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Professional Learning Networks

A PLN is a Professional Learning Network. A PLN is a reciprocal network that you create to learn from, with, and about others. Through a PLN you can gather information or resources, create new ideas with others, and share what you have learned. A PLN can occur in your school, face-to-face, online, at conferences or through reading, reflecting and sharing.

Why should I develop a PLN?

A picture paints a thousand words, as the wordle shows us, but there are at least 10 reasons for assessing and building your own Personal Learning Network:

  • New Information: great sources of information, including professional learning and development opportunities, as well as articles, books, and websites.
  • Diversity: networking with professionals of all backgrounds, cultures, ages, and experiences.
  • Feedback and feedforward: opportunities for sharing your ideas, discussing and debating.
  • Interaction: communicate with others synchronously or asynchronously, publically or privately.
  • Connections: build a network and make connections to other educators in your school, region, Aotearoa – in fact, all over the world!
  • Personalisation: your PLN can be highly personalised to specific areas of gifted and talented education, as well as different ways of learning matched to your needs.
  • Flexibility: blending online and face-to-face learning opportunities provides responsivity and flexibility.
  • Reflection: interactions with other professionals support reflection. Engaging with others may challenge you to question current practices and serve to validate others.
  • Choice: You can choose to engage with or follow educators, companies, publishers, websites, etc. who you believe can enhance you PLN and who you can learn from.
  • Inquiry: Develop professional, self-regulatory inquiry skills by asking: “Where am I going?”, “How am I doing?”, and “Where to next?”

What are the Challenges and Solutions to a PLN?

There are potential pitfalls in creating a Professional Learning Network - and there are ways to avoid those!

Firstly, we are not suggesting a DIY approach to professional learning and development! We recognise that professional learning and development requires time – and that time comes at a premium. So, value for money is also an important consideration. Professional learning needs to come from credible people with knowledge and skills relevant to Aotearoa New Zealand.

Importantly, professional learning needs to be directly linked to teaching and specific, important learning outcomes for gifted learners. Furthermore, it needs to be driven from an evidence-base. Riley and Moltzen (2010) made these recommendations for professional learning and development in gifted education:

  • Providers of professional development require their own professional development and support in effective models of delivery and best practices in professional development, complemented by contemporary theory, research, and practice in gifted and talented education.
  • Professional development should be based on a needs analysis, inclusive of all programme stakeholders. For professional development to be student-centred, as opposed to teacher-centred, gifted and talented students should have the opportunity to share their experiences, perceptions, needs, and so on.
  • Professional development for gifted and talented education must demonstrate connections with educational principles and practices in both mainstream and specialised education, reflecting national and international theory and research.
  • Gifted and talented education cannot be viewed in isolation, but needs integration with other educational initiatives; this may cause a tension between the provision of specialised and generalised professional development, and should be interpreted as a need for both.
  • Professional development needs to be evaluated rigorously for its effectiveness and the information gained should be used to inform programme changes. Interplay between the development, implementation, and evaluation of professional development should be evidenced.
  • Professional development should not be based on a singular delivery model, but is more effective using multiple strategies (e.g., whole staff, one-one-one, online).
  • Professional development needs to articulate with classroom practices and a continuum of provisions for gifted and talented students, and, as such, should be learner-focused.
  • Teachers value one-on-one, in-school support; however, if professional development is only delivered in this manner, there is potential for conflict with school philosophies and the recommended practice of school-wide professional development in gifted and talented education.
  • The relationship between professional development and outcomes for students is tenuous. Outcomes for students are impacted by teachers and their practices, but also by a number of other variables which must be taken into consideration.
  • Professional development delivered by external providers needs to reflect an understanding of a school’s culture, including demands on staff time, competing interests, and other professional development programmes.
  • Professional development in gifted and talented education must be supported by senior management in schools through their direct involvement.
  • Professional development facilitated by out-of-school providers may serve as a mediating link between schools and out-of-school programmes. In the case of one-day-a-week programmes, this has the potential to strengthen the relationships between and across a continuum of provisions by creating opportunities for shared responsibility for gifted and talented students.

As is the case for all other areas of professional learning, the effectiveness of collegial interaction needs to be assessed in terms of its focus on the relationship between teaching practice and student outcomes ( Timperley, 2007, p. 19).

Theory and practice also need to be integrated. In effective professional development, theories of curriculum, effective teaching, and assessment are developed alongside their applications to practice. This integration allows teachers to use their theoretical understandings as the basis for making ongoing, principled decisions about practice ( Timperley, 2007, p. 11).

To make significant changes to their practice, teachers need multiple opportunities to learn new information and understand its implications for practice. Furthermore, they need to encounter these opportunities in environments that offer both trust and challenge ( Timperley, 2007, p. 15).

What are Some Online Avenues for PLNs?

Catherine Little and Brian Housand (2011) describe five avenues to online professional development which "present effective ways of connecting gifted education professionals" (p.19):

  1. Websites and Resources Online
  2. Technology for Interacting with Face-to-Face Audiences in Real Time can be used during a professional learning and development workshop for increased and different audience participation and communication. Using a website like TodaysMeet provides participants who have access to the Internet with a 'live stream' for making comments, asking questions, and providing feedback. Polling the audience or arranging your next session, using a free online site like Doodle, is quick and simple, too.
  3. Asynchronous Online Discussion extends beyond our email in-boxes to blogs, groups, social networking sites, wikis, portfolios, discussion forums, and instructional management programmes like Moodle. There are many more opportunities for asynchronous online communites described in the next section of this website.
  4. Video Conferencing is more and more accessible through free programmes like Skype which allows people to see and hear each other from their computers, as well as share presentations or demonstrate a website. Similarly, webinars enable participants to listen to and view a presentation, access handouts and ask questions. Check out these archived webinars on our site!
  5. Online Learning Communities encompass many of the features listed above, in one spot! giftEDnz: The Professional Association for Gifted Education has developed a group on  The Virtual Learning Network that is open for anyone with a professional interest to join. Canterbury and Massey Universities have developed an interprofessional community for people working in inclusive education, including gifted and talented. Or you can set up your own private online social network using a free service for teachers and students called Edmodo. Twitter also provides a platform for learning communities, and there are several active gifted ones to check out.

The Davidson Institute in the USA has compiled a helpful list of gifted education organisations in the social networking world.

How do I decide?

Professional learning online may be formal or informal. Educators can determine the value of their more informal networks through the satisaction they gain through interacting, developing new knowledge and skills, building professional relationships, and growing confidence.

Making Decisions About Formal Online Learning

According to Del Siegle (2010), online courses for professional learning and development typically include text for reading, videos for viewing, graphics, online links, and/or presentation slides. But successful online courses also include opportunities for participants to 'think out loud' sharing and reflecting upon what they have read, heard or viewed, with one another and the facilitator(s).

Learning online is "not meant to be independent learning experiences" (Siegle, 2010, p. 61), but should connect professionals with one another in a community - asynchronously and from various locations. Therefore, online participants need to have technological, expression, and self-management skills.

Characteristics of a High Quality Online Course:

  1. Expectations are clearly stated, including learning goals or outcomes.
  2. Participants and facilitators introduce themselves and are known to one another, to create a sense of community.
  3. The content is well-organised and self-contained, but may also include outside readings like textbooks and electronic journal articles.
  4. Participation, including online interaction, is clearly defined and explained
  5. It is also essential, of course, that the online materials and activities align with principles and practices advocated as appropriate in our cultural context.

There are several national and international online courses available for teachers in New Zealand on our professional development page.