Edited by Amanda · Sophia · Mercy · Carrie
What do you normally do on the Internet? Do you browse the latest news? Do you play computer games? Do you follow any movie stars on social media? You may think that you are just killing the time, but perhaps you are also acquiring knowledge or improving your skills beyond imagination.
In fact, learning can be classified into three categories: (a) formal learning: people study under the supervision of teachers in professional institutions and mostly aim to get a degree or a certificate; (b) informal learning: people learn something new in their daily practices, such as the leisure activities mentioned above, spontaneously and unconsciously; (c) self-initiated learning: people proactively look for learning materials and are enthusiastic to engage in various learning experiences (Tour, 2017).
Among all these, teachers’ self-initiated learning through Personal Learning Networks (PLNs), a platform that provides users with various resources and opportunities of communication, has gained public attention because learning via digital technologies is undoubtedly an integral part of this era and teachers’ involvement in it may influence how students learn new literacies, and further, participate successfully in daily life increasingly mediated and supported by technologies.
Therefore, Tour studied three experienced teachers’ digital literacy practices in varied contexts for five months by using participant-generated photography, two one-hour open-ended interviews, and online observation. His research presents a comprehensive view of teachers’ engagement with new literacies in both personal and professional environment can be seen from his research (Tour, 2017):
- Information retrieval & resource aggregation: Participants collect professional resources online and transform them into knowledge, which is an essential part of their digital activities.
- Cooperation: PLNs allow the participants to exchange professional information and personal ideas with others, which on the one hand helps some members solve problems and on the other hand makes teachers work more efficiently and effectively.
- Collaboration: Participants can collaborate with one another on a common task. Compared with traditional professional learning programmes, they are much more likely to bring their strength to the project and improve their professional knowledge.
- Reflection: PLNs enable the participants to record, reconsider, and review their teaching practices. Although they are inspired to reflect on their work regularly, the authenticity of feedbacks or critiques remains to be discussed.
- Socializing: Participants are able to establish personal or professional ties with people they are interested in with both online and offline communication, which not only gives them emotional support but motivates them to continue learning through PLNs as well.
Based on these findings, it is not hard to identify the different roles that teachers take on when learning on PLNs:
- A learner: gathers information that is related to their work or interest and turn it into knowledge
- A citizen: builds a digital world by sharing resources
- A speaker: expresses individual opinions and communicate with others
- A collaborator: works with other teachers or experts wherever and whenever
- A designer: designs teaching activities or relevant programmes
- A consultant: provides suggestions or solutions for other members
These identities are facilitated by PLNs’ characteristics: (a) all participants are connected with one another; (b) anyone can contribute to the virtual space; and (c) the participation is completely voluntary and self-initiated.
With the benefit of PLNs’ characteristics, teachers can:
- Find and access useful resources, like lesson plans, in-class activities, drills, and quizzes, etc. easily, which facilitate in-time and in-depth learning and can be put into practice in the real world.
- Communicate with other educators by following their blogs, Twitters, etc., commenting on one another’s sharing, and forwarding amazing ideas with more people. In this way, teachers have access to plenty of ideas, experience, and areas of expertise, which is of vital importance to their professional development.
- Receive help from other members when teachers are confronted with teaching problems.
- Gain emotional support by building both personal and professional relationships with other members.
- Learn without being constrained by the traditional approach, as teachers can acquire knowledge whenever and wherever they want as long as the Internet is available.
Nevertheless, the drawbacks of PLNs cannot be neglected according to our own experiences:
- Teachers might get distracted due to a large amount of data available online and the problem of information overload.
- Teachers cannot always get a truthful or critical evaluation. For one thing, it is not mandatory for them to comment on others’ articles or videos. For another, they may want to maintain their friendly interpersonal relationships, which may impede them from criticizing others’ work straightforwardly.
To sum up, PLNs are assorted communities that assist teachers to learn from others and improve professional skills. Several hints are worth pointing out here:
- Cultivate the habit of learning through PLNs regularly and integrate it into your learning programmes.
- Do not follow too many people or their blogs when you get started, otherwise you will be overwhelmed by tons of ideas.
- Learn to filter the information using digital tools and find the resources you truly need.
- Analyze and evaluate the materials critically and take into consideration your own situation.
- Put what you have found and learnt through PLNs into practice and remember to share your experience with others afterward.
- Try to build relatively close and stable relationships with other educators and give feedbacks to them objectively and politely.
- Keep reflecting on your teaching, accepting new ideas and questioning your understanding of teaching, which is beneficial to your professional enhancement.
- Have you tried learning something professional via PLNs during your free time? If yes, which PLN do you usually use? Why did you choose it?
- Will you try to learn through PLNs if you have not tried them before? What factors attract you most?
- What do you think are the main differences between ‘learning through traditional programmes’ and ‘learning through PLNs’? How do you think teachers should apply the resources from PLNs in class to complement the knowledge obtained by the conventional way?