown. Do organizations benefit when members pursue independent self-directed professional development within a PLN? If there is benefit, how can an organization promote, encourage, members to participate in a PLN? While the concept of PLNs is applicable to any enterprise, the focus here is on education professionals.

Literature Review

Perceptions

The Web 2.0 infrastructure offers content that can be filtered by learners, accessed through their own choice of tools, and responded to in a variety of media. While most educators acknowledge the benefit of Web 2.0 tools for teaching and learning (Pritchett, Wohleb, & Pritchett, 2013), it is not unusual for some to dismiss or ignore its use for their own professional learning (Carmichael, Fox, McCormick, Procter, & Honour, 2006). Educators engaging in professional development are, themselves, learners and applying understandings of social learning theories to their own professional development, can see benefit in engaging with social media.

PLN’s imposed on members by an organization are less likely to succeed than those created by the participants themselves. O’Brien (2008), Appleby & Hillier (2012), and Lightle (2010) each found that while some participants saw value in the networking endeavor, many were suspicious of the organization’s motivations and expressed privacy concerns about the network. While the learning network was carefully planned by committees of administrators, network participation was imposed on educators who had little input, experienced restrictions regarding topics, were somewhat cynical about the initiative, and adopted a wait-and-see attitude.

Top-down directives such as that observed by O’Brien (2008), Appleby & Hillier (2012), and Lightle (2010) fail to acknowledge participants’ diverse learning needs and their need to exercise some control and self-determination over their learning experience. Dede (2008) describes learning as a “human activity quite diverse in its manifestations from person to person, and even from day,” (Dede, 2008, p. 57), and points to technology’s ability to accommodate many different learning approaches.

Many recent editorials and opinion articles in peer-reviewed journals promote social media as a context for self-directed PLNs. Church (2012) points to the a PLN’s capacity to morph to meet the professional’s changing needs and address emerging issues. Ongoing engagement with a carefully curated PLN can, for example, address required interventions and growth opportunities identified from performance evaluations. In this context, the participant is sees the PLN as a means to a single specific end.

Couros and Hilt (2011) anecdotally describe how their PLNs contribute to professional growth, provide a forum for reflection and feedback, and create a sense of community and connection with educators around the world. For them, the PLN reflects one’s individual professional needs and interests and is an end in itself.

Benefits of a PLN

As much as a PLN is about ideas, it is primarily about people. For individuals in unique job roles, in small schools, in isolated work environments, or in challenging situations, a global PLN offers a point of connection to teaching/learning resources and, more importantly, to human resources: people with whom the participant can interact (Sie, et al., 2013).

Its’ malleability means that each participant can make the PLN serve different purposes in supporting, teaching, and learning roles. Participants can, individually, or at once, provide information, offer professional development, collaborate, offer feedback, lead change, research, learn, and advocate (Hughes-Hassell, Brasfield, & Dupree, 2012).

Sie (2013) worked with individuals with self-directed PLNs and identified several benefits broadly generalized as information exchange, personal connections, and career management.

Connections between PLN participants  may be mutually beneficial where there are two-way lines of communication like a conversation. Other connections are one-way where a participant receives a connection’s communications, but reciprocal communication is not enabled, like a lecture. Both forms of connection can be beneficial. Connecting to a prominent thinker will make the thinker’s material available to the participant, while the thinker may not be interested in the participant’s contributions. “Latent ties” (Ranieri, Manca, & Fini, 2012) such as thee connect ideas with those that want them.

Two-way connections fall on a continuum of weak to strong. Weak ties characteristically provide access to information and focus primarily on idea exchange while strong ties add an element of emotional fulfillment and serve to deepen understanding and engagement (Hanraets, Huselbosch, & deLaat, 2011). Whatever the nature of the connection, there can be benefits to the participant. Because the composition of a self-directed PLN is determined solely by the individual and there are no binding obligations to others in your network and unproductive connections can be dropped and new connections added.

Designing a PLN

For the Individual

Twitter is the platform of choice for day to day engagement with a PLN (Church, 2012) (Lightle, 2010) (Perez, 2012) (Ranieri, Manca, & Fini, 2012) (Veletsianos, 2011) supported by more in depth and permanent products like blogs, nings, and wikis (Lightle, 2010). Individuals will search for other people and content based on their own needs (Woods, 2013) and follow, subscribe, and register to participate on social media platforms with which they are comfortable or willing to learn. Woods (2013) describes how an individual’s self-directed PLN connections can cross disciplines and philosophies bringing diversity that stimulates deeper thought and exposure to ideas in different contexts.

Given the variety of tools available to curate content, PLN participants have the ability to customize not only their content, but their interface.  Several applications are available to view Twitter feeds and RSS readers collect new content from subscribed blogs.

For an Institution

As mentioned, attempts to impose learning networks on educators have met with underwhelming success. Participant surveys and studies of previous attempts to create organizational PLNs reveal strategies to increase the success of mandated learning networks:

Ownership and Self-Determination – Make the PLN meaningful by letting participants identify their own needs and interests, use their own devices, and choose platforms and apps they are familiar with (O'Brien, Varga-Atkins, Burton, Campbell, & Qualter, 2008). This engenders a sense of trust between the institution and the participant. Because individuals have choice and flexibility with their networks, it can morph with their needs and interests over time without requiring structural or organizational change. This makes it more meaningful and relevant as time and circumstances require.

Openness and Personalisation – Allowing participants to connect with others both within and beyond the enterprise increases the pool of potential connections (Harvey, Marina & Huber, 2012). This is particularly important for specialists and those in isolated or small organizations. Learning networks that are too small or too narrowly defined are less responsive (Sandars & Langlois, 2005), can establish rigid identities, and cannot evolve as needed to sustain relevance (Barab, et al., 2007). While participants use PLNs for professional engagement, sharing mundane personal details also contributes to the strength of network connections. Points of common interest are also points of possible contact: participants may begin a conversation with the mundane and move on to work-related topics (Veletsianos, 2011).

Support and Training – Facilitators can help participants articulate needs, identify content, and connect with people and ideas without being directive or imposing. Organizations can create a climate of acceptance and introduce opportunities that highlight the benefit of a PLN (Hanraets, Huselbosch, & deLaat, 2011). With increasing comfort participants may want training on new tools or explore new social media settings to expand their PLN. Additionally, some users may benefit from instruction in social media communication such as how to craft short messages, or respond to blog posts (Hanraets, Huselbosch, & deLaat, 2011).

Sustaining a PLN

While consuming information from a PLN provides the participant with resources and up-to-date information on their areas of interest, contributing to the conversation gives the participant an opportunity to express ideas, add points of view, and share information. Importantly, it also requires the participant to read, understand, process, reflect, and articulate understandings. As both consumer and contributor, the participant is likely to experience a stronger sense of connection and support in addition to more meaningful professional growth (Spradley, 2008)

A survey of teachers using social media by Ranieri, Manca, & Fini (2012) reveal that PLNs with a diverse population and wide ranging interests are more beneficial to the participant than those with a specific content focus. With heterogeneous connections the participant is better able to filter and identify applicable people and resources to meet emerging needs.

A robust PLNs should have at least 200 connections (Terrell, 2009), that regularly populate the participant’s feed with resources, timely responses, and insight into the state of the field on any given day. Perez (2012) offers the following strategies for maintaining a robust and meaningful PLN: Actively manage connections; add and drop to fine tune the content flow. Participate and cultivate a professional profile. Use aggregation tools to bring the variety of PLN sources into one window, and use mobile devices to stay connected.

Brief messages and exchanges such as those on Twitter often point to more detailed explorations of a topic in the form of blogs or wikis. Dickinson (2012) promotes digital publishing for positive self-reflection and professional engagement. A thoughtful online post or article extends the conversation long after the writer has completed the piece. Such writing contributes to the body of knowledge and resources upon which others may draw in the context of their own PLN.

Understanding PLNs

A PLN affords opportunities for professional engagement beyond the usual work day. Independent of time zones, a well-curated PLN is available 24/7 offering a context for professional engagement and reflection with an audience as narrow or diverse as one chooses. Using social media for the PLN means it is possible to connect with colleagues without disruption to usual routines and engagement can happen within the participant’s own work context (Appleby & Hillier, 2012).

The value of such networks to the individual is anecdotally clear (Couros & Hilt, 2011) and measurable evidence of engagement with PLNs reveal a variety of motivations and benefits for participants (Sandars & Langlois, 2005) (Sie, et al., 2013) (Veletsianos, 2011), but determining the value to the organization is harder to measure. Harvey, Marina & Huber (2012) suggest that a PLNs value is something sensed rather than measured, that independently motivated and engaged members are more likely to be motivated and engaged with their work but quantifying the impact on the organization is challenging. Efforts to understand learning networks led researchers to identify measurable elements including the strength, and content focus of connections (Sie, et al., 2013) and the nature of individual relationships within and amongst content clusters (Carmichael, Fox, McCormick, Procter, & Honour, 2006).

Directions for Future Research

Effects on participant learning

The unique nature of PLNs challenges standard measures of learning. Performance on standards tests comparing students that created and engaged with a content-specific learning network to those that did not may serve as an indicator of the PLNs effectiveness. For educators, research could examine qualitative changes in lesson preparation, delivery, and assessment before and after engagement with a PLN. Examining an individual’s message content over time may reveal evolution of thought patterns while blog posts as expressions of understanding provide evidence of growth.

Effects on teacher effectiveness

Standards test results over time could be correlated with teachers’ PLN engagement though there are myriad other influences on test results it would be hard to isolate the PLN’s effect. More revealing may be anecdotal reports from workplace colleagues of the participants’ professional cachet or evidence of positive and progressive professional engagement

It would also be interesting to qualitatively understand the kind of content and contributions associated with different media. Twitter’s 140 character limit, a blog’s single-author unlimited post, and an open ever-changing wiki invite different types of engagement and studies may reveal the extent to which that content correlates to quality or depth of understanding.

Summary

Recommendations and observations from the research cited generally indicate that individual PLNs are most effective when:

  • it contributes to meeting personal and organizational goals
  • it is populated by a large and diverse community with wide ranging interests
  • balanced with face-to-face opportunities for engagement
  • participants actively manage connections
  • participants both consume and contribute

Organizational PLNs are most effective when they accommodate the conditions above, and:

  • serve a clear purpose though the purpose may change,
  • are self-directed but may receive support,
  • are independent of work obligations though may be work-related,
  • are acknowledged by the organization as a valued professional activity
  • are supported but not directed by a facilitator
  • social media communication strategies are developed
  • demonstrate openness, integrity, and trust with the participant

Conclusion

An effective Professional Learning Network reflects the larger professional community. With a large enough pool of connections, participants are bound to find the information, resources, and supports needed to attenuate challenges, grow professionally, and pursue innovations in the field.

The literature is quite clear that that imposing or mandating participation in a PLN will be met with resistance and attempts to limit conversation is likely to undermine hoped-for outcomes. An organization wishing to encourage PLN participation is well-advised to create a climate of acceptance, and a culture of openness and sharing amongst members with supports for individuals wishing to participate.

That self-directed participants are so enthusiastic about their PLN speaks to their perceived value. It is easy to argue that creating opportunities for professional engagement outside the traditional workspace will lead to greater engagement and better performance within the workspace. PLNs make ongoing professional development an easy reality, one that is being lived by increasing numbers of educators for their own benefit and that of their students.

 

Bibliography

Appleby, Y., & Hillier, Y. (2012). Exploring practice - research networks for critical professional learning. Studies in Continuing Education, 34(1), 31-43.

Barab, S., Zuiker, S., Warren, S., Hickey, D., Ingram-Goble, A., Kwon, E. J., . . . Herring, S. (2007, September). Situationally embodied curriculum: Relating formalisms and contexts. Science Education, 91(5), 750-782.

Carmichael, P., Fox, A., McCormick, R., Procter, R., & Honour, L. (2006, June). Teachers' networks in and out of school. Research Papers in Education, 21(2), 217-234.

Checkland, P. (1994, Sep/Oct). Systems theory and management thinking. The American Behavioral, 38(1), 75-91.

Church, A. (2012, November/December). Making performance-based evaluation work for you: A recipe for personal learning. (M. Naso, Ed.) Knowledge Quest, 41(2), 38-41.

Couros, G., & Hilt, L. (2011, May/June). Social media as a professional tool. Principal, pp. 36-38.

Dede, C. (2008). Theoretical perspectives influencing the use of information technology in teaching and learning. In J. Voogt, & G. Knezek (Eds.), International Handbook of Information Technology in Primary and Secondary Education (Vol. 20, pp. 43-62). Springer US.

Dickinson, G. (2012, November/December). Professional learning networks through publishing. (M. Naso, Ed.) Knowledge Quest, 41(2).

Hanraets, I., Huselbosch, J., & deLaat, M. (2011). Experiences of pioneers facilitating teacher networks for professional development. Educational Media International, 48(2), 85-99.

Harvey, Marina, & Huber, E. (2012). Expanding the horizons of professional learning: A foundations alumni network. Asian Social Science, 8(14), 19-27.

Hughes-Hassell, S., Brasfield, A., & Dupree, D. (2012, November/December). Making the most of professional learning communities. (M. Naso, Ed.) Knowledge Quest, 41(2), 30-37.

Lightle, K. (2010, November/December). Using social media to build an online professional learning netorkd of middle level educators. Knowledge Quest, 39(2), 48-53.

O'Brien, M., Varga-Atkins, T., Burton, D., Campbell, A., & Qualter, A. (2008). How are the perceptions of learning networks shaped among school professionals and headteachers at an early stage in their introduction. International Review of Education, 54, 211-242.

Perez, L. (2012, January/February). Innovative professional development: Expanding your professional learning network. Knowledge Quest, 40(3), pp. 20-22.

Pritchett, C. C., Wohleb, E. C., & Pritchett, C. G. (2013, March/April). Educators' perceived importance of Web 2.0 technology applications. TechTrends, 57(2), 33-38.

Ranieri, M., Manca, S., & Fini, A. (2012). Why (and how) do teachers engage in social networks? An exploratory study of professional use of Facebook and its implications for lifelong learning. British Journal of Educational Technology, 43(5), 754-769. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01356.x

Sandars, J., & Langlois, M. (2005). Online learning networks for general practitioners: evaluation of a pilot project. Education for Primary Care, 16, 688-696.

Severance, C., Hardin, J., & Whyte, A. (2008, April). The coming functionality mash-up in personal learning environments. Interactive Learning Environments, 16(1), 47-62.

Sie, R. L., Pataraia, N., Boursinou, E., Rajagopal, K., Margaryan, A., Falconer, I., . . . Sloep, P. B. (2013). Goals, motivation for, and outcomes of personal learning through networks: Results of a Tweetstorm. Educational Technology & Society, 16(3), 59-75.

Spradley, M. (2008). Dialogue within professional learning communities and its impact on the professional growth of teachers in the elementary school setting. (Order No. 3342444, Walden University) ProQuest Dissertations and Theses. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://search.proquest.com/docview/288043812?accountid=11243

Terrell, S. S. (2009, September 30). PRESTO: How to build your PLN on Twitter. Retrieved December 2, 2013, from http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=K7ekj_Ys4FM

Veletsianos, G. (2011). Higher education scholars' participation and practices on Twitter. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28, 336-349.

Woods, B. (2013, November 8). Building your own PLN. T+D, pp. 70-73.



[i]   Checkland (1994) suggests people are quick to express the most ethical answer to a question. For example, when asked who is the beneficiary of an educational initiative the initiator will respond, “the students, of course” when, in fact, the initiative may benefit the initiator most directly. In the same vein, when asking who is the beneficiary of PLN engagement, the ethical response is, “the consumers of enterprise efforts” when the most immediate benefits may be to the PLN participant himself.

 


For the next couple of years much of my time will be spent on coursework as I have enrolled in George Washington University's Graduate Certificate in eLearning, the first step toward completing the Masters Degree in Education Technology Leadership. In the spirit of learning in public, I plan to use my blog as a thinking and processing space. I'll use the #GWETL tag here on the blog and the same hashtag when tweets are course related. At the moment, I'm registered in Learning Technologies and Organizationsand Developing Multimedia Materials.

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