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Teacher's Corner: Personal Learning Networks (PLNs)
This month in the Teacher’s Corner, we will examine how to develop, maintain, and use a valuable group of connections – part of our personal learning network – for professional development purposes.

EFL teaching is not solitary work.  In addition to our interactions with students, we collaborate with peers, mentors, and other professional and personal contacts to ensure we continue to grow as teachers.  This month in the Teacher’s Corner, we will examine how to develop, maintain, and use this valuable group of connections – part of our personal learning network – for professional development purposes. 

What is a Personal Learning Network (PLN)?

PLNs are an essential part of lifelong learning for teachers.  A PLN consists of the people you informally learn from and share ideas with, as well as the resources, tools, and materials that support your learning.                
                                                                             
In the 21st century, an EFL teacher’s PLN usually includes both face-to-face and virtual professional connections.  Face-to-face PLN members might be people you know in your own teaching institution or from local, national, and international TEFL professional organizations.  Meanwhile, your PLN’s virtual components are not limited by time and geography.  You can access parts of your virtual network at anytime from anywhere using a variety of internet-based media and social networking tools.  These virtual tools allow you to instantly connect with teachers from around the globe and to access information you need to enhance your teaching.  


A strong PLN can enable you to:

  • Locate classroom resources and develop lesson ideas
  • Find solutions to challenges you face in the classroom
  • Locate research and news related to key TEFL/Applied Linguistics issues
  • Learn from experts and colleagues in the TEFL/Applied Linguistics field
  • Build your own digital literacy skills and learn how to integrate these skills in the classroom
  • Establish collaborations to conduct research or set up professional development opportunities

Finally, it is important to remember the “P” in “PLN.”  Unlike formal, structured professional development contexts like graded university courses, you decide which people and data sources to include in your PLN, as well as which tools to use to interact with your connections.  These decisions are shaped by your professional goals, the time you can dedicate to learning and sharing, and, occasionally, your access to and familiarity with different types of technology.   Therefore, your network will evolve as your professional development aims change and as new tools and resources become available.      

How do I build and maintain a PLN?

This month we will look at ways to establish and maintain your PLN.  In today’s highly connected world, the number of ways to collaborate with other teachers can seem overwhelming!  We will consider ways to be proactive about connecting with others in face-to-face settings, and we will also think about how to effectively and selectively engage with other teachers in virtual environments to meet your professional goals.  Let’s get ready to network!

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Developing Your Local Network: Face-to-Face OptionsExpand

Developing your Local Network: Face-To-Face options

As we’ve seen, personal learning networks (PLNs) can include both face-to-face and virtual connections. Developing collaborative face-to-face relationships with the teachers in your local area is an essential part of growing your PLN. 
EFL teachers in an educational institution often know each other from passing in the halls between classes and through formal training sessions sponsored by their school or institution.  Have you ever stopped to think about how you might extend these collegial relationships to meet your personal, informal learning goals?  That is, how can you work together with teachers from your institution, district, or region to exchange ideas about topics that you all agree are important to your classroom practice or to your professional knowledge base?

While time is a scare resource for teachers and the ideas below do require some effort to coordinate, the relationships you develop while collaborating with local contacts are priceless.  Since the connections are local, these PLN members will be aware of the unique issues and challenges teachers in your area face.  As you network, you will get to know these teachers and administrators on a deeper level, and you can provide each other mutual support and mentoring on a variety of topics during your careers.

Ideas:  Developing Connections in your Local Network

  1. Lunch and Learn
  2. Set up or attend a biweekly, monthly, or quarterly “lunch and learn” professional development gathering for EFL teachers.  Participants bring lunch to enjoy while learning about and discussing a topic of interest that can range from classroom management tips, lesson planning ideas, current research findings, teaching with technology, or managing new institutional or governmental requirements.  Group members can volunteer to lead a discussion or make a short presentation during future sessions.  You will get to know other teachers and learn what types of expertise and experience they have – valuable information for building your PLN!

    • Survey teachers in your school or area to see what topics they want to learn more about.  You can collect this information via e-mail, conversations or a sign-up sheet in the teachers’ break room, a newsletter article requesting feedback, or social media.
    • One source of content for your “lunch and learn” discussions could be an article from English Teaching Forum, a free journal for and by EFL professionals.  Be sure to check out the new Reader’s Guide section, available in the 2015 issues and beyond, which contains pre- and post-reading discussion questions for articles in the journal.
    • Work with your institution’s administrators to see if you can use an empty classroom or meeting room to host the event.  If not, consider meeting in a local library or coffee/tea shop.
    • Advertise the meeting through e-mail, your school newsletter, posters, or other means at least two weeks prior to the event.  Be sure make any needed materials, such as readings, available in advance.
    • Host the first meeting:  present introductory information, give a short presentation about the featured topic, and guide the discussion.  Ask for volunteers to sign up to facilitate future sessions. 
    • After the group is established, consider inviting guests, such as administrators or content-area teachers (e.g., mathematics or science teachers) to address specialty topics the group wants to know more about.
    • If lunchtime isn’t convenient for teachers, try setting up a regular “EFL Coffee (or Tea) Talk” group that meets before or after school.

  3. Peer Observation Groups
  4. Set up or participate in a group that conducts developmental peer observations.  Unlike formal, evaluation-oriented teaching observations, these sessions are cooperative and allow teachers to work together to examine their beliefs, attitudes, and practices related to EFL teaching and learning.  Participation is voluntary and the information participating teachers exchange is confidential.  Goals of peer observation include improving learning outcomes, fostering experimentation and self-awareness, and encouraging collaboration.  Members of a peer observation group develop trust and work together in a mutually respectful way.  The teachers you work with can become members of your PLN.

    For detailed information about conducting peer observations and setting up peer observation groups, see the 2014 Shaping the Way We Teach English webinar “Teachers Helping Teachers:  Peer Observation for Professional Development” by Heather Benucci.  “Observation Tools for Professional Development, ” a 2015 English Teaching Forum article by Kathleen Malu, is another helpful resource.

  5. Action Research Groups
  6. Action research is a reflection-oriented, systematic approach to identifying and exploring problematic areas in our teaching practice.  The data that are collected and analyzed during the action research process allow teachers to make informed decisions about improving the way they teach.  Action research can be carried out by single teachers or teachers working in groups to address a common issue.  An excellent way to grow your face-to-face PLN is to participate in a collaborative action research project or to establish or attend a group in which action researchers (practicing teachers) share their experiences and findings. 

    For more information about action research, see this 2007 English Teaching Forum article, “Reflection as a Necessary Condition for Action Research,” by Bettiana Blázquez.  You can follow many of the steps described in the “Lunch and Learn” section above to establish a group of teachers interested in action research.

  7. Mini-Conferences
  8. Coordinate or participate in a small conference in your school or district to meet and learn from other local EFL teachers.  You can think of mini-conferences as extended “lunch and learn” sessions in that they are less formal and lower-stakes than larger professional association conferences.  This type of conference can last for as little as two hours to a full day and features short presentations (30 minutes or less).  Apart from providing opportunities to meet new people or reconnect with existing PLN contacts, mini-conferences are a great way exchange ideas about locally important issues and for participants to build confidence to present at larger conferences. 

    For more about mini-conference benefits and a step-by-step guide to organizing a mini-conference, see this 2005 English Teaching Forum article, “The Mini Conference: Creating Localized Opportunities for Professional Development,” by Brad Tipka.

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Building Your PLN Through Professional Support Networks and AssociationsExpand

So far this month, we’ve examined how to expand your personal learning network (PLN) through local face-to-face connections in your school or district.  This week we will look at how involvement in professional support networks and associations can contribute to your PLN.  Many of this week’s ideas are drawn from Alice Murray’s 2010 English Teaching Forum article “Empowering Teachers through Professional Development.”

Professional support networks for EFL educators often include teachers from several schools or organizations in a community, region, or country.  These networks may vary in terms of size and specific goals, but they are all designed to help EFL teachers exchange ideas, share information, and mentor each other.  Over time, if membership grows and the network is well organized and governed, these support networks may become formal professional associations.  These associations can apply to become professional associations that are affiliated with (recognized by and linked to) major national or international TEFL organizations.

Larger professional associations operate at regional, national, and international levels.  Two well-known international organizations for TEFL educators are the TESOL International Association (TESOL) and the International Association of Teachers of English as a Foreign Language (IATEFL).  Membership in international or national-level professional associations can help you connect with and learn from a diverse set of teachers from many locations, making your PLN truly global! PLN connections made through these groups can be both face-to-face and virtual.  (Note:  Joining a professional association usually involves a fee, but most organizations offer financial aid options, reduced fees for university students or new teachers, and travel grants and scholarships to ensure that all can participate regardless of income.)

Ideas:  Using Professional Support Network and Association Membership to develop and maintain your pln

  1. Join a professional support network or association and attend meetings, workshops, or conferences

    There are free several online resources that offer tips on how to get the most out of attending a workshop or conference.  Search for these online recommendations or attend a conference with an experienced member of your PLN to enhance your learning and networking opportunities at these events.
    Attending network or association events enables you to:

    • Learn who the international and local experts are on certain topics in the TEFL/Applied Linguistics field.  You will usually have the chance to meet these individuals, receive their contact details, and learn about their publications and online presence (blogs, social networking details, etc.).  You can then choose if and how to incorporate them into your PLN.
    • Sample current information on a variety of TEFL topics, focus on what interests you and affects your classroom practice, and network with those who share your interests.  You can follow up with these potential PLN members after the event.
    • Reconnect with members of your PLN that you haven’t seen or interacted with in a while.  You may also get to meet people that you have only interacted with online. These face-to-face events are a great way to refresh and maintain your network connections.
    • Learn about new tech tools and resources that can help you connect with other teachers.
    • Develop expertise you can share with members of your PLN who did not attend the event.  Perhaps you can lead a Lunch and Learn session, write a blog post or a newsletter article, or develop a mini-conference presentation about something new you learned at the event.  

    Note:  For tips on how to follow up with people that you meet at conferences or association events, check out Amy Pascucci’s 2015 Shaping the Way We Teach English webinar, “Networking:  Making Connections that Last.”

  2. Take on an active role in your network or association

    As you become a more confident, experienced network or association member, consider taking on a more active role.  Apart from the professional development benefits that come with accepting additional responsibility, you put yourself in a more visible position in the organization.  Therefore, other teachers may seek you out to become part of their PLNs (which also expands your personal network!).  Many of the opportunities listed below can be collaborative or involve interacting with organizational leaders, which provides additional chances to grow and maintain your PLN.
    Consider:

    • Sharing your expertise and classroom experiences by presenting at a conference or workshop
    • Writing an article or a teaching tip for an organizational newsletter
    • Participating in online or face-to-face discussion groups hosted by the organization
    • Volunteering at an organization event
    • Being a presentation proposal reader (evaluator) for a conference
    • Joining a committee or special interest group (“SIG,” a group focused on a TEFL specialty topic like Computer-aided Language Learning, Academic Writing, ESP, etc.)
    • Taking on a leadership role in the organization

  3. Encourage your association to make connections with other organizations

    You can also develop PLN contacts across regional or national borders and subject areas by encouraging your TEFL association to collaborate with other organizations:

    • Work with EFL teachers from other regions or neighboring countries by establishing association partnerships.  Partner TEFL organizations can share resources and host in-person or virtual joint conferences and events.  These exchange opportunities allow you to learn about shared or unfamiliar challenges and successes teachers experience in other places.  You can keep in touch with these new PLN contacts virtually and at future face-to-face joint events.
    • Collaborate with non-TEFL organizations that may have a shared interest in a key issue facing your organization.  For example, perhaps your country has announced a national initiative that requires university students to take all science courses in English.  Your TEFL organization could collaborate with a professional association focused on science education to develop standards and goals to support the new national program.  Contacts you meet through partnerships with other subject-area organizations could become members of your PLN that provide assistance as you develop materials for future English for Specific Purposes courses.
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Developing Your Virtual Personal Learning Network (PLN)Expand

As our world becomes increasingly interconnected through web-based technologies, it is important for EFL teachers to think about how virtual resources and online connections can support their lifelong learning efforts.  This week we will examine virtual components you can include in your PLN, as well as how to overcome some of the challenges teachers face when trying to navigate today’s ever-growing number of virtual learning opportunities and resources.

 The Benefits of a Virtual PLN

As a busy teacher, you might ask, “Why should I develop a virtual PLN?  Isn’t face-to-face networking good enough?”  While face-to-face networking is invaluable to your PLN, virtual engagement offers many benefits:

  • Connecting anytime, anywhere, with anyone:  using the web can help you overcome networking barriers related to time, place, and social distance.
  • Opportunities to reflect:  online discussion forums, blogs, and courses can encourage you to reflect on and comment on your teaching practice.
  • Finding information or support:  as a consumer of information in your network, your virtual PLN can help you solve classroom challenges, learn about new methodologies and teaching techniques, locate resources, and find mentors who might not be available locally. 
  • Sharing your expertise and ideas:  as a producer of information in your virtual network, you can help others by talking about your experiences, classroom lessons learned, and research findings.  You can also mentor others.
  • Modeling how to be a master learner:  building an online presence and learning how to work with e-tools shows your colleagues and students that you are intellectually curious and willing to invest time in your own professional learning.
  • Developing your professional reputation and identity:  establishing an online presence and participating in virtual discussions and e-courses helps others in our field get to know you. Depending on the media you use (blogs, social media tools, collecting e-certificates from online courses, etc.), you create a visible record of your commitment to professional development and lifelong learning, information that may be of interest to colleagues and prospective employers.

Your Virtual PLN – The Building Blocks

Now that we know why developing a virtual PLN is beneficial, let’s examine some potential components you may choose to include.  The tools and platforms listed below allow you to build new connections with other educators, develop your professional knowledge base, and share your expertise.
As you review this list, note that the tools and platforms offer a range of options for depth and duration of contact with others in your network.  For example, you might get to know other participants and engage deeply with content during a webinar series, whereas you might have shallow but wide contact with people using a social media platform like Twitter (e.g., you share a little bit of information with many people).

 

Possible Virtual PLN Components

  • Blogs – short for “web logs,” web-hosted sites that teachers use to share reflections, ideas, and resources
  • Webinars (short for “web seminars”), Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), other online courses
  • Established online PLNs for educators, such as Edmodo
  • Social media platforms
    • Social networking sites, such as Ning communities, Facebook, and LinkedIn
    • Microblogging platforms, such as Twitter
    • Social bookmarking sites, such as Diigo and Delicious
    • Content sharing sites, such as YouTube, Instagram, and Pintrest
    • Collaborative content development platforms, such as Google Drive tools
  • E-mail – direct messages and listservs (e-mail lists that teachers can subscribe to)
  • Instant messaging, chat rooms….and more!

Notes:  (1) Names of networking platforms may vary by region or country; some resources may not be available in all areas.  
(2) Links to resources related to American English programs are provided above when available.

Building Your Virtual PLN – Addressing Common Concerns

Here are two common concerns shared by teachers who are starting to build a virtual PLN.

Concern 1:  “There are so many options.  Where do I begin?” 
As we saw in the previous section, your virtual PLN can contain many elements.  The amount of choice can seem overwhelming.  Here are a few tips to help you get started:

  • Define a purpose:  Think about what your short-term and long-term learning goals are, who the related experts are, and where you might find the information.  For example, do you want to locate data to solve a classroom problem tomorrow, try out a new tech tool, or learn about a general topic over time?  
  • Connect - start small:  If you want to start following blogs, start with 3 or 4, not 20.  If you want to experiment with social media, pick one platform for the academic term, get to know it well, and start connecting with/”following” a few people or organizations to start with.
  • Observe:  Sit back, watch, and learn.  Observe how people share information on your chosen platform, and enjoy and apply the ideas and resources you discover.
  • Spiral:  Once you connect with people or organizations related to your interests and goals, try to find out whom they are connected to and add those second-level contacts or resources to your network if appropriate.  This process is called “spiraling out” because you start from one point and then expand you network’s reach in bigger and bigger circles.  For example, if you follow a helpful TEFL blog, check out its “blog roll” (a list of other blogs that the blogger follows, usually located on the right or left side of blog’s home page).  Visit those blogs and determine if any of them are good fits for your PLN.  You can repeat this process with the blog rolls on the newly located resources.
  • Share and participate:  As you become more comfortable with a media type or tool, start contributing your expertise and experiences.  All EFL teachers know something worth sharing!  This action could take many forms such as writing your first Tweet, writing reflective comments in the chat box during a webinar, commenting on someone’s blog, or posting on a professional Facebook account.
  • Curate:  Add new contacts and resources as you spiral out from helpful members in your PLN.  Occasionally review your network’s content and remove sites, resources, and contacts that don’t contribute to your current learning goals.

Concern 2:  “I don’t know the tools, and I don’t know the rules.”
Try these three suggestions to overcome this concern:

  • Find a tutorial:  The internet offers countless self-directed tutorials for people who want to learn how to use e-platforms and social media tools; many of them are designed with teachers in mind.  Put your internet search skills to use to find online courses, videos, or text tutorials to help you get started with a new branch in your virtual PLN.  You’ll be surprised how many results a simple search like “Twitter for educators” will return!
  • Find a mentor:  Use you PLN to expand your PLN!  Make use of your face-to-face and virtual connections to find a mentor that can help guide you as you learn to use a new platform.  Mentors can point out helpful resources, review your contributions, offer support and advice as you experiment, and increase your exposure on a platform by “liking,” “favoriting,” “sharing,” or “retweeting” your work to their PLN, which can help you develop new connections. 
  • Learn the social norms (rules):  Each networking platform has its own culture and rules.  As you join a new e-community, be sure to spend time observing interactions before you contribute.  This tactic is called “lurking” or “lurk and learn.”  Make note of:
    • Levels of formality – How do people address each other?  Do people use slang, informal language, abbreviations, and emoticons when they write?  Is the language more formal or academic?
    • Amount of content shared – How long are effective posts or contributions?
    • Interaction patterns – Do people respond to all members or a group or to specific individuals (e.g., When do people respond/comment publically and when to do they private messages)? If you “like” or “follow” someone or their work, are they expected to reciprocate?  If someone comments on your contribution, are you expected to reply?  Do these behaviors depend on the type of content being shared? 
    • Content sharing – Are people expected to provide references, hyperlinks, or attachments when they contribute something?

In sum, learning to how to use the connections and tools in your virtual PLN can take time and patience, but investing this time will help you maximize the benefits your network can offer.  Be sure to try the tips listed here, work with others, and set realistic goals to get your virtual PLN off to a great start.   

Disclaimer:  Names of non-U.S. Department of State websites and social media platforms mentioned in this Teacher’s Corner resource are provided for illustrative purposes only; their inclusion here should not be seen as an endorsement of their content, views, or privacy policies.
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Maintaining Your Virtual Personal Learning NetworkExpand

As we saw last week, you can systematically build a virtual PLN by taking steps such as defining your purpose, making connections in a manageable way, observing interactions, “spiraling out” from useful contacts and resources, and then consuming, producing, and sharing content in your network. Your virtual network will grow considerably over time. At that point, teachers may feel like their network is too big to manage or that they spend too much time trying to keep up with all of the information their network provides.  This week, we will address a few common concerns related to maintaining a mature PLN.

Also, in addition to using the tips below to maintain your virtual PLN, you can organize and curate your entire PLN (virtual and face-to-face components) by using a graphic organizer like the PLN Action Planner provided as a downloadable resource in this week’s Teacher’s Corner content. This planner is designed to help you set short-term and long-term goals for your network and to encourage you to reflect on your current interest areas for informal professional development. This tool is a helpful resource for EFL teachers who are new to PLNs and those who have a well-established network. Be sure to check it out!

Maintaining Your Virtual PLN – Addressing Common Concerns

Concern 1:  Network Fatigue – “I don’t have time for this!”

  • Use “dead time”: If you have mobile access to content in your virtual PLN, bus rides, waiting in line, and similar situations are great times to check in on your network. Even if you can’t read a full article or post that catches your eye, you can bookmark it and return to it later.
  • Make appointments with yourself:  Consider setting aside dedicated time each week to review content in your professional network.  For example, you may block off three 30-minute chunks per week in your calendar to focus on connecting with your network.
  • Set “bite-sized” goals:  It is impossible to keep up with all of the information and people in your network every day.  Set small, manageable goals to make your network work for you.  Remember that this your personal learning network for informal learning.  You decide how and when to use it.  

Concern 2:  Fear of Missing Out   
Once some teachers establish a PLN and start to see benefits from it, they feel anxious if they aren’t constantly monitoring it because they don’t want to miss any of the useful information that is circulating.  This fear of missing out can cause unnecessary worry.  It is important to occasionally unplug and reevaluate how you are using your network.  Your PLN isn’t going to feel neglected if you take a break.  Again, you decide how much and how often to engage with your PLN – it shouldn’t rule your schedule.

Concern 3:  “Echo Chambers”
One of the benefits of your PLN is that you can connect with people around the world that share your professional interests and beliefs.  However, believe it or not, this can also be a drawback.  If your network always reinforces what you already believe, is it challenging you to grow as a professional?  This situation is called an “echo chamber” because what you think and believe is constantly mirrored or repeated by information sources in your network.  Be sure to seek out diverse connections that don’t always agree with you:  use your PLN to connect with teachers in different cultures and contexts, explore alternative opinions, and examine new or controversial issues in the TEFL/Applied Linguistics field.

Concern 4:  Overgrown networks
Some teachers are tempted to try every new networking tool and have several hundred connections in their network.  Managing these “overgrown” systems can be difficult and may lead to network fatigue.  Schedule occasional network clean up sessions to remove unneeded contacts, tools, and resources that aren’t directly helping you reach your professional development goals.  You can’t hurt a virtual networking tool’s feelings – if it isn’t working for you, don’t be afraid to let it go.

Concern 5:  Managing a network of networks
Even after you have streamlined your PLN’s contents, you may still be left with several networking tools, websites, and resources that benefit your teaching.  It can be time extremely time-consuming to log in and check each system individually.  To save time, consider using an aggregator (from “to aggregate,” which means “to bring together”).  Aggregators are websites or tools that let you monitor several networking resources from one place.  Feedly, Symbaloo, Flipboard, and Hootsuite are examples of sites with aggregation functions.  Do a search for social network aggregators, explore them, and decide if any of them can increase your efficiency and save time as you manage your PLN.

Disclaimer:  Names of non-U.S. Department of State websites and social media platforms mentioned in this Teacher’s Corner resource are provided for illustrative purposes only; their inclusion here should not be seen as an endorsement of their content, views, or privacy policies.

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