P Gallagher Assignment 2

Twitter – A New Vision for Old Professional Development

Peter Gallagher


Introduction
The education of the child is one of the most important missions of society today and in most cultures this tack is left solely in the hands of teachers. It is therefore imperative that we ensure that teachers are both knowledgeable and fluent in 21st century teaching pedagogies so as to provide students with relevant and up to date teaching methods (White, 2013). In order to help teachers develop and maintain this toolbox of skills, it is important for them to realise that they do not need to do this in isolation, because in fact there are countless others teachers around the world grappling with these same issues. It is therefore essential that these colleagues from around the globe have a medium by which to converse, share ideas and issues. Ferguson (2010, p. 13) believes that all teachers need someone who can “guide your learning, point you to learning opportunities, answer your questions, and give you the benefit of their own knowledge and experience.

This paper will investigate the benefits of a Personal Learning Network (PLN), as well as the procedure for setting up such a network so as to assist teachers to connect to other colleagues through the use of Twitter. The accompaniment to the paper is a short presentation that was delivered to a group of staff during a curriculum meeting at John Paul College, Daisy Hill Queensland. Through the use of the College’s lecture theatre, the presentation was delivered and feedback from the audience was sought to improve the resource. This feedback from staff was then used to refine the presentation in terms of: having a more engaging start to the presentation, including some transition/animation to the text and break up the content so that it is not too dense, reinforce the content by embedding some “how to” videos, and have a twitter theme to the whole presentation. Following refinement, the goal is to present the resource to the entire Senior School staff at a combined staff meeting to be held in early August, 2015, with the hope of informing the understanding of the staff about the educational benefits of a PLN.

What is a Personal Learning Network?
Defined as a Personal Learning Network or Professional Learning Network (PLN) to some and a Professional Learning Community (Nelson, 2012) to others, both are, in essence, “a group of people, any people, that can help you learn” (Peachey, 2011). Davis (2013, p. 1) refines this simplistic explanation further when describing a PLN as “a self-directed network of professionals from various occupational fields whose members hold common interests with the intent of sharing ideas and resources, collaborating, and providing support with the purpose of enhancing personal and professional learning”. Traditionally in education this professional learning has taken place in a formal, structured format, where teachers meet face to face to brainstorm and collaborate on their practice. Technology now facilitates being a connected educator without even leaving the classroom. The virtues of creating such a virtual connection are espoused by Ronnie Burt’s ‘Edublog’, one of which being, “No matter where you are in the world, there’s always someone online available to answer questions, share their expertise, and simply chat about what’s happening in their lives and classrooms” (2014, para. 3).

This vision of a network of likeminded educationalists therefore allows any user to develop and maintain a network which is personal to them and conversely personal to their development as a teacher, for as LaGarde and Whitehead (2012, p. 9) found “most educators can trace the spark that began their PLNs to an initial quest for information, a hand reached out for support, or a plea for help in solving a real and immediate problem”. Torres Kompen, Edirishigha and Mobbs (2008, p. 3) see a Professional Learning Network as having “the potential to not only support lifelong learning, but to bring together all forms of learning, including formal and informal, occurring at the same time”. These ideas of continuous learning and networking for teachers are seen as crucial to the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) who describe teachers in the 21st century as “lifelong learners who are members of learning communities” (Rajab, 2012, para. 2).

To be lifelong learners then, teachers today need to be able to draw upon various resources not only for the important task of educating their students, but also to educate themselves. Couros (2010) encapsulates these various resources in his “The Networked Teacher”, where the diagram “describes an individual’s connectivity through participation in social media activities (e.g., blogging, wikis, social networking), and the arrows represent both the consumption and production of content” (2010, p. 124).

Davis (2013) takes this vision of a networked teacher further, articulating “it is important [for educators] to not only be aware of the tools being used, but also build and use a Professional Learning Network to continually learn the newest technologies” (p. 9). Unfortunately, a survey conducted by Pegg, Reading and Williams (2007) concluded that “teachers in Australia remained largely sceptical about the use of ICT (Information and Communications Technology)” (p. 61). This view is further corroborated by Bate, Day and Macnish (2013, p. 14), when discussing the use of technology in the professional development of teachers, found that “there is widespread consensus in the literature indicating that teachers tend not to take full use of these opportunities”.

Benefits of a PLN for educators

Numerous writers (Alderton, Brusnell and Bariexca, 2011; Trust, 2012; Little, 1993; Wenger, 1998) have promoted the benefits of teachers either participating in, or developing their own Professional Learning Network, for as Elliot (2010, p. 48) espouses “ to be effective teachers in this new environment, we need to be able to share the experience of learning and take advantage of the excitement within the global learning environment”. Howlett (2011, 2011) concurs with this idea saying teachers are able to “bounce ideas, seek and give support and advice” (p.17).

When investigating why educators around the world have developed their own Professional Learning Network, researchers have found these same common themes emerge. Alderton et al. (2011, p. 1), in a study of one hundred K-12 teachers, found that “over 82% of the time, the educators chose to follow other educators or content experts related to their fields … to create a PLN meaningful to their needs”.
Alderton et al. (2011, p. 6) also discovered from the respondents that the benefits of a PLN are “access to resources, supportive relationships, increased leadership capacity and development of a professional vision”.

These themes are also supported by the research of Tamra Davis (203, p. 6) whose 238 respondents, when asked of the most important features of a PLN, listed:

  • being connected and able to interact with multiple people
  • 24/7 availability to the network
  • diversity of the people in the network
  • currency of the people in the network
  • the supportive atmosphere of the network
  • the ease of use/simplicity of the network

Further examination of the research also points to a major benefit of a Professional Learning Network in terms of the benefits it can deliver to the continuous professional development of teachers, for as Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin (1995, p. 1) state “teachers need professional development that extends far beyond the one-shot workshop”. This opinion is sustained by Visser, Evering and Barrett who contends, conventional models of professional development tend to be one-time events with little or no follow-up, are costly, cover material and skills that are frequently disconnected from practice, and no not necessarily contribute to the teacher’s repertoire of skills and often do not focus on improving instruction. (2014, p. 397)

In response to this dilemma, Visser et al. (2014, p. 410) then proffers a solution, maintaining that the use of a professional learning network “affords a teacher the autonomy to self-select the professional development that can best improve their knowledge, practice, and sense of purpose”. Bennett and Wiebrands support the use of a professional learning network, finding it can, help towards alleviating costs of training and the isolation of staff working at a distance from colleagues, fills the gaps between institutional training and day to day expressed needs and enhance and encourage lifelong learning skills in the profession. In some cases, professional learning network could also help …gain skills in areas where formal training is not yet available. (2010, p. 6)

Many of the ideas shown previously in figure 1, The Networked Teacher, revolve around the use of digital technologies to enhance a teacher’s network. Teachers who establish and connect to professional learning networks may also gain an added benefit of making themselves more desirable for future advancement. Johnson, Levine, Smith and Smythe, authors of The Horizon Report (2009) found that “increasingly, those who use technology in ways that expand their global connections are more likely to advance, while those who do not will find themselves in the sidelines”. Davis (2013, p. 1) also sees this benefits, stating “to have thousands of fellow minds in your pocket via a mobile device is to have an immensely unfair advantage over humans who think alone”.

The list of tools available to develop a professional learning network is quite extensive, with sites like Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, LinkedIn, Ning, Scribd, Delicious, Classroom 2.0 and edublogs, all offering various features to support teachers in their online networks. Betty Ray, Director of Programming and Innovation at Edutopia, concedes that:

For many people, Twitter conjures up the worst of the internet: disjointed, meaningless phrases, unrecognizable abbreviations, and endless drivel about where someone's getting their double mocha today” however she implores teachers to persevere “for the inquisitive educator, there are some jewels herein that can lead to stimulating discussions, new resources, and an ongoing supportive network. You just have to know where to look. (2012, para. 1)

Why use Twitter?

Similar to other blogging sites available on the Internet, Twitter allows its users to freely post their thoughts and ideas to the world. Although, unlike traditional blogging sites, a tweet is considered to be a ‘microblog’, as the entry cannot be more than 140 characters in length (Visser, et al, 2014, p. 397). With over 302 million monthly active users and 500 million Tweets sent per day (Twitter, 2015), there are a considerable number of publications that posit Twitter as an excellent tool to develop and maintain a Professional Learning Network (Mulatiningsih, Partridge, & Davis, 2013, p. 213). Khan (2012, p. 55) believes that “establishing a Personal Learning Network on Twitter is like having access to a virtual classroom of unlimited potential”.

Anderson (2011, para. 2) echoes Ray’s sentiment about the pitfalls of Twitter when he acknowledges that “a simple search of a few key words will reveal a world of misfits, narcissists, and even sometimes worse”. However, Alderton et al (2011, p. 2) finds that “there are various personal account articles that have been written about the benefits of Twitter in relation to the sharing of ideas and professional development”. In fact, Visser et al. (2014, p. 410) found “that professional development through a PLN seems to be the main reason that teachers use Twitter”. Ferguson (2010, p. 13) further supports the argument for the use Twitter within a personal learning network saying it assists “strangers come together to create a community built on communication and collaboration dedicated to making learning and education the best it can be”. Perhaps the potential use of Twitter in an educational contexts can best be surmised by Khan (2012, p. 55), “Twitter, however badly or boringly other people may use it, if used well, it can be a hugely significant online space for educators to connect, discuss, and share information”.

Setting and using a PLN on Twitter

Before rushing off to setup your professional learning network on Twitter, it is useful to heed the words of warning offered by Hadley Ferguson (2010, p. 13), “the first thing to know in developing a PLN on Twitter takes a commitment – not necessarily a big one, but it does take some time”. Elliot (2010, p. 49) concurs with this cautionary advice, believing “without doubt, spending time online is essential if you are to build the technical and social skills to operate in confidence”. Sheryl Nussbaum-beach, co-founder and Chief Executive Officer of Powerful Learning Practice has been retweeted as likening Twitter to a river:
It is always flowing by. Sometimes I just want to dip my toes in and I spend 10 minutes or so reading a few tweets. Other times, I might want to wade in a bit and I will follow a # conversation and be on for a little longer. Then there are the times I want to dive in and swim. I'll spend an hour or so delving into a deep conversation with one or several people. (Johnson, 2013, para. 5)

Therefore once you have decided to take the plunge, here are a few simple steps to establishing yourself:

  1. Setup an account: this may seem very simple; just go to www.twitter.com, enter in your details and you are away. However, be sure to choose an account name, or Twitter handle, that is professional, unique to you, and one you will be happy to keep for years to come. Word of advice to those teachers who are not early adopters of technology; do not make it too long, as you only have 140 characters to tweet and you do not want to waste characters on your own handle!
  2. Set up your professional profile: other users will look at your profile to establish your ‘credentials’ and decide whether to follow you. Be sure to include information about your education interests, classes/subjects you teach and topics you may wish to gain further information about. Spend time thinking about what you want to use the account for and what you want to share with the world.
  3. Start following: one of the great benefits of Twitter is the ease by which you can find others with similar interests to you and ‘follow’ them by connecting to the writings. In this way you can connect to other educators without actually having to converse with them to begin with.
  4. Remember the five C’s: Gunton and Davis (2012) suggest the following when delving into the world of Twitter – connect, communicate, collaborate, create and consume. These being activities which are seen as “core functions of learning communities” (Mulatiningsih et al., 2013, p. 212).
  5. Tweet better with tags: make better connections with more users by incorporating a hashtag (#) to mark a keyword or topic in a tweet, the ‘at’ symbol (@) to link to another user, and a retweet to pass along a message or information posted by another user to acknowledge them as the source
  6. Join a Twitter Chat: unlike a tweet which can be made and viewed at any time of the day or night, a Twitter Chat is when a conversation takes place in ‘real time’ between educators where ideas and suggestions are made more in the form of a conversation. Twitter Chats are usually scheduled and may last up to an hour. Popular education chats include #edchat and #aussieED, however a simple Internet search would find literally dozens of more.
  7. Organise yourself: making use of a program like Tweetdeck (https://tweetdeck.twitter.com) will help to organise your Twitter feed, notifications, messages, activity and more.

Now you are firmly established in the ‘Twittersphere’, maintaining an active profile in your PLN is essential. Lisa Perez, in her article Innovative Professional Development (2009, p. 22) suggests the following management tips:

  • Manage your PLN actively – spend 5 to 10 minutes a day
  • Don’t try to read everything – you just won’t have time!
  • Don’t lurk; give back to others – PLNs function best when everyone contributes
  • Post comments that are professional – hence the name Professional Learning Network.
  • Use mobile devices – these will provide greater and instantaneous access.

By taking time to connect with colleagues virtually on Twitter, you can ‘grow and nourish your personal learning network’ (Edutopia, 2011, para. 5)

Conclusion

The purpose of this paper and additional presentation was to assist teachers in firstly recognising the benefits of a PLN to their own professional toolbox, as well as assisting them to create and maintain such a network via Twitter. Teachers must remain always willing to embrace new technologies into their teaching pedagogy and continue to be lifelong learners, for as Davis (2013, p. 6) asserts “When an individual becomes part of a learning network, the potential for growth in learning is unlimited” and for these fearless educators, making a foray into the edtech world, Twitter is an excellent learning network for connecting, sharing, consuming and learning.


References
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