Tips for Building a Personal Learning Network on Campus and Online

Colleagues can play such an important role in our development as teachers, yet most of the time we don’t make use of them in ways that really help us grow pedagogically. We spend time with faculty who inhabit offices near ours sharing pedagogical pleasantries, noting our successes and those of our students, or complaining about the lack of institutional support for teaching or the poor performance of this year’s entering class.

The problem is not just the caliber of our discussions, but the fact that we don’t systematically assemble a collection of colleagues who could really help us pedagogically.

What might a set of carefully selected colleagues look like? Here are some recommendations.

A departmental colleague—Not necessarily the one next door, not necessarily the one you need to impress, not necessarily the one with whom you raise a glass at week’s end, but you do need a colleague who knows, loves, and understands the content. Colleagues with the same content backgrounds can help each other with all manner of instructional details, from good examples, sample problems, and test questions, to experiences with texts, explanations that ameliorate confusion, and questions that get students thinking.

A colleague from another department but at the same institution—I think there’s great potential to learn from colleagues who teach content very different from our own. It’s not that the physicist is going to start teaching like the studio artist, but very different content delivered in very different instructional settings often makes our instructional realities so much more apparent. Besides that, so many aspects of teaching transcend disciplines. Colleagues other than those seen most regularly have new ideas, have tried different approaches, and use other kinds of policies. And it can be very refreshing to just talk teaching without always digressing into content details.

A good teacher—You need a good teacher in your network. By good teacher, I mean one who is better than you are. That teacher might be better at the delivery of instruction. There are a couple of caveats here: sometimes even very skillful teachers do it by the seat of their pants. They aren’t reflective or explicit in their understanding of what they do and why they do it.

Second, some good teachers have very eclectic teaching styles—they play games, dress in customs, gesticulate wildly, and accost students in unusual ways. What they do may be highly effective at promoting student learning, but it may not be something you can ever pull off. Most of us do need to stretch ourselves pedagogically, but if the stretch compromises who we are, it’s not worth attempting. Bottom line: if you opt to find a teacher who delivers instruction better than you do, select one with a style you can actually see yourself emulating.

Another option is a good teacher who is better because that person knows more about teaching and learning. Maybe they read more, have had more exposure to educational research, or regularly interact at conferences or online with those who have pedagogical knowledge.

A teacher from elsewhere who shares a pedagogical interest—The online environment is such a boon to creating strong personal learning networks. If you have any sort of pedagogical interest, be it instructional technology, problem-based learning, learning communities, or clickers, there are colleagues out there with whom you can connect and share.

A teacher you can teach—It doesn’t matter how new you might be to college teaching, chances are good that somebody else at your institution is newer. It might be a student starting out as a peer tutor or a part-timer coming to teaching with years of experience in a profession. The value here derives from how sharing expertise develops expertise. It’s what many of us learned when we first started teaching: you don’t really understand something well unless you can explain it clearly to someone who does not.

Obviously, collecting colleagues is a first step. The process of collecting doesn’t do much to develop pedagogical prowess, but it’s a step that can make growth and development a much more pleasant and promising possibility. If we are purposeful about how we teach, then we ought to purposefully select those colleagues who can truly support our efforts.

Excerpted from Collecting Colleagues for Teaching and Learning, The Teaching Professor, December 2008.