Building a Professional Learning Network as an Education Leader

This post was originally published on Eric Sheninger's blog, A Principal's Reflections.

The concept of a Professional Learning Network (PLN) has been around for a very long time. Back in the day, PLNs consisted of individuals with the same professional interests engaging in mostly face-to-face communication. Fast forward a good number of years, and enter the internet. No one can argue that the evolution of the real-time web has dramatically altered how we communicate, gather information, and reflect.

Why Every Education Leader Needs a PLN

Leadership is a choice, and not one that should be made lightly. With this choice comes a great deal of responsibility to initiate and sustain change that will lead to a transformed school culture. Learning has been, and always will be, a pivotal component of this process. With time always being in short demand, education leaders must be on the forefront of leading the learning themselves if that is what they expect of others. Basically, we get what we model. Outside of instruction, there is not a more important leadership quality that successful and effective administrators must focus on. Quite simply, the best leaders are always learning. Learning is the fuel of leadership. With budget crunches and lack of time, it is often a challenge to participate consistently in invaluable, formal learning opportunities. 

Nothing beats quality, face-to-face professional learning. It is through these opportunities that time, applicability, and relationships intersect, resulting in a powerful experience. However, leaders today now have the means to supplement formal learning opportunities with a PLN. This is equivalent to a human-generated search engine that never shuts down and is powered by the knowledge of world-renowned experts and practitioners alike.  

PLNs can be a tough sell at times, especially when they are being pitched to administrators who are either against or not on social media. I can relate, as this is where I was prior to March 2009. I swore I would never be on social media, as I didn’t have the time for it and thought that it would not help me professionally. Boy was I wrong. Now, like many others, I preach the many benefits that connected learning brings to all educators. Administrators, though, are at times tough nuts to crack. Hence, I have developed an initial list of reasons why every leader should have a PLN.  

  1. Support and feedback
  2. Work smarter, not harder
  3. Share your work
  4. Remove silos 
  5. 24/7 inspiration
  6. Acquire resources
  7. Collaborate locally and globally
  8. Track conferences and events (with hashtags)
  9. Catch up on the latest innovative ideas
  10. On-the-go learning
Building Your PLN 

The construction of a PLN enables educators to harness the power inherent in 21st-century technologies to create a professional growth tool that is accessible whenever, wherever. In particular, my PLN provides me with a constant supply of resources, thought-provoking discussions, knowledge, leadership strategies, and ways to successfully integrate technology.

Most educators I talk to have no idea where to begin when attempting to create a PLN that meets their teaching and learning needs. The vast majority don't even possess a working knowledge of basic web 2.0 tools and how they can utilize them for teaching and learning. The following list provides some good PLN starting points and resources to assist any educator looking to take his or her professional growth to new levels.

  • Twitter: Microblogging platform that allows educators from all corners of the globe to communicate in 280 characters or less. Allows for the sharing of resources, discussion of best practices, and collaboration. For more information on Twitter, check out this video.

  • LinkedIn: Professional networking site that allows educators to connect, exchange ideas, and find opportunities. Educators can join a variety of groups that cater to their individual learning interests and engage in discussions, as well as submit, read, and comment on articles. For more information on LinkedIn, check out this video.

  • Blogs: Incredible sources of information that allow educators to reflect, share opinions, and discuss various topics. This is a common medium to discover best practices and examples of innovation as well as learn from professional experiences of both novice and veteran educators. Common blogging applications include BloggerWordPress, and Medium. For more information on blogs, check out this video.

  • RSS Readers: RSS stands for "Real Simple Syndication.” An RSS reader is a tool that allows you to keep up with educational blogs, news, wikis, and podcasts all in one convenient location. By subscribing to various RSS feeds, educators then have a customized flow of information that is continually updated and accessible through the use of mobile devices or the internet. Educators can even create their own RSS feeds! Popular RSS readers include Feedly and RSSOwl. For more information on RSS, check out this video. Tablet apps are great tools on which to access RSS feeds and create your own customized news feeds. Flipboard is the best app that can be found on iOS and Android.
  • Wikis: Collaborative websites that provide registered users with the ability to create and edit any number of interlinked web pages. Wikis encourage information sharing and collaborative learning. Educators can view and join some exemplary wiki models at Educational Wikis. For more information on wikis, check out this video.
  • Digital Discussion Forums: Consist of communities of educators interested in similar topics. One of the most popular sites is called Ning, where educators can create or join specific communities. Ning sites offer a range of learning and growth options such as discussion forums, event postings, messaging, news articles, chat features, groups, and videos. Popular educational Ning sites include The Educator’s PLNClassroom 2.0English Companion Ning, and Ning in Education. Other fantastic digital discussion forums are ASCD Edge (you must be a member of ASCD to join) and edWeb.net.
  • Social Bookmarking: Method for storing, organizing, and sharing bookmarks online. Diigo allows you to add descriptions as well as categorize each site using tags. Educators can even join groups and receive email updates when new bookmarks are added. For more information on social bookmarking, check out this video.
  • Facebook: Social networking site that not only allows people to keep up with family and friends but also connect and engage with professionals. The Facebook for Education page provides information on how educators can best use Facebook as a resource. Other groups worth following to strengthen a PLN include Edutopia and #EdChat. Each customizable page or group provides a variety of learning opportunities and growth options for educators.
  • Pinterest: This tool is a great way to curate information to satisfy even the most finicky of learning needs. Check out my board just on PLNs.
  • Voxer: A simple-to-use push-to-talk app that can function like a walkie-talkie. With Voxer, educators can engage in both synchronous and asynchronous conversations about professional practice. Learn more about how Voxer can enhance your PLN.

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Blog contributor Eric Sheninger is an ICLE Senior Fellow and thought leader on digital leadership and learning. You can book a keynote with him to help your school or district explore solutions for leading and learning in the digital age. You can also view our full list of thought leaders who provide customized presentations on a range of key education issues.

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