Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Building Your PLN: Not Just Another Acronym

We live in a crazy educational world of acronyms. Wouldn’t you agree? How many educational acronyms can you name? Assuredly, we all recognize the power acronyms of the educational landscape: NCLB, AYP, ABC, AIG (and No, I am not referencing the insurance company), EC, ELL.

We seem to be almost rivaling the military as each new day dawns a new learning, acronym paradigm. It is not my intent to minimize the use of acronyms (nor even is it the thrust of this blog post), for each serves a purpose; but in all reality, they can lead to overuse and lose purposeful meaning. Prior to arriving at NCVPS, I worked in a very strategic and progressive district which used 56 different acronyms, carrying 56 different meanings. Leaders and Learners can get lost in the acronym maze.

However, I have one more to add to the growing list, BUT (and this is a big “but”--no pun intended, okay, maybe it was) this one is guaranteed to add value to your professional experience. Let me introduce the PLN, the Professional Learning Network. What is a PLN? How will it add value? In the “social network” (and I really prefer “academic,” “educational”, or “professional”) world of Facebook, Twitter, Edmodo, Ning, or Linkedin, the PLN is a driver -- it is what defines these tools, it is what gives these tools substance, it is what shapes these tools, it is what makes or breaks these tools.

A PLN is established when people come together to connect, collaborate, share, and create. I realized the power of the PLN when our staff at NCVPS plugged into Twitter and Facebook. Alvin Toffler penned, “The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn, and relearn.” So, it is here through our PLN where we “learn, unlearn, and relearn.”

Professionally, I use Twitter more than any other Web 2.0 tool, for trying to harness three, four, or even five learning communities can be overwhelming and counterproductive. I needed simple. Twitter provides just that, yet provides powerful, in-time collaboration and communication. Now, this blog is not about Twitter per se (although it provides a deep, rich example of the PLN), but about the benefits of establishing a professional learning network--how the PLN can work and create value--add for principals, superintendents, distance learning advisors, teachers, etc.

So how can the PLN work for those stakeholders?

  • Collaborate with the PLN: I witness this power daily. Recently, I was presenting to a cohort of superintendents in the Sandhills Regional Educational Consortium (SREC--another acronym) and to prepare, I tweeted to my PLN: “In 140 characters or less, what one thing must superintendents need to know to lead change?” In a matter of minutes, my PLN responded with practical tips and suggestions, all captured in real time for each superintendent to observe.As another example (and there are many), each Wednesday, our staff holds internal leadership development for external support through our training in systems thinking. In Twitter, we call these events Twestivals, an opportunity for the PLN to come together and participate in the discussion by offering ideas, key learnings, and key strategies related to the focused question tweeted earlier that day. The PLN can follow those comments and provide feedback using the hashtag (#ncvtwest). The screenshot below comes from the Twestival dated 9.23.09 focusing on how districts/schools/divisions ensure systematic assurance.


  • Learn with the PLN: When I first came into this role at NCVPS, I had a huge learning curve, a huge achievement gap to close and overcome. My background is English (in the classroom for 14 years); however, three years prior to starting my tenure at NCVPS, I worked in a leadership capacity in my building, applying principles of systems thinking and continuous improvement. Now, I get to experience these principles virtually, supporting and coaching principals and superintendents in building 21st century leadership capacity to impact 21st century learning. So, how does my PLN support this?. As I monitor Twitter through Tweetdeck I can capture great ideas on leadership, curriculum standards, classroom literacy strategies, blended learning approaches, tools for technology integration, strategic planning, and so on. What is learned is rich, varied, and purposeful. I then “go and do,” helping to close the gap between knowing and doing, which oftentimes dog school leaders.
  • Discuss Important Issues with the PLN: Similar to the Twestivals mentioned above, every Tuesday, my PLN meets at 7:00 p.m. to discuss the focus question, voted on by the PLN on Monday’s using Twtpoll. This past Tuesday’s question: “What is social media’s role in education?” For one hour the PLN tweets thoughts, questions, best practices, pertinent articles addressing the issue, strategies used across the nation to impact learning experiences. If I can’t meet at 7:00, which is normally the case, I can participate the following morning by searching for the hashtag (#edchat) contributing my own insight and reading the insight of my PLNers (Okay, I just made that up; as a former English teacher, I can do that). Read this Archived #edchat session from Tuesday. I have to warn you though: Prepare to be rocked by the insight, wisdom, and thinking of educators like you and me.

How does this apply to our state, district and school leaders?

  1. Get plugged into a PLN through any collaborative, networking tool. (Of course, I recommend starting with Twitter).
  2. Follow people who will create value-add to your professional experience. Using this link access the related professional area (for instance, literacy coaches, superintendents, principals, PD directors, etc.) on this wiki to read brief explanations (profiles) of educators who want to join a PLN.
  3. Create an internal structure with a strategic focus. It is essential to create a plan to develop a PLN and the steps to implement plan. For instance, examine the work of Montgomery County Schools and their development of the internal leadership PLN (via Twitter) supported and modeled from the desks of the superintendent, Dr. Donna Peters, and Director of Curriculum and Innovation, Derek McCoy. Each school has created Twibes, groups using Twitter to share, collaborate, and connect controlled by that group. At the district level, Mr. McCoy has a created a PLN with APs, principals, teachers in like subject areas. Teachers are sharing best instructional strategies based on Marzano’s work, using twitter as formative assessment, all support by the PLN. Distance Learning Advisors can form a PLN to support one another through sharing lab management and communication strategies, posting questions related to registration, promotion and marketing of virtual coursing, and reporting out key learnings and updates on action steps from the schools e-learning goals from the SIP (oops, another acronym, School Improvement Plan).
  4. Be purposeful by sharing. Tell your professional story; invest in the professional life of others. Share what works, what doesn’t, what needs improvement; share key learnings, nuggets of wisdom on issues like student support, role of principal in leading change, share communication strategies, articles read that create a new paradigm of thinking and challenge the status quo, or share branding your school or district. It is important to remember what it means to connect many-to-many. The PLN is not just for you or me to focus only on what we feel is important, but to bring others into the conversation, commenting on the points of others, sharing what others say, learning from one another, and recognizing and celebrating the value others bring to the discussion.

These benefits and strategies will help us see the PLN more than a three letter acronym but a valuable place to create meaning and purpose where we learn, unlearn, and relearn. So, let me introduce you to the PLN, and what I know will begin a beautiful, professional relationship.

Additional Reading and Resources for Building Your PLN:

Higher Ed Networking on-Line: Easily Build Your PLN and Your Knowledge

Building Your PLN

Why Everyone Needs a Great PLN

Personal Learning Networks

What’s A PLN, Anyway?

Developing a PLN

Building Your Personal Learning Network (Part 1, Part 2)

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