Networking

Personal Learning Networks

♦ by Meir Wexler

Teachers can use social media technology to create a learning environment fostering their own continual professional development.

For years educators have relied on articles and continuing education classes for their professional development. During the school year they would have a few days of “professional development classes,” which often were an afterthought and included simply for schools to claim they provided development for their educators. Many teachers labeled “PD sessions” a waste of time and took their sick/personal days during them despite potentially getting double docked.

Boy how times have changed for educators. Enter the PLN, personal learning network.

A PLN is an informal learning network consisting of educators who connect with each other and learn in a personal learning environment (PLE) or personal learning community (PLC). With a PLN, educators connect to others with the goal of learning something as a result of that connection.

An important part of this concept is the theory of connectivism developed by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. Connectivism was introduced as a theory of learning based on the premise that knowledge exists in the world rather than in the head of an individual. Connectivism proposes a perspective similar to the activity theory of Vygotsky: knowledge exists within systems, which are accessed through people participating in activities. It also bears some similarity with the social learning theory of Bandura that proposes that people learn through contact. Siemens adds “a learning theory for the digital age,” indicating the special importance of technology on how people live, communicate and learn.

Principles of connectivism include

  • Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
  • Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
  • Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
  • Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
  • Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
  • Ability to see connections between fields, ideas and concepts is a core skill.
  • Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.

PLNs encompass all of these principles. They are not classes. Learners create connections and develop a network that contributes to their professional development and knowledge. The learner does not have to know these people personally or ever meet them in person.

One could argue that educators should really have formal, inside the box PD. That PLNs are too informal and loosely structured. Educators can’t really leverage social media for professional learning opportunities. My response is simple: educators should try developing a PLN for a month, be it social media, a wiki, website or other learning platform and then reflect on the quality of the knowledge and professional connections they have amassed. It can be created in a very short amount of time.

PLNs are brought about through Professional Learning Community platforms on nings (check out edupln.ning.com and www.classroom20.com) and learning management systems such as Edmodo (Edmodo.com). Edmodo was created by educators as a platform for students to take classes that afford the opportunity to develop vital 21st century skills like communication, collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and cross-cultural understanding. The platform is a true example of 21st century networking.

Realizing the potential to network with each other, educators then adapted it as a way to develop their own inter-school and intra-school PLNs. For example, math teachers connect with and learn from other math teachers around the world on Edmodo. Educators post ideas and share information and files to a specific learning community (example: the Game Based Learning Community). Edmodo gives teachers the platform they have always needed to network with each other and affords them deeper learning opportunities.

I started an Edmodo learning community at a school and the educators loved it. They could go to Edmodo at their leisure on their schedule. They learned things about each other they never knew and ended up implementing some powerful cross-collaborative units with each other’s classes.

People develop and maintain their PLNs through a variety of modes, including social media and specifically Twitter. That’s right, Twitter! Twitter is not just for famous actors and athletes. These days, educators cultivate and access their PLNs on it. I knew about Twitter for years but never saw the purpose in it. That all changed a few years ago when a few educator friends of mine mentioned they started dabbling in Twitter as a way of connecting with other educators. I went to Twitter.com, signed up and started following educators I knew. I started reading threads their connections were posting and found many to be extremely useful, everything from recommended reading on differentiated instruction to a link or url to a new web 2.0 tool and how to effectively integrate them into the classroom. At first I didn’t feel comfortable posting, but after a few weeks I realized I had information and answers others were requesting and I wanted to contribute.

Although I was building relationships from scratch, the bond of “everything education” opened doors. Educators clearly wanted to connect. I then saw Twitter had an app for my phone and before I knew it I was waiting in line at the grocery store learning and gleaning information in ways I never knew before. (Being stuck in long lines at the grocery store doesn’t bother me anymore!) I had developed connections with everyone from new educators to seasoned vets, to counselors, administrators, principals, headmasters and educational organizations.

The learning was incredible and self-motivated. I could learn what I was interested in when I wanted to with whom I wanted to. I noticed educators used hashtags (the “#” key) with keywords like “Edchat” and “MathChat” which would pull up all threads of educators who included those terms in their tweets (posts). I started typing in different hashtags and found some educators using “#jed21” in their tweets. It turned out #jed21 stood for “Jewish Education in the 21st Century.” There were posts by a few Jewish educators, and organizations and a variety of 21st century learning topics.

A thought occurred to me: What if a hashtag were created that could link all stakeholders of Jewish education from all over the world? The resulting synergy would be so powerful with the potential to change how PD in Jewish education worked. I discovered two other educators in my PLN (Rabbi Akevy Greenblatt, principle of Ohr Chadash Academy in Baltimore, and Rabbi Dov Emerson, assistant principal of DRS-HALB in the Five Towns, New York) who were also chewing on the same idea.

We got together on a Google hangout (a video conferencing tool I learned about through my PLN) and after a few minutes we realized we were all very much on the same page. We came up with the hashtag “#Jedchat” for Jewish education chat. This hashtag would be used for everything Jewish education related. Additionally, every Wednesday night at 9pm EST there would be a conversation held on Twitter supporting a topic educators would vote on. The “#Jedchat” would have moderators to lead the discussions, with educators engaged actively or simply reading the threads but not commenting on them.

We started Jedchat right after Sukkot in 2011. Our first Jedchat had over 40 participants on it from all over the country and Israel, including Jewish educators from all persuasions of Judaism. Many conversation threads were archived so educators could review later and click on links that shared education articles and class materials. Obviously thrilled, we realized how powerful a PLN could be leveraging social media. Since then, Jedchat has continued to be a clearinghouse for Jewish educators, schools and organizations on Twitter. Jewish and secular educators from all over the country (and Israel) are connecting and collaborating with educators in their #Jedchat PLN. Relationships have been forged, synergy has been produced and, God willing, deeper authentic learning experiences have been promoted in the classroom.

Nings, Edmodo and Jedchat are just a few examples of the power harnessed through a PLN. I urge you to try it out for a month. In fact, feel free to be a part of my PLN: my Twitter handle is @RabbiWex.♦

Rabbi Meir Wexler is the co-founder of the hashtag #Jedchat, a global professional learning community for all Jewish education stakeholders; he is the upper school technology coordinator and teaches middle school Judaic studies classes at the Scheck Hillel Community School in Miami. You can tweet him @RabbiWex.

HaYidion: Cover of the Networking issue
Jerry Issak-Shapiro
RAVSAK is the organizational embodiment of Klal Yisrael; it’s a genuine Big Tent.”
Jerry Isaak-Shapiro, Head of School
Agnon School

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