My go-to tools for building and maintaining my PLN

I wrote this reflection on the value of PLNs for my AQ course, but my blog seemed like an ideal place to cross-post it given the content.

I already have a fairly well-established PLN, and I can pretty confidently agree with the sentiment found in one of the articles: “Interestingly, many teachers who are active online have remarked that they’ve learned a great deal more from their PLN than from any professional development session they’ve attended.” (Step 1: What is a PLN? Teacher Challenge) That said, much of my PLN has been established and built thanks to in person professional development experiences as well, and my PD experiences have been enriched thanks to the connection with my PLN. 

I have been on Twitter since 2012, though it was not until about 2015 that I started really exploring the possibilities for taking advantage of it for professional learning. I discovered Tweetdeck, which is a service/website that allows you to manage your Twitter feed more effectively, and that made all the difference. With Tweetdeck, rather than just seeing a single stream of all of the accounts that you follow, you can also follow “lists” (groups of people that you or others can curate) or hashtags. This allows you to choose what you see. While looking at Tweetdeck can be overwhelming, for me, I have found that it is the best way to really curate and find that you’re looking for. Twitter in general can be overwhelming, as well. The best advice I ever received about using Twitter is that while it can be a firehose of information, you are free to dip your cup in to collect a bit of water every once in a while. Like many of the articles mentioned, you can spend as much or as little time as you choose to. For me, it is five to fifteen minutes per day. By following the right people, I am able to discover articles, resources, and news that are up to date and relevant to my interests. Participating in or hosting Twitter chats, as well, can open up discussions and get me reflecting personally about my practice. Follow me here.

Tweetdeck can appear overwhelming at first glance but it is actually a really useful tool for sorting tweets by groups or hashtags.

I have also been blogging since the fall of 2015, when I was prompted to start a blog as part of a full-year professional development experience called Cohort 21. It is an integrated experience that basically allows you to work on a particular area of your teaching practice for the full year, with four face-to-face sessions with facilitators, coaches and other participants, while remaining connected throughout the year by blogging, Tweeting, and using Google Hangouts. For me, the main benefit of blogging is that it forces me to be a reflective practitioner. I don’t blog as much as I’d like to, but I love being able to share successful projects or classroom experiences, and I find so much value in reflecting on those activities that didn’t go so well, and hearing from others who have had similar experiences or suggestions for improvement. Obviously, student privacy is a big concern, so I do not post any photos of students or any details about where I work or particulars of my students. I have in the past posted some student work with the students’ and their parents’ permission. You can follow my blog here. 

I also use Feedly to read and follow a large collection of educational blogs. (I have a personal Feedly account, as well, for following non-educational blogs.) Feedly allows me to see all of the unread blog posts in one place, rather than having to visit each site on its own. My only complaint about following a lot of these educational blogs is that many of them have become monetized, and so there are a lot of sponsored posts and self-promotion that I find I have to wade through. I’ve had to start unfollowing some of them for that reason – not enough substance, too much selling.  A couple of my favourites: Seth Godin (not necessarily education-related but he’s got such good stuff!), EdTechTeam, and Cult of Pedagogy.

Google Hangouts is the third of my secret weapons in my PLN. Hangouts lives in my Gmail, which I always have open on my computer. Often when you think of Hangouts, you think of video chatting, for which it is a wonderful tool. However, I am a part of several group chats through Hangouts, which allow a group of people to communicate asynchronously but without having to navigate to a new page in the browser or check in to a different website. In particular, I am part of a Canada-wide educators chat that is one of the most valuable tools that I have. I have had to turn off notifications or else my devices would be pinging constantly as this particular chat is extremely active. But if I have a question – about what tool would be the best for the job, or a troubleshooting question about a particular app or service – I usually get the answer I need within ten minutes. For example, a teacher at my school might ask me if there is an app out there that does x y or z. I post my question to the chat, and the teacher thinks I’m a superhero when I have an answer for them before the end of the day. I am so lucky to be a part of that chat, and I am included because I made personal, in-real-life connections with some of these educators while attending and presenting at professional development conferences. 

Finally, I know that the next frontier for being a connected educator is podcasts. I simply don’t find that I have the right blocks of time to listen to podcasts regularly. (My drive to work is 30 minutes, but a lot of podcasts are longer than that, and I hate having to stop mid-podcast!) However, the one podcast that I do try to stay on top of as much as possible is Cult of Pedagogy. Jennifer Gonzalez does great work and tackles really pertinent topics. 

All of these above tools are my “go to” ways of fitting in professional development wherever I can. Having a PLN is all about a mindset of lifelong learning, and I don’t have to wait for the budget to allow me to attend a massive national conference in order to learn something new, nearly every day. I can’t say enough about the benefits of developing a PLN like this. 

One last thing that really resonated with me from the readings was this quote: 

“Too often connected educators are the worst advocates of connectedness because of their enthusiasm for what , and how they are learning. They tend to overwhelm the less informed with too much information that would scare off anyone who already views technology as an obstacle to overcome, as opposed to a tool to be learned and used effectively.” (Tom Whitby, The Connected Educator Culture)

I can certainly attest to this, as it seems like many of my colleagues just close their ears when I start talking about using Twitter. Does anyone have any tips or ideas for not coming across as overwhelming or preachy when trying to get colleagues to start exploring some of these PLN tools??

Update on last year’s Action Plan

As I promised last week, today I’m back with an update on my 2015-2016 Action Plan, which centred around the question “How might we restructure Communications Technology to provide more and better opportunities for personalization and project-based learning?” Although it was technically last year’s Action Plan, it was a large project of which I merely scratched the surface last year. The intention was to continue to revamping process this year, and I have made some gains in that regard.

In my final slide deck from last year, I noted four areas of focus on the “what’s next?” slide:

In some of these areas, I believe I made significant progress.

1 ) Continue to learn about Design Thinking, project-based learning, and blended learning.

Blended, by Michael B. Horn & Heather Staker

I read an excellent book, Blended, over the summer, which helped to clarify some of the language around blended learning, the various models that exist, and the importance of understanding the purpose of implementing blended learning in your situation. (Is it a sustaining innovation or a disruptive innovation??) You can also read my “review” (mostly just my favourite quotes) on my Goodreads profile here. This book will continue to serve me well as I embark on my new position next year, which has as one of its mandates to develop a blended learning framework for my school.

Dive Into Inquiry, by Trevor Mackenzie

At the EdTechTeam summit in BC in November, I was lucky enough to meet Trevor Mackenzie, author of the book Dive Into Inquiry, who gave me a copy to read. I devoured it on the plane ride home, thrilled with the possibilities that it explored about getting students to focus on their passions as a vehicle for learning. This served as a guide for me as I restructured the last four months of my course, and although I didn’t follow his formula exactly, the book provided me with some language and some structure to guide my revamping.

2) Continue to leverage my new toolbox and networks to keep learning and growing.

I continued to read blogs, both of the Cohort 21 variety and those of the wider educational community. I made regular use of Twitter to keep learning, which proved to be one of the best sources of professional reading I could have ever imagined. And I had the opportunity to present at two EdTechTeam conferences in BC, which allowed me to expand my PLN even further. Acting as a coach with Cohort 21 this year also kept me in touch with the culture of continued reflection and growth, even if I was not always completely motivated to keep up at all times. (See last week’s blog post: “On Failure” for more details about that.)

3) Redesign Unit 1 to cover more core competencies and teach process analysis skills.

This was something that I had intended to plan in more detail over the summer holidays, but it did not exactly work out that way. Summer has a way of sneaking right by us, doesn’t it? However, despite not having done a ton of advanced planning, I did manage to rework my first two units in order to cover a broader range of skills and tools.

Last year, when I taught the course for the first time, I divided it into subject-specific units: Intro to Comm Tech, Photography, Graphic Design, Videography, Audio Production, and Social Media and Marketing. The challenge, of course, is that each of these is such a vast topic that we could only cover in brief if we were to have any hope of getting through them all in a survey-type course. Students who were really interested in videography had only a month and a half to explore that area, and we could barely scratch the surface of it. This time around, I changed the focus.

Unit 1, “Fundamentals of Communications Technology,” explored the principles behind Comm Tech (what is it, anyway??), and we focused on developing fundamental skills such as care and use of equipment, file management techniques, copyright adherence, and project organization and management. We learned how to manage bookmarks and sync our Chrome browsers to become more efficient, and we explored how to use our digital SLR cameras for the most basic of photography and videography tasks. All of these skills would be fundamental going forward, regardless of what area students were interested in pursuing.

In one of my prouder moments as a teacher, I eliminated the traditional test from the course and tried for the first time a performance-based or practical test – students were simply to demonstrate for me their mastery of simple processes, and they were assessed as having “achieved mastery”, “approaching mastery”, or “not yet there”. Not surprisingly, this was much more time consuming — it took two 80 minute periods to assess the group of 19 students — but to me seemed a much fairer and more authentic way of assessing the level of students’ skills. Can they do it or not?

In Unit 2, “Adobe Creative Cloud and Design Fundamentals,” we explored basic design fundamentals such as photo composition and the principles of good design. We were introduced to a variety of Creative Cloud applications (e.g. Photoshop, InDesign, Bridge, etc.) so that students could become familiar with the interfaces and basic tools that come up in each one. Again, these skills were intended to form a baseline so that students would then be able to build upon them as they embarked on their in depth, independent studies in the areas of their choosing.

4) Curate lists of basic resources for every area of study as a starting point for student learning.

This goal shifted significantly based on the inspiration from Trevor Mackenzie’s book.

Finally, in March we began the independent units, which, based in part on Trevor’s suggested structure, I divided into two modules: Guided Inquiry and Free Inquiry.

My version of “Guided Inquiry” was probably more a hybrid of what Trevor Mackenzie calls Controlled Inquiry and Guided Inquiry.

In the Guided Inquiry module, students chose a piece of software from Creative Cloud’s suite of apps. They could choose from Photoshop, InDesign, Illustrator, Premiere Pro, Animate, Audition, and Muse. I curated resources for each of the software programs, and over the course of about a month, students worked through the resources (mostly from the incredible range of tutorials from Adobe’s website), taking notes and completing assessments and practice activities along the way. This was based on my initial forays into personalized learning last year, which focused on just Adobe Muse and Adobe Illustrator as options for students. You can read about that here.

Throughout this Guided Inquiry process, I was in the unique position of providing support and assistance while students worked through the resources, rather than standing at the front of the class providing the actual instruction. I freely admitted to students that I was unfamiliar with some of the software, and would do my best to help troubleshoot wherever possible. But the focus was on working through challenges, and seeking help from peers who were working on the same software, rather than coming to me immediately whenever they encountered a roadblock. This was a huge step in the right direction. I was able to monitor student progress and provide feedback on the learning process, as well as provide targeted support where needed. Awesome!

Now in Progress: the Free Inquiry stage

Finally, upon completion of the Guided Inquiry, we embarked on the Free Inquiry module. This would be the chance for students to really dive deeply into their area of focus. The students’ choices for the Guided Inquiry provided the basis for their topics for the Free Inquiry. For example, if a student was interested in videography as an area of focus, then they had chosen to complete the Guided Inquiry module on Premiere Pro (video editing software).

(Here I switch to the present tense, as we’re currently right in the middle of it.)

For the Free Inquiry, there are two components:

  1. A report, in the format of their choice, which is intended to provide a medium for students to communicate the evidence of their learning for the module. Students are required to conduct additional research, explore more tutorials, and deepen their understanding of the basic principles studied in the first two units so that they can create the most effective authentic piece possible. (See component #2.)
  2. An authentic piece, by which students will demonstrate their mastery of their new skills by creating a product — whether it be a marketing plan, a website, a documentary, a YouTube channel, an ad campaign, an animation, or anything else they choose! One requirement of the authentic piece is that it have an authentic audience outside of the teacher or the class. Students needed to think deeply about how they can create something that has a connection to the outside world, and I have been so impressed by the projects that some of them are choosing to undertake. One student is developing a marketing plan and website for the clothing company that he’s just started with a friend. Another is creating a promotional video for her mother’s jewellery company. Another is planning a complete design, including signage, menus, and staff uniforms, of a restaurant her father is starting. Still others are creating a shop on Redbubble where they will produce products like t-shirts and phone cases out of their original photos.

This process has been incredible for me to be a part of. Although I certainly learned several things along the way about the need to be clearer in my expectations and instructions, I have been blown away by the quality of ideas that students are proposing for their authentic piece, and the planning that they are doing to make their ideas come to life. Each class, I meet with individual students for nearly the entire 80 minutes, asking questions, getting updates on their progress, and providing feedback, ideas, resources for them to check out. Even more so now than during the Guided Inquiry, I feel like I am bringing so much more value to students in this role as coach or facilitator than I ever could as a teacher instructing the whole group from the front of the class.


In all, I would consider this process a success. I do not want to be content with how this has gone and leave it at that – I know that I can do better. However, I do feel as though the progress I’ve made will make it easier for another teacher to take on the teaching of Comm Tech in my absence next year without having to worry about lacking some of the technical skills that are the focus of the course.

I still have some lingering How Might We questions that I can make a focus going forward. How might I be clearer in my expectations? How might I present exemplars or provide ideas without limiting students’ creativity? How might I best help those students who lack motivation, struggle with time management, or seem not to have a passion that they want to tap into for their project? And how on earth will I assess all of these projects that are so vastly different from one another??

I would love to hear any ideas that you might have about how to continue to improve this process and make it as valuable as possible for all involved.