Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Is Your PLN Truly a PLN?

I’ve really gotten into Twitter over the last year or so.  As far as social media networks go, I can’t think of a better one to connect people and ideas (truth be told, I only joined Facebook two months ago, so I can’t speak to its effectiveness, and no, I haven’t been living under a rock J).  Besides sharing ideas, I greatly enjoy the many different chats designed for educators using Twitter.  I am a regular participant in #edchat, and when I can, I love participating in #ptchat (parent/teacher chat) and anything related to science. 
I’m also a lover of all things language, an ed policy follower, and a scientific skeptic by nature of my background.  So, needless to say, I’m always paying attention to what members of our profession believe the next big educational “thing” will be, and what the inherent benefits and risks of that “thing” are.  Some might call my devil’s advocacy and toe-dipping before jumping in “educational pragmatism,” others might simply call it “frustrating.”  Regardless, as I’ve become a more frequent user of social media tools, I’ve started to think more and more about PLNs and our use of the term.

PLNs, or Personal Learning Networks, are referred to regularly in Twitter chats, and tend to mean a group of like-minded people who want to learn together.  But, according to an excellent piece I read recently in the Teachers College Record, true PLNs should do much more than just bring people together to talk about similar ideas.  While I won’t recount the entire study (it is a great read if you have a subscription), the basic premise of the paper I’m referring to is this: Real PLNs have to go beyond simply “talking,” and have to result in actual “doing.”  Not only that, but they must do so with actual data as the roadmap.  True PLNs, communities that actually operate as PLNs are “supposed” to, take on what the researchers term an “improving stance,” whereby teachers use data to focus on limitations in classroom practice.  Weak PLNs spend more time validating their own worth by occupying what is referred to as a “proving stance.”  In other words, proving to each other what works and doesn’t work in education based on their own practice, and usually what they believe they do quite well.  The researchers also describe how ineffective PLNs use “disconnected talk,” where anecdotes are supplied without fact, and labels, generalization, and “buzzwords” are used regularly.  They contrast this to “true” PLNs that use “inquiry-based talk,” where conversation spirals from participant to participant (no one participant “needs” the floor), and questions and discussions are always, always, based on data, and analyses are always, always, explored and reflected upon as a community.

What, if anything, does this have to do with Twitter?  As I read this research, I began to think about all the times I’ve tweeted about how great it is to have a Twitter PLN, when, in all honesty, my engagement in Twitter chats is fairly “unPLN-like.”  I would be willing to bet, that for many of you, it is the same.  Chat discussions are often a hodge-podge of answers to questions that are extremely relevant, but often very general.  This “big picture” focus provides a great jumping off point for participants to share their thoughts and beliefs, but very little opportunity to explore and analyze “real” and “crunchable” data.  Most responses to questions, while regularly very empowering, provide anecdotes without much grounding, and only occasionally does anyone share/cite actual data.  Yes, it is tough to do that in 140 characters.  And yes, the fast pace of chats tend to make it difficult to stay focused for more than a second on any one tweet.  But, why shouldn’t we make our online PLNs as data-driven and specific problem focused as our face-to-face ones? 

Imagine this. . . What if #edchat (or any Twitter chat for that matter) was less about sharing beliefs and anecdotes and more about actually delving into a specific problem to solve?  Or, what if (and maybe this happens already), #edchat serves as a general starting point and then members from that #edchat meet up (either virtually or in person) to look at some real data about the topic that was discussed and begin to hash out ideas, solutions, and next steps.  In a future #edchat, this group could report back to the others “in attendance” and those interested would take these ideas back to their classrooms, districts, and face-to-face colleagues.  True, this would drastically reduce the speed of the Twitter chatting phenomenon, and yes, it would require those of us who participate (like me, for instance) to do more than exchange emails or Skype every once in a while with other educators in my online “PLN.”  But, if we’re going to use an educational “buzzword,” we should use it well, and more importantly, our actions should speak louder than our words (both the ones we truly speak and the ones we type).

I would love to experiment in turning an #edchat into a #beyondedchat.  If you’re interested in exploring ways to make social media PLNs more like true PLNs, let me know.  I would love to embark on a data-driven Twitter journey with you.  Contact me through Edge, or you can always find me on Twitter at @fredende.

Works Cited
Deuel, A., Holmlund Nelson, T., & Slavit, D.  (2012).  Two Dimensions of an Inquiry Stance Toward Student-Learning Data.  Teachers College Record, 114, 1-42.

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