When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, many of us were scrambling to figure out how to keep learning going. At the time, I was an associate professor in an undergraduate teacher education program, and I had only ever taught face-to-face. I was desperate for resources, advice, and anything else that would help make the quick transition to remote instruction smoother. One of the first places I turned to for help was Twitter. There, I found an incredible community of brilliant and caring professors, faculty developers, educational technology specialists, and others who guided me through that challenging transition by sharing their expertise about online instruction, their experiences adapting courses for remote teaching, and their resources for supporting students. They also shared diverse perspectives that challenged me, stories that inspired me, questions that prompted me to reflect on my teaching practices and policies, and ideas that helped me grow both professionally and personally. I have since come to contribute my own unique ideas and resources to the conversation as well. These experiences have shown me that leveraging Twitter as a Professional Learning Network can be transformational for one’s continued learning and growth.
What is a Professional Learning Network (PLN)?
Trust and Prestridge (2021) define Professional Learning Networks (PLNs) as “uniquely cultivated systems of people, spaces, and tools that assist educators in improving their teaching and learning” (1). Unpacking this definition further, Krutka, Carpenter, and Trust (2017) explain that PLNs often include people from a wide range of backgrounds, engaging with each other in a variety of spaces (online, face-to-face, or both) as they share and obtain tools (such as ideas, strategies, and resources) for continued professional growth (247).
Research shows that there are many benefits of PLNs. Trust, Carpenter, and Krutka (2017) conducted a qualitative study of 151 higher education professionals in order to explore their experiences with PLNs. The faculty members and other professionals in the study reported that their PLN:
- Helped them learn new ideas and skills related to their field/discipline
- Exposed them to innovative teaching strategies and educational technology tools
- Inspired them to adapt their teaching practices
- Allowed them to connect and collaborate with others worldwide
- Encouraged them to share their experiences, expertise, and resources with others
- Transformed how they viewed their professional role
- Introduced them to new professional opportunities
One of the most frequently used platforms for online PLNs is Twitter. On Twitter, educators communicate with each other via tweets (short messages of up to 280 characters). Tweets can include media, such as photos, videos, GIFs, and links. They also often include hashtags, which are keywords/phrases preceded by the “#” symbol that are used to organize tweets. For example, common hashtags used amongst higher education professionals include #highered, #facdev, and #onlinelearning. Following hashtags is a great way to see what others are saying or sharing about a topic.
How can I use Twitter as a PLN?
1. Create a Twitter account
The first step in leveraging Twitter as a PLN is to create an account. This will include creating a Twitter handle (or username) and writing a brief bio. In your bio, be sure to highlight your professional background and areas of interest or expertise. For example, my Twitter handle is @drtolunoah, and my bio mentions my background as a faculty developer, educational technology specialist, and speaker.
2. Follow others
It is important to follow a diverse group of people and organizations as part of your PLN. You can search for others by their name or handle, or you can use keywords to find people with similar interests and backgrounds. Twitter also provides suggestions based on who you follow. Furthermore, you can look at who the people you are already following follow. If you would like additional ideas for who to follow on Twitter, you can download this Twitter PLN Bingo game.
3. Interact with tweets
As you follow people and organizations on Twitter, you will see their tweets appear in your timeline. A great way to connect with others is to read and interact with their tweets by liking, replying, or retweeting (i.e., reposting tweets to your followers).
4. Share your story
You can share your unique ideas on Twitter as you feel comfortable. This can strengthen your connection with your PLN by engaging in a mutually beneficial way. For example, you can tweet:
- Books or articles that you recommend
- Teaching strategies that have worked well for you
- Instructional resources
- Takeaways from an academic conference
- Encouragement or support for fellow educators
- Questions that you would like input on
- Responses to the questions of others
- Reflections on your teaching policies/practices
- Thoughts about trends in higher education
- Upcoming educational events
- Photos or videos of student projects (with their consent and without revealing personal information, of course!)
- …and much more!
5. Join the conversation
Another way to enhance your use of Twitter as a PLN is by participating in Twitter chats. A Twitter chat is a conversation about a specific topic that is held at a specified date and time. For example, the popular #edtechchat is held on Mondays at 5:00 p.m. Pacific Time. Twitter chats typically follow a question-and-answer format, with a host posting a question every few minutes, and participants responding with their answers. Each time the host or participants tweet, they include the question or answer number in their tweet (e.g., Q1 or A1) along with a specified hashtag (e.g., #edtechchat) so that everyone can follow along with the conversation. There are dozens of active Twitter chats each week. You can also facilitate your own Twitter chat! Just let your followers know the date and time of the chat, the questions you will be asking (so that they can think ahead), and the unique hashtag that will be used for the conversation.
6. Curate resources
Educators on Twitter often share innovative teaching strategies and resources that you may want to save. One tool that can streamline the curation process is Tweetdeck. With Tweetdeck, you can view multiple Twitter feeds at the same time. Each feed is organized in a column. For example, you can add a List column, where you can view tweets from a specific group of people (e.g., “faculty developers”). Or, you can add a Search column, where you can view tweets about a specific search item or hashtag (e.g., “assessment” or #ungrading). The List and Search columns automatically update as new tweets are posted, making it easy to follow along with the latest posts. You can also add a Collection column, where you can save your favorite tweets about a specific topic. The collections you curate in Tweetdeck can also be shared with others.
Tweetdeck not only works well for curating tweets, but also for participating in Twitter chats. For example, you can add a Search column for a Twitter chat’s hashtag so that you can easily follow along with all of the questions and answers. You can also add a Collection column to save your favorite tweets from the chat.
7. Reflect on your PLN
Reflection is a critical part of teaching, and that applies to PLNs as well. Krutka, Carpenter, and Trust (2017) provide a useful framework that prompts educators to analyze the people, spaces, and tools that compose their PLN. Helpful questions from the framework include, “Which people or perspectives are missing from my PLN?,” “In which spaces have I not yet engaged that might be beneficial?,” and “What new tools am I going to seek out to advance my students’ learning?” (Krutka, Carpenter, and Trust 2017, 249). Engaging in ongoing reflection about these and other questions from the framework can be helpful for continuing to strengthen your PLN experience over time.
Using Twitter as a PLN allows you to take ownership of your professional learning by exploring topics of interest with educators around the globe, anytime and anywhere. If you are interested in learning more, you can download this PLN, Twitter, & Tweetdeck Resource Guide. It includes QR codes and hyperlinks to research articles about PLNs and resources for how to use Twitter and Tweetdeck.
Tolulope (Tolu) Noah, EdD, is the Instructional Learning Spaces Coordinator at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB). Previously, she was a Senior Professional Learning Specialist at Apple, and an associate professor in the School of Education at Azusa Pacific University (APU). Tolu was recognized for her teaching effectiveness by receiving the 2019 Teaching Excellence Faculty Award at APU, and she is a regular speaker at teaching and learning conferences. You can connect with Tolu on Twitter at @drtolunoah or via her website, www.tolunoah.com.
Krutka, Daniel G., Carpenter, Jeffrey Paul, and Torrey Trust. 2017. “Enriching Professional Learning Networks: A Framework for Identification, Reflection, and Intention.” TechTrends 61: 246-252. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s11528-016-0141-5
Trust, Torrey, Carpenter, Jeffrey Paul, and Daniel G. Krutka. 2017. “Moving Beyond Silos: Professional Learning Networks in Higher Education.” The Internet and Higher Education 35: 1-11. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S1096751617301380
Trust, Torrey and Sarah Prestridge. 2021. “The Interplay of Five Elements of Influence on Educators’ PLN actions.” Teaching and Teacher Education 97: 1-12. https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0742051X2031386X?via%3Dihub