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Professional learning networks: making them count for new teachers

Professional learning networks can make a big difference in the careers of pre-service and early-career teachers; it's important that they learn how to get the most out of them.

When students graduate from the UTS master of teaching program this year, they will enter a teaching profession that is arguably changing faster than ever. They will need to be tech-savvy, connected and able to navigate multiple forums, both local and international, to enrich their ongoing professional learning. As societal and professional expectations of teachers shift, how do pre-service teachers successfully and efficiently navigate these demands? Professional learning networks (PLN) play a large role.

Given the unprecedented global access to learning resources and opportunities, we argue that it is more important than ever for teacher education students to be establishing and building their PLNs, as vehicles for developing an identity and managing growth.

Teachers use these networks to forge links to key teachers, experts and organisations within and beyond education contexts. It is important to explore this increasingly complex, local and global PLN landscape, before raising a number of issues and challenges likely to confront new teachers as they embark on career-long professional development.

Valuable organisations – global and local

Professional teacher associations provide key opportunities to enact powerful PLNs both close to home and further afield. Some associations offer reduced membership and conference rates for pre-service teachers. Joining such organisations at the start of a career helps establish strong connections with in-service teachers in areas of mutual interest.

For teachers seeking to keep up to date with the latest ideas for technology integration, there are a multitude of local and global professional associations. Active in this space locally are the state branches of the Australian Council for Computers in Education. Also, the ICT Educators of New South Wales (ICTENSW) has for many years delivered a brilliant annual conference attended by many teachers. The format is inclusive and even if you have just stepped into the classroom, the hands-on focus and exchanges of knowledge are refreshing.

For the travelling teacher, the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) conference in the US each June is as big as it gets. As a professional organisation, ISTE’s imprimatur is to “advocate, lead, explore and provide resources” to support a community of more than 100,000 teachers. When the conference is over, the group’s online presence makes it possible to connect virtually for regular learning on the other 361 days of the year.

Connecting to individual teachers and other experts

Social media is a powerful tool that allows pre-service and early-career teachers to link up with local and international expert teachers. Twitter, in particular, is potent and crucial for establishing, building and maintaining PLNs. One international PLN inspiration on Twitter is Amanda Fox (@AmandaFoxSTEM) from Bartlett Middle School, a STEM school in Savannah, Georgia. Fox is a film and broadcasting instructor. She and a team of teachers, including partners from local businesses, host a regular STEM Film Festival where teachers from around the world can enter student work.

Closer to home, Bianca Hewes (@BiancaH80) is a specialist English and leading teacher at Manly Selective Campus. She is a prolific tweeter, plus she has a personal blog (biancahewes.wordpress.com) where she regularly posts tips for teaching and learning and her widely embraced, embedded approach to project-based learning. Many local school leaders are also active in the Twittersphere. Principal John Goh (@johnqgoh), from Merrylands East Public School, is one such person.

Collaboration with other practitioners and experts in the field is essential for ongoing professional learning. For new teachers, it is an exciting time to connect with other education professionals.

Four big challenges

There are at least four critical challenges facing pre-service and early-career teachers seeking to start and develop their PLNs.

An initial challenge is to decide on the scope of suitable networking. Questions of granularity must be addressed, in terms of the PLN focus and its preferred size:

  • What level of conceptual focus is ideal for a PLN? For example, is it preferable to opt for a broad focus covering a range of general topics, or a smaller target, in a discipline or a specific area of interest, such as ‘assistive technologies’, or ‘classroom management strategies’?
  • What is the ideal critical mass of teachers and other experts (e.g., researchers) to initially interact with, both face to face and online?
  • Who are the key professionals and are they trusted sources?
  • What are the vital local and international professional organisations suitable for a new teacher to join?
  • What other organisations remain critical for early-career development, such as unions?
  • Furthermore, what potential do these people and organisations offer new teachers as a springboard for expanding their PLNs throughout their career?

PLN-graphicA second challenge involves the  blurred boundaries between personal and professional networks and their associated profiles. For example,  many teachers use the same Facebook or Google accounts for both social and professional networking, and run the risk of accidentally contravening professional standards of behaviour and codes of conduct, especially upon employment. It is paramount that teachers’ PLNs model and exhibit high standards of professional digital citizenship. It is advisable that new teachers use different accounts for the online components of their PLN and perhaps start with semi-private, password-protected spaces, such as members-only LinkedIn groups, and maintain professional etiquette.

The third challenge is determining what constitutes valued or valid professional learning in an era of accountability and external accreditation. A particular area of concern for universities at the moment is the value of academic research and its relevance to teachers’ professional learning. Another trend to consider is companies such as Google, Microsoft, Atlassian and Apple offering potentially valuable professional learning opportunities (for example, ‘Google certified education’ programs, Apple-sponsored conferences). The worth of those programs must be determined as well.

Finding the appropriate mix between face-to-face and technology-mediated approaches is a fourth challenge for the new teacher. New digital social networking tools have been a game-changer in facilitating global connections and currency of information. However, there is an increasing risk of social media-savvy new teachers focusing only on more convenient, contemporary digital approaches and neglecting more traditional, but equally effective, face-to-face networking at conferences, for example. A blend of both may be the optimal solution.

TeachMeets, school-based SUMMITS, corporate events

TeachMeets are relatively new, free professional learning events organised by teachers for teachers. These popular events comprise interactive sessions with a format of three or seven minutes of sharing ideas, usually after school hours. TeachMeets provide face-to-face education encounters for teachers at all stages of their careers, designed to focus on sharable resources and ideas for practice.

In addition, school-based and corporate conferences are becoming a popular supplement to more conventional annual events held by education associations. Such professional learning offers teachers access to a range of educators from classrooms, research groups and private think-tanks who are working on school reform and the digital dimensions of schooling.

Including NEW teachers in the conversation

Pre-service teacher education programs have a vital role to play in promoting choice and incorporating student teachers’ opportunities to actively build their own PLNs. At the University of Technology Sydney, for example, student teachers are encouraged to use a blend of face-to-face and social-media mediated approaches to develop their PLN as a vehicle for engaging in professional conversations during their candidature.

Our partner schools and informal education sites also have increased awareness of, accompanied by a growing commitment to, sharing responsibility for initial teacher education. For example, the Vivid Sydney 2016 program included professional learning sessions specifically targeting pre-service teachers in science, technology, engineering arts and maths (STEAM) education initiatives at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Such collaborative events provide opportunities for pre-service teachers to establish trusted sources in their PLNs and actively engage in learning and conversations with in-service teachers.

The message is clear: there is no time like the present for pre-service teachers to take responsibility for their own professional learning. Teachers and school leaders are embracing PLNs as a conduit to forge stronger links to global organisations and other expert teachers, in order to develop their own professional identities and engage in a vibrant, universal conversation about education.

There is an online site for crowdsourcing a list of key people and organisations (e.g., teachers, professional organisations) for new Australian teachers. The authors listed below invite readers to edit any of these documents. Go to https://sites.google.com/site/educatorplns/

Associate professor Matthew Kearney (@mkearneypost), Dr Kimberley Pressick-Kilborn (@PressickK) and Dr Jane Hunter (@janehunter01) are academics in the School of Education, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at the University of Technology Sydney. Visit Hunter’s blog at highpossibilityclassrooms.com.

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