Traditionally, formal educational institutions have held the power of knowledge and, thus, have been relied upon for the development of knowledge and understanding about any given topic. Be it structured educational courses that lead to formal qualifications, expert-led conferences or workshops for professional development, or formalised work experience, formal education was traditionally relied upon for knowledge gains. The rigid structure of such learning opportunities, however, often fails to acknowledge the complexities of the learner themselves; for example, the pace at which they learn, their learning style preferences, their interests and hobbies, and the time demands they face in their everyday lives. As such, Tour (2017b) suggests that “Existing formal models of professional learning are often criticised for being ineffective” as they failed to meet the needs of the consumer, resulting in a failure to promote continuous learning beyond the formal learning event. The knowledge transmission model that traditional formal learning encapsulates limits authentic learning experiences as it encourages “… a passive role of the learners leading to a superficial level of learning” (Tour, 2017a) In doing so, information is often presented in a static and fragmented way, failing to acknowledge the importance of learning connections for deeper understanding. In contrast, the advent of Web 2.0, however, has changed the way that people learn. By opening up a world of information, breaking down cultural and geographical barriers, and allowing for not only the consumption, but also the curation and sharing of knowledge, Web 2.0 has pushed learning beyond the realms of the formal institution. “The evolution of the Internet opened access to different materials, courses, teachers, experts and other learners allowing people to engage in learning with comparatively few restrictions” (Tour, 2017a). Whilst there are numerous and varied positive implications as a result, there are also challenges that Web 2.0 consumers may encounter, all of which will be discussed through my personal reflections of the development and maintenance of my Personal Learning Network (PLN) as a secondary teacher with interests in the use of educational technology for higher order thinking.
PLNs, according to Luo et.al. (2017) are “…network[s] operated by an individual specifically to engage in professional activities through online platforms intended to support professional non–formal learning needs”. Tour (2017b) adds to this by suggesting that PLNs are generally “related to an individual’s hobbies and interests and can be facilitated via technology, face-to-face or a combination of both”. By utilising a variety of learning techniques and technologies, people are afforded the opportunity to access open pedagogies that encourage a participatory culture within connected environments (Peters et.al., 2011).
Peters et.al. (2011) asserts that “Open pedagogies are characterized by several important aspects, including the ideology of openness in its philosophic, social and psychological aspects, the provision of open educational resources, and open teaching and learning conditions”. As such, open pedagogies serve to address the inequities experienced by individuals as a result of socioeconomic standing, geographical location, learning needs and time restraints when attempting to access the formal education environment (Ito et.al., 2013; Peters et.al., 2011). “While more individuals have the ability to learn and interact in public discourses, education can achieve [greater] equality” (Peters et.al., 2011). Furthermore, open pedagogies allow for an equal level of participation within the learning environment, as identity, professional position and level of education need not be divulged, thereby negating power differences within the network. Tour (2017a) supports this notion by stating “It is important to provide more possibilities for teachers to assume an active role in their learning and be both ‘learners’ and ‘experts’ when participating in professional learning. This approach is likely to encourage more active and reciprocal learning”.
Reciprocal learning within a PLN is of vital importance, and is only possible if an adequate participatory culture has been curated (Tour, 2017a; Zhang et.al., 2016). Zhang et.al. (2016) define “…a well-designed community of practice as allowing for participation in group discussion or one-on-one dialogues, exposure to new ideas, or observations of experts addressing cutting-edge issues”. Concurrently, Zheng et.al. (2016) “accentuate the importance of engaging learners as legitimate partners in collective participation and social dynamics in scientific inquiry”. Consequently, the synchronous environment that is created by online learning networks allows for both the gathering and production of information, leading to understanding beyond the superficial learning that is often promoted in content-heavy, time-poor, formal education settings. Therefore, the participatory culture of a learning environment allows members to move “toward opportunities for critical engagement, user-generated content projection or active participation” (Zheng et.al., 2016), resulting in deeper, more meaningful learning.
So as to further deepen understanding, a connected learning environment is key. Ito et.al. (2013) believes that Connected Learning “…seeks to build communities and collective capacities for learning and opportunity”. Ito et.al. (2013) further suggest that Connected Learning successfully occurs when “…people find peers who share interests, when …institutions recognize and make interest-driven learning relevant…, and when community institutions provide resources and safe spaces for more peer-driven forms of learning”. Harlan (2016) builds on the work of Ito et.al. (2013) by suggesting that Connected Learning is most successful when it is “peer supported, interest driven, academically oriented, production centered, based on a shared purpose and openly networked”. In ensuring that a PLN involves multiple streams of information gathering and production systems, is tailored to personal needs, is recognised as legitimate and valuable by employers, is open and accessible, embodies a participatory culture and is peer-supported, a Connected Learning environment may be achieved. When such circumstances are achieved, learning is more likely to be deeper and translate more readily to a desire for lifelong learning (Peters et.al., 2011; Luo, 2017; Santos, 2012; Sie et.al., 2013; Tour 2017a; Tour 2017b; Zhang et.al., 2016).
Reflection: My Own Personal Learning Network Experience
As an educator, I am constantly in search of ways to improve my practice for the benefit of my peers and my students. As digital technologies continue to emerge and evolve, I have developed a keen interest in how educational technologies can be leveraged to promote higher order thinking. A number of years ago, my desire to grow as an educator led me to develop my own PLN, as my immediate colleagues did not share the same passion for educational transformation as I did. As I channelled the characteristics of a self-directed sharer (Oddone, 2018), I felt the need to look to workshops, short courses, conferences and online networks to further enhance my knowledge and satisfy my desire for growth (refer Figure 1). The outcomes of my self-sourced PLN have been numerous and varied, with many opportunities, successes and challenges emerging as a result of my personal learning journey. Whilst I’m now content with my PLN, I will continue to reflect on my own needs as an educator, and will continue to refine my PLN to suit my needs.
Figure 1: A Concept Map of my Personal Learning Network: https://drive.google.com/file/d/1jfzIl8GEbnN845XVkMoo64sdg1KArCGq/view?usp=sharing
In reflecting upon my PLN, I am drawn first and foremost to the opportunities that open pedagogies has provided me. With open access to a variety of information sources relevant to my area of interest, I was afforded the opportunity to learn beyond the restrictions imposed on me by workshop availability, time release, geographical location and the expertise of my work colleagues. Open pedagogies has allowed me to pursue interest-driven learning at my own pace, in my own time, at a location of my choosing, in a format that suits my learning style. By engaging with open pedagogies, I have also become part of a number of virtual learning communities, which have brought with them their own benefits and learning opportunities.
Virtual Learning Communities (VLC) enable knowledge beyond that which is possible through individual learning, and “emerge naturally when humans follow the rather natural tendency to gather with others to solve common problems, documenting and placing value on the knowledge that is gained during these processes” (Santos, 2012). As part of my PLN, I engage with a number of VLCs through social media sites in a manner in line with Oddone’s (2019) theory of linking, whereby I find small ways to improve my practice through the inspiration I gain through my network. Twitter, Facebook and YouTube have formed the tools with which I have built my online presence, as they are rich in content relating to my area of interest, are user friendly, breakdown geographical barriers, allow for flexible use depending on my circumstances, enable a participatory culture with like-minded people, and allow me to engage with other professionals without the restrictions placed on me by my professional position (Sie et.al., 2013). As a professional with leadership responsibilities within a highly successful school in Brisbane, I am often limited to helping others solve problems and grow professionally, whilst being bound by the traditional methods encouraged by my employer and restricted to the network of my peers both within my organisation and within close geographical location to me. My involvement with Twitter, Facebook and YouTube (refer Figure 2) allow me to overcome these restrictions and enable an environment where I can seek advice and support, gather information, and curate products of knowledge in a way that suits me (Czerkawski, 2016). Tour (2017a) supports this notion, by suggesting that “In this form of learning, traditional markers of status and authority do not exist” and that “Spontaneous and self-initiated learning online is also informed by the logic of distributed expertise. In digital spaces, all users contributed to knowledge, and they enacted both roles of teachers and learners” (Tour, 2017a). Moreover, Tour (2017b) “observed voluntary and purposeful learning amongst adults who used social media: people formed networks to support each other in learning”.
Figure 2: Examples of my social media presence and use of social media networks
The supportive environment of my PLN is borne out of the participatory culture it embodies. For example, within a Tweetstorm (a live, synchronous chat about a pre-defined topic), I am able to participate by reading others' responses to gather information (in the form of Learner), respond to others' ideas with my own interpretation of a topic (a mix between Learner and Expert), and produce content for meaningful contribution (the role of Expert) (Sie et.al., 2013; Zhang et.al., 2016). With Facebook, I am able to gather information from my newsfeed, ask fellow professionals for advice or resources, and share information that may be of interest to my network. Meanwhile, YouTube allows me to curate content-driven resources for my students, and instructional-style resources for my peers, whilst allowing me quick access to information in a way that I can personalise (i.e. by pausing and seeking further information on a concept presented in a YouTube clip). Whilst I appreciate the positive aspects afforded by the participatory environment, it is fair to say that it has come with some challenges.
By allowing open interaction within a VLC via social media, an abundance of information may be exchanged in a brief period of time. Information overload has been an issue I have had to contend with as, at times, the accessibility of a vast variety of extremely valuable information has been overwhelming. This is supported by Luo et.al. (2017) who noted that people who “utilized an interactive HTML-formatted text, image and animation messaging system [for personal learning] engaged in a higher volume of instantaneous interaction”. Moreover, Luo et.al. (2017) found that “microblogging can lead to an unwieldy information flow, known as information overload due to the overwhelming amount of information that students encountered in a short time span”. Such situations result in participants finding difficulty in tracking conversations, resulting in diminished learning outcomes (Luo et.al., 2017). Such critical incidents have resulted in me seeking less popular chat forums to participate in via synchronous means. To ensure I still gain information from the busier chats (which involve more rigorous, critical, in-depth conversation from a larger variety of ‘experts’), I utilise the hashtag search function (specifically, #edtech, #aussieed, and #PhysEd) after the synchronous chat has ceased. This allows me to track the information at my own pace in a more static environment, whilst still gaining the insights of a large number of ‘expert’ colleagues. Moreover, this affords me the opportunity to connect this information with previously-acquired knowledge in order to interpret, analyse and evaluate the content of the Twitterstorm – cognitive activities that are not always possible in the chaos of the synchronous chat (Luo et.al., 2017).
Another issue that I have encountered as a result of being part of a global PLN is the tendency to work more than I previously have. With information streaming in twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, it has been all too easy to become immersed in the information presented within my PLN at the expense of work-life balance. This is in line with Tour’s (2017a) findings, whereby “constant access to resources and networks encouraged the participants to work more”. Initially, checking a social media notification on my mobile device was considered convenient and easily accessible, however, as is the nature of continuously evolving educational topics, it was often necessary to click beyond a single social media post to go in search of deeper understanding of any given subtopic within my area of interest. As a result, I found the need to disable my social media notifications so that the temptation to access information as soon as it was available was diminished. This has created its own challenges and altered my digital identity, as I am far less interactive and consistent with my posts than I was previously, resulting in less visibility and fewer impressions and engagements through Twitter specifically (refer Figure 3). Moreover, this has had a negative impact on my participatory approach and networked learning, amongst other things (refer Figure 4). However, by removing this temptation, I now schedule time to check in with my VLC by browsing my social media feeds at set times during the week that don’t impact on my work-life balance. This has made my PLN more manageable given the busyness of my personal schedule.
Figure 3: Twitter engagements following the critical incident.
Figure 4: Personal engagement with PLN in accordance with Oddone’s (2018) criteria for PLN participation.
Further to the issue of information overload is the difficulty in forming meaningful professional relationships within my online networks (refer Figure 4). As I follow groups and professionals who share an interest in educational technology for the promotion of higher order thinking, I have become a global connectivist, and in doing so (purposely) neglected to seek information about where these like-minded professionals live. As such, I find that those who live in close proximity to each other form greater connections, leaving me at the margins of some networks due to my geographical isolation, as my network connections often reside overseas or in other states of Australia. Tour (2017b) identified “face-to-face contact as an important part of networked learning because it helps to build trust and to create a feeling of belonging”. As such, whilst I appreciate the diverse range of opinions I encounter as a result of my global network, I am also more conscious now to involve professionals from Brisbane within my VLCs. This then enhances my PLN, as I am afforded a more blended way of learning, which serves to enhance the connectivity of my learning environment, and encourage continuous engagement with learning (Tour, 2017a).
Finally, the connected nature of my PLN has been extremely beneficial. By including a variety of learning opportunities where I can take on the roles of both the learner and the expert, I am able to make greater connections between key concepts and form beneficial networking contacts. From Facebook and Twitter where I mostly gather information, to YouTube where I curate products of knowledge, to conferences, blogs and vlogs where I solidify my learning by teaching others has resulted in a deeper understanding of my area of interest. As such, the benefits to my practice have been numerous. Sadly, however, whilst there are ‘academic links’ to the Connected Learning environment within my PLN, my employer does not formally recognise this form of professional development as legitimate, still requiring more traditional, static, asynchronous, ‘one shot’ approaches to professional learning to meet the conditions of my employment. Tour (2017b) suggests that it is important to acknowledge “digital technologies as contributing to a shift in the balance between official and unofficial learning. Teachers consider their voluntary learning online as an important and legitimate form of professional learning”. With a new principal starting this year, however, the ‘tradition for the sake of tradition’ notion that is widely accepted within my organisation may be challenged, and more contemporary ideas of professional development may be a consideration.
Throughout my PLN journey, I have learnt a lot about myself and the way in which I learn. If my employer was to promote PLNs as an effective, legitimate and recognised form of professional development, there are a number of issues that will require careful consideration prior to its promotion.
1. I strongly believe that the highly connected PLN, utilising a blended approach to learning including globalised VLCs in combination with face-to-face learning options yields the most effective learning gains. Tour (2017a) supports this by claiming that “professional learning across different digital spaces as well as across virtual and physical domains… may help to make professional learning more engaging and, importantly, relevant to teachers”.
2. In order to make the most of the dynamic nature of communities of practice within social media domains, it is vital that both digital and network literacies be heavily promoted, taught, supported and modelled. Elliott (2009) claims that working within a VLC requires a unique set of skills, requiring participants to “develop proficiency with the tools of technology; build relationships with others to pose and solve problems collaboratively and cross-culturally; design and share information for global communities to meet a variety of purposes; manage, analyse and synthesise multiple streams of simultaneous information; create, critique, analyse, and evaluate multi-media texts; and attend to the ethical responsibilities required by these complex environments”. Moreover, Cho & Jimerson (2017) warn that involvement in VLCs comes with its own inherent risks, as “being in the public eye has a panoptic effect on the ways in which leaders express themselves”. As such, learning opportunities must be presented to teachers regarding the development of digital and networked literacies prior to encouraging a PLN with integrated VLCs.
3. So as to ensure that superficial learning is avoided, critical reflection practices must be encouraged. The use of fast-paced, high volume social media sites as part of a PLN can encourage surface learning if not utilised appropriately (Sie et.al., 2013). Liu (2015), Patahuddin and Lowrie (2015) and Lin et.al. (2011) each propose that transformative learning requires critical reflection for it to be effective. Consequently, when promoting the development of PLNs within a learning organisation, critical reflection practices must be taught as part of the professional development that is required for successful participation in such.
4. The formal education system needs to recognise involvement in self-directed PLNs as a legitimate and meaningful form of professional development for its employees. By encouraging, enabling and fostering the use of PLNs by staff, greater knowledge gains may be achieved. Tour (2017b) suggests that “informal and self-initiated forms of learning have been recently recognised as meaningful and relevant” by participants, with self-directed, interest-driven learning yielding (at times) greater gains than that of traditional professional learning.
The use of networked learning within both VLCs and in face-to-face forums in a Connected Learning PLN has the potential to generate deep, meaningful and long term learning for its participants. The self-directed, interest-driven, collaborative nature of PLNs which allow for the participant to be both the learner and the expert as they gather and curate information encourages greater engagement of its participants, thereby eliciting longer term gains. A number of issues, however, must be considered prior to promoting highly networked PLNs within an organisation so as to avoid information overload, encourage positive digital identity, enable successful networking interactions within the virtual learning environment, and promote deeper thinking and understanding about any given topic. When these issues are addressed, the success of the PLN is greatly enhanced.
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