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Building a Personal Learning Network (PLN) on a Budget
by Rehab Rajab

Educators, just like people in other professions, have found ways to use the resources around them to acquire new skills and stay up-to-date with developments in the profession. With knowledge being constantly redefined due to the Internet revolution, it is now mandatory for educators to develop mechanisms to keep up. But as a result of current cuts in professional development (PD) budgets, this task requires developing new skills.

In order to cope with these changes, a teacher needs to become what Couros (2010) called a Networked Teacher (Fig 1), which is achieved by developing 21st century skills and building a strong personal learning network (PLN). The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) describes 21st century teachers as lifelong learners who are members of learning communities.


Fig 1. The Networked Teacher, Couros (2010)

What’s a PLN?
Sloep (2008) defined a learning network (LN) as “a particular kind of online, social network that is designed to support (non-formal) learning in a particular domain” (p. 3) and Peachey (2011) defined a PLN as “a group of people, any people, that can help you learn.” He added that at the heart of the PLN are “the people who connect together to help each other grow and learn.” A PLN is, therefore, everyone and everything around us that we learn from. Having stated that, this article will only focus on building a PLN online by utilizing free tools and open-source applications.

Why Build a PLN?
There are many reasons to build a PLN:

  • Teachers, who are now required to prepare 21st century learners, need to develop their own 21st century skills.
  • Building a self-directed PLN online empowers teachers because it enables them to control when, how, where, and who to connect with. 
  • Building a PLN is free of cost, which makes it a perfect option for PD on a shoestring, or limited, budget.

How to Build a PLN
In order to build a PLN, set goals to join online communities, one step at a time, and be sure that one path will lead to another.

Dawn (2008) summarized an action plan for teachers to build their PLN, which included:

  • Join educational blogs and wikis
  • Look for free or low cost online resources
  • Consider online master’s programs
  • Consult experts in technology or master teachers in your school
  • Receive e-mail discussion lists
  • “Attend” online presentations and podcasts
  • Sign up for newsletters to be informed of upcoming seminars
  • Play with technology on your own time (p. 21)

All these Web 2.0 platforms make a more productive PLN. Organizing these resources can be difficult and time consuming; learning how to use aggregators or RSS readers such as iGoogle or Netvibes, which collect all RSS subscriptions in one place, can make the organization very simple.

The PLN building process doesn’t stop at receiving and reading what others share. As Bauer (2010) explained, “growing through a PLN does not come from only reading, watching, and listening to the creations of others. It is important to also take time to reflect on the resources examined” (p. 41). Most of these Web 2.0 platforms allow users to question, argue, evaluate, and critique the author’s content. Eventually, PLN creators share their own content with a larger network using a Web 2.0 sharing tool.

PLN Tools
Using Web 2.0 tools doesn’t require high level of technological competency. All a teacher needs to learn is how to sign up for free accounts and explore free online tutorials if needed.

Blogs
Blog authors can write about and publish their opinions, reviews, pedagogical thoughts, and successful practices. Teachers can find educational blogs listed in directories such as Technorati, OnTopList and BestBlogs or through Google Blog Search. Blog readers become part of the conversation as they post their reflections in comments.

Wikis
As practical collaboration platforms, wikis have been used as anchors for information on topics such as “21st Century Skills for Teachers” and teaching and learning theories such as “Educational Origami,” which provides new digital perspectives on Bloom’s Taxonomy. Some wikis, such as “Educational Wikis,” are used as directories built collaboratively by many people who add links and reviews of websites.

Every page on a wiki includes a discussion board. This enables users to be involved in threaded conversations. Search engines such as Wiki.com and Qwika are dedicated to searching for wikis. Teachers who wish to contribute to existing wikis on their PLN can request access to edit the content and so complete the cycle by providing input to their PLN. Being part of a team who collaborates on a wiki is a professional opportunity for growth in itself.

Twitter
For many educators who have established their PLNs, Twitter is the primary source to get updates from direct contacts, which empowers them as part of an active learning network. Twitter users follow thematic channels to get updates on shared topics of interest such as “#education” and “#EFL.” Edudemic recently published a useful list of educational hashtags.

Twitter is best viewed as a narrowcasting application where a user limits his network to follow the people who offer the best information. By selecting the themes and contacts, Twitter becomes a unique personalized learning environment.

Podcasts
According to Dawn (2008), “a podcast is the production of digital voices video files and the subsequent publishing and distribution of these files on the internet.” (p. 19) Teachers can find podcasts on directories such as Podcasts for Educators, Schools and Colleges and The Podcast Directory or subscribe to podcasts using podcast-catching applications such as iTunes, which has its own listings of podcasts categorized by topic.

Social Bookmarking Tools
Social bookmaking allows thousands of users to create online collections of links that are categorized thematically through tags. This way of organizing information makes it easy for like-minded users to locate links on shared topics of interest. Social bookmarking websites such as Delicious and Diigo allow users to bookmark links as private or public resources. Groups can be created on these platforms and so when users join a group on Diigo, such as “Educators” or “Teaching and Learning with Web 2.0,” they tap into collectively created lists of useful bookmarks.

Other Tools
Teachers should explore all platforms that can add value to their PLNs, such as:

  • Web-conferencing/webinars: These are online synchronous videoconferences hosted by experts. Most webinars get archived allowing for asynchronous access.
  • Ning: These social communities allow users to create their own social networks, such as “Classroom 2.0” and “The Educator’s PLN.”
  • Edmodo: These communities are growing collaboration platforms for educators who can share content and files.
  • Facebook groups/pages of teacher organizations and conferences: Unfortunately, Facebook groups’ pages are not RSS enabled, so teachers have to log into their Facebook accounts to plug into the network.
  • LinkedIn groups: These groups host threaded discussions and debates with options for the participants to comment on, rate, and flag the topics.
  • Online conferences: Online conferences offer many learning opportunities for teachers. Most of these events offer PD credits, among other services. The majority of online conferences for educators, such as K12 Online Conference and TESOL Electronic Village Online, are free.

If implemented well and organized effectively, a PLN becomes a thought-provoking and eye-opening professional development tool through which teachers not only find what they are looking for, but also realize what they should be looking for.


References

Bauer, W. I. (2010). Your personal learning network professional development on demand. Music  Educators Journal, 97(2), 37–42. doi: 10.1177/0027432110386383

Couros, A. (2010). Developing personal learning networks for open and social learning. In G. Veletsianos (Ed.), Emerging Technologies in Distance Education (pp. 109–128). Retrieved from http://www.aupress.ca/books/120177/ebook/06_Veletsianos_2010-Emerging_Technologies_in_Distance_Education.pdf

Dawn, C. (2008). Web 2.0 tools in the classroom…help! Literacies, Learning & Libraries, 1(1), 16–22.

Peachey, N. (2011, February 19). What’s a PLN, why build one and how?: Part 1  [Web log message]. Retrieved from http://www.teachingenglish.org.uk/blogs/nikpeachey/what’s-a-pln-why-build-one-how-part-1

Sloep, P. B. (2009). Fostering sociability in learning networks through ad-hoc transient communities. In M. Purvis & B. T. R. Savarimuthu (Eds.), Computer-Mediated Social Networking. First International Conference, ICCMSN 2008, LNAI 5322 (pp. 62–75). Heidelberg, Germany: Springer.

______________


Rehab Rajab is passionate about sharing innovative teaching ideas. She’s an advocate of technology integration in the classroom and considers herself a lifelong learner. Rehab has initiated and participated in many professional development activities for teachers in the UAE since 2006 through TESOL Arabia organization. Currently she is TESOL Arabia Vice President/President-Elect and she teaches EFL at the Applied Technology High School in Dubai. Twitter: @rehabrajab

Free Online Discussion: "$5.69 Professional Development"

For many teachers, funding for professional development is increasingly hard to come by. Are you using a personal learning network to guide your own learning, especially in challenging economic times?   Do you have other low-cost professional development ideas?

Join members of TESOL’s Professional Development Committee for a free online discussion via TESOL's Blog to share your questions, challenges, ideas, and effective practices with your colleagues in the field.


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Table of Contents
TC Homepage
Building a PLN on a Budget
Formative vs. Summative Assessment
A Glance at the Common Core
Teaching Coherence & Cohesion in Writing
Free Activities: Vocabulary
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