It was my experience for many years that professional development (PD) within school districts was something that was done to us teachers. We would attend seminars or courses in which instructors would deliver the information and training that they determined that we needed to improve our practice. Even when we participated in self-selected PD opportunities, we had little control over the types of information that would be available and how we could access it. It is obviously difficult for such ‘one-size-fits-all’ approaches to be responsive to the personal goals and needs of every individual participant and I am sure I was not alone in finding such experiences rather frustrating. I’m sure many of us have anecdotal experiences of being frustrated by professional development and/or continuing education courses that were presented in formats that completely contradict the methodology and best practices for teaching and learning that they, themselves, advocate. (I remember once, for example, specifically being struck by the irony of sitting through a lecture on the benefits of constructivist learning!)
Times, fortunately, are changing and innovation in the world of technology is resulting in an exciting transformation of teacher professional development. Professional Learning Networks (PLNs), serve as a prominent example of uniquely productive ways for educators to take ownership of their own PD.
Quite simply, a Professional Learning Network, or PLN, is an organization of everyone an individual interacts with for purposes of sharing information. That, in and of itself, is not necessarily ground breaking. Teachers everywhere have been collaborating informally for purposes of reciprocally enhancing their practice through problem solving, resource sharing, etc. since the dawn of the profession. The growing abundance of online tools such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and WordPress to Google Docs, Dropbox, and Ning and many more, however, are providing the opportunity for teachers to extend their networks quite literally, worldwide. Through RSS (Really Simple Syndication) readers and social online bookmarking, we now can instantly aggregate information from an endless variety of sources. These are sources that we seek out and select according to our own individual goals and interests. We can process, reorganize, enhance, reshape, question, and comment on that information and send it back out into our virtual communities, thereby learning, growing, and helping others learn and grown on our own terms. I can explore the uses of twitter in the classroom for example, by watching a YouTube video, reading a blog, clicking through a Prezi, PowerPoint, or a combination of these and other resources (In case you were curious, I chose a variety of blogs, including one by Lee Crockett from the 21st Century Fluency Project that I found via a hashtag search on Twitter!)
One of the most prominent and important features of PLNs is that, as networks, they arguably exist almost exclusively in the abstract. They are dynamic, fluctuating, and personal systems of resources that shape and are shaped by individual and collective participation with limitless possibilities. While undeniably an asset, this feature may also serve as a potential hitch. It can be overwhelming and even intimidating to search through the plethora of tools and resources available on the web. A certain amount of ‘technological savvy’ is at least initially required and teachers may feel unprepared or uncertain where to even begin. There are also those who argue that access to such variety of information and ideas can prove counterproductive if teachers spend an overly disproportionate time virtually participating in PLNs rather than actively engaging in ‘real-world’ pedagogy.
Neither of these potential drawbacks, however, outweighs the potential advantages of PLNs as professional development. If anything, they add dimension to the conversation of redesigning teacher PD for the modern age. I am not, after all, advocating that we drop formal professional development experiences for teachers altogether. I am simply pointing to PLNs as an example of how and why the currently predominant models should evolve. What would it mean for teaching and learning if, rather than seeking to ‘develop’ educators, teacher preparation and continuing education programs helped facilitate the professional self-actualization, so-to-speak, of individuals? If we employ PLNs and other systems that use technology to put the power of learning back in the hands of the learners, we provide teachers with the access to meet increasing demands of STEM education head-on. The possible benefits for teaching and learning in the Information Age are virtually endless. 😉