Baiting the Digital Hook to Build A Professional Learning Community!

Baiting the Digital Hook to Build A Professional Learning Community!

Last week I was invited to present on PLNs (personal learning networks) as part of Getting Connected 09 for The Australian Flexible Learning Frameworks.

As the conference targeted the VET sector I decided to take a different PLN approach and share how social networking tools can create communities of professionals, and students, that help each other.

Skills level of participants

Participants were surveyed near the start of the session to help guide how little/much information on each aspect need to be explained. The results are shown in the table below (Yes= has their own or uses with their students; No = doesn’t have own or use with students; No response = they didn’t respond to the question).

Value of Creating Communities

The message for creating professional learning communities using social networking tools was similar to PLNs. Our daily face-to-face interactions offer limited opportunities for:

  • Asking our work colleagues/students questions
  • Reflecting on ideas with each other
  • Effectively sharing information

Social networking tools provide the ability to easily connect ourselves, our students, with educators in the same/similar fields, and people from industry to form a global community. This greatly increases opportunities to receive assistance and provide assistance.

The main difference to a PLN is technology skills of individuals you may want as part of your professional learning community are often (very) low. This means you need to use a range of tools including ones they are more likely to feel comfortable using.

To stay sane remember:

  • Not everyone will share your excitement (and it is unrealistic to think they will)
  • Let them choose whether or not they join
  • Don’t be offended if you can’t encourage everyone to participate
  • Be grateful for those that do participate
  • It takes time!

During the session I discussed the main tools I use for aquaculture industry to highlight their benefits and how it can be done.


In terms of aquaculture Facebook is used mainly with my students (but I do have some work colleagues in my account). My students are given the option to add me to their Facebook account knowing that they can email me, use the chat or leave comments on my wall.

Years ago I used to give students my email address and never get got any emails. With Facebook student regularly contact me to help with both my work and other courses. Many continue to remain in contact when they leave.


Our AquaEd Ning community to connect educators, industry and my students together (consists of members from within Australia and oversees).

Benefits of Ning are ability to have forums, upload photos, upload/share videos and easily email all members etc.

For me this Ning community meant I was about to source training material and images to use for an aquaculture elearning unit. I couldn’t have sourced this material as well (or as quickly) using traditional methods.

My students, and other community members, are using this Ning to share what they are doing and ask others questions.

Ning challenges are you need to be prepared to facilitate and encourage conversation. The more people you can encourage to help you facilitate the more likely it will grow. As a Ning owner you need to closely monitor all new members (using RSS) due to spammers.


Never thought it would happen but have people from aquaculture joining my twitter account. Which has been excellent because they also then join AquaEd Ning.

As these people are already into social networking they add value to your community because they aren’t reluctant users.


This session was recorded and you can watch it here!

My advice for building a community remains the same as for a PLN — your first step is to start using these tools for your own learning then start thinking how you can connect with members from your industry. Check out my PLN Yourself website to get started!

Meanwhile for those that have created professional learning communities — please share your stories. What has worked well? What aspects have caused problems?

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14 thoughts on “Baiting the Digital Hook to Build A Professional Learning Community!

  1. Nice post!

    I can go with your point about not everybody engaging with all the tools. I rarely use FaceBook. Why? Because it takes more effort to get to FaceBook than for for example TweetDeck which serves it all up for me.

    1. Thanks Phil, and in my rush to finish it I forgot to thank Jo for all her great work helping me out during the session. If I get time that will have to be a follow up post – but in the meantime can you tell her thanks from me?

      I’m pretty much the same as you with Facebook. I have it but only use it when other people contact me through it. Been really great with my students and for connecting with some people.

      Tweetdeck just isn’t working for me. Tried it several times but still not right.

  2. HI Sue – your comment regarding using the tools for your own learning first before connecting with members from the community – we attempted to use Twitter as a ‘back channel’ during a 2 day practicum for Digital Leaders. It was interesting to see the way it was or wasn’t taken up. For some, they hooked straight away into it, were willing to take a risk, and learn alongside the rest of us. For others, they were slightly more tentative – and this was quite ok. I personally find with tools such as these, a purpose for using them such as professional networking comes first – and it’s hard to engage in learning without making those connections – does that make sense??

    1. The whole process of connecting online can be very confronting to many so it doesn’t surprise me. But it was important to model it like you all did at the practicum. While it may not make sense to them now in a year or two it might.

      I was talking to one of my work colleagues the other day about Elluminate and he explained how the whole idea of using text in the chat window or being asked to speak really stressed him. For us this is now the norm but for the majority it isn’t.

      In terms of purpose it often depends on where they are in their journey. You will have some people that will jump in and try anything without any need for a purpose. However most will need a very clear reason for using, and even then it can be a struggle. Just remember that we are asking them to change, and change takes time (not in weeks = years).

      Off topic – I went past your blog and noticed I had trouble getting it to load in FireFox. I’m on my MacBook so harder to check. Can I get you to try testing it in FireFox? I think that it may be a theme issue but hard to know — perhaps Phil will confirm if he is also having a loading issue. Let me know if it is playing up and I’m happy to check it out for you.

  3. My teacher used blogs with us, we have laptops in my class and the whole 6th and 7th grade will have laptops next year used in all classes. I have a personal Twitter but no Facebook or Ning.


    1. Hi Marnie, I’m interested to hear that you are using twitter. Can I ask who you are connecting with on twitter and how you find it?

      I also dropped past your blog. Your post on YouTube is really good. Before I leave a comment I was wanting to know how is your school able to restrict your viewing of YouTube from home?

  4. A great post Sue. I like what you say about how PLN’s with social networking can offer a chance to overcome the limits of face to face interaction. I think that is so true. I know that I have found that time constraints often keep me from thinking deeply and responding thoroughly in the ways that I want to in face to face interactions. Using social networking tools gives me a little more control over that. I can take time to read something more carefully, respond more thoroughly by writing, editing and rewriting, or research more deeply so that what I share things that are a bit more meaningful, and often with more people than the small number that I interact with face to face at any given time.

    It is true too though that each person needs to decide what will work for him/her and that it will be different for each of us. Recently I’ve participated in three different conferences where there has been a twitter back channel. At one, Northern Voice a conference on blogging, the twitter chat was almost a whole separate conference stream. I’d estimate more than half of the conference participants joined in. It became an amazing network. At the next conference, the BC VSS with probably over 400 attendees, only a handful of us were on Twitter. That was such a different experience but for me, interesting in that I really got to know that small handful of people extremely well over the three days. At the most recent conference, CeLC2009 there was again a larger group, so the experience was not as intimate as VSS but not as informative as Northern Voice. It definitely has huge potential though depending how it is used.

    At the most recent conference Sylvia Currie, Julia Hengstler and I prepared a presentation on Shifting Landscapes of Professional Learning . In the end just Sylvia and I presented a bit on our experiences to a mid-sized group but the discussion re pros and cons of using online tools was quite lively.

    1. Hi Betty, that is amazing reading the difference between the three conferences. Is that because Northern Voices has a larger number of techy type people attend.

      Most the conferences I attend there are a small number of people using twitter so it can be a good way to get to know others. My friend at the latest conference monitored the hashtag for the conference and added any one to their account that was using that search term.

  5. Thank you for this. This is exactly what I am trying to do. I have joined face book and it is fun to keep in touch with my kids and friends from high school but is not really helping me professionally. Haven’t used Ning I’m from Canada. To my surprise however twiter is building a community a like minded people in ed tech (after I blog the weirdos). And yes I have to be patient there is not yet a group of diverse thinkers commenting on my blog. As you say I will give it time.
    Nancy Stuewe

    1. Hi Nancy definitely so many of the tools when it comes to building your PLN are about time and patience. It won’t happen instantly but eventually you will develop connections with others that then work together with you.

      Twitter is very important in Australia for developing connections with each other so it is good to hear also the case in Canada.

  6. Sue,
    Many thanks for sharing your presentation for those of us who cannot be at NECC 09!

    You are the person who is responsible for nudging me into growing my PLN. I opened an edublog account in November ’08, and since then I have 30 staff members with linked blogs, three wiki’s, a twitter account, and have participated in 3 eluminate sessions.

    I have been energized by the connections I have made–and the support I receive via twitter in particular.

    It was interesting for me to read your evaluation of facebook use. I have a facebook account and several of my elementary students have “friended” me. They will say hello, ask about pictures that I have posted, etc. In addition, many of their parents are also on facebook. Because my facebook is a simply a more casual version of my professional self (nice and boring), the students and families see essentially the same side of me that they see at school. What is interesting is how many more of them will communicate with me via facebook rather than email, etc.

    Finally, your thought about letting go of everyone joining—this is so true. I have found it ironic that the people who have teased me most about my tech obsessions also ask me the most questions about how and why I do this! When they ask I tell, otherwise I happily connect with my PLN while they tease away!

    Thanks for all you do to energize my brain and grow me so I can grow others.


    1. Hi Theresa, no problem re-sharing however this presentation was for an Australian event. The only events I did for NECC where in the NECC unplugged area and I was bad in terms of not attending any sessions at NECC. I was there to meet people so spent most the time talking to others and hanging out in the bloggers cafe however now plan to go through and read what I missed. Would you like me to share the links?

      Facebook is an interesting one in your situation. There are differing opinions regarding use with school students. I believe it is discouraged in some school districts?

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