When Your PLN Fails You (and what you can do about it)

I would love to say that my personal learning network – those that follow, friend, and connect with me in order to share ideas and support one another in our respective inquiries – are always there with help when I need it. The idea that a PLN is like the Bat Signal, where all I have to do is light the projection lamp and all my problems will be solved, is a noble one. It would be great if what is imagined with this concept were reality.

Except it isn’t.

photo credit: nhussein via photopin cc

Case in point: I sent out this tweet recently to my 5500+ followers:

Want to guess how many retweets, favorites, and responses I received? If you guessed “zero”, you would be correct.

Was it my fault? Maybe the question was too specific, or not specific enough. I used hashtags in hopes to narrow down the inquiry to those most likely and qualified to answer it. Certainly, I could have considered using different hashtags, such as #nerdybookclub or #educoach. Alas, the 140 character limit of Twitter forces you to be picky.

Maybe it was my PLN’s fault, or the whole idea of a personal learning network in general. We are sold on the idea that our PLN is 24/7 professional development, where learning is just a fingertip away. But how often is the message conveyed about the importance of being an active participant in other educators’ PLNs? Not often enough, apparently.

Speaking for myself, I could always do a better job. Many questions enter my feed, and I pass on the majority of them. Too busy, don’t have the answers, someone else will respond…I have evoked all of those reasons. So if most of us have that same mentality, what are some strategies we can use to better take advantage of our PLNs? Here are three suggestions.

Include specific people in your posts

This isn’t a guarantee that you will get a response to your inquiry, but you certainly increase your odds. By including certain individuals in your tweet or post, you put it on them to respond. The disadvantage is that everyone else who sees your post might be even less likely to respond because they think that the person(s) referenced will respond on their behalf.

Engage in Twitter chats

I would agree with others that participating in a chat on Twitter does not lead to profound discoveries. That is not the intention of these events, in my opinion. The purpose of a Twitter chat is to talk with others, engage in a topic of interest and knowledge, and discover potential new members for your PLN. Which leads into…

Develop communities of practice

These learning groups are somewhat different than PLNs, in that it is usually smaller and more focused on a specific topic. For example, I am involved with the All Things PLC (#atplc) group on Voxer and Google+. We have regular conversations about professional learning communities and related educational topics. If I have a question, I know that the people in these communities of practice will be more apt to respond with questions and advice. Likewise, I feel more obligated to respond to their own inquires. I am not just one of their followers; I am an essential member of this specific learning community.

What is your experience with reaching out to your PLN? Are you finding them to be helpful, indifferent, or somewhere in between? Please share in the comments.

Author: Matt Renwick

Matt Renwick is an 18-year public educator who began as a 5th and 6th-grade teacher in Rudolph, WI. He now serves as an elementary principal for the Mineral Point Unified School District (http://mineralpointschools.org/). Matt also teaches online graduate courses in curriculum design and instructional leadership for the University of Wisconsin-Superior. He tweets @ReadByExample and writes for ASCD (www.ascd.org) and Lead Literacy (www.leadliteracy.com).

14 thoughts on “When Your PLN Fails You (and what you can do about it)”

  1. Matt,
    Hash tags are critical in twitter. With your topic, either #CloseReading or #PD could have thrown it into my view; not #engchat and I have never seen #edchat before. Maybe some of us are specializing “too” much because time is our most finite resource.

    Are you talking K-6 teachers? All content areas?

    What understanding do you want your teachers to have after the “reading” that they will not have before reading?


    1. Hi Fran. Time is truly limited, which is a big reason why I myself do not respond to the vast majority of questions in my feed.

      We ended up selecting an article from The Reading Teacher (Designating the MVP) to read as a staff.


      1. Thanks . . . I will have to check out that article. I really like to push for text from real life for close reading . . . something from current events with some depth to it! 🙂


  2. I read, read, read, and rarely comment. I’m always afraid I will sound like an uneducated idiot among scholars. I realize that it’s kind of silly, but sometimes I’d just rather just take it all in rather than possibly offend someone or ask a stupid question (yeah, yeah, there’s no such thing….). So I guess I don’t reach out to my PLN, yet I find it valuable enough that I continue to follow along.


    1. Cara, I know you, and your participation in any learning forum would be welcomed. Whatever you would have to share would be a positive addition to that community’s collective intelligence.

      Where you are at as a connected educator is where you are at. That’s okay. Please don’t let my rants affect your perception of your own participation online in a negative way. Good of you to share your honest thinking here.


  3. I’ve struggled with this as well. I try to engage with Twitter and with other people’s blogs, but there sometimes feels like not enough time in the day. Twitter chats I’d like to join (like #educoach) happen after my bed time because I’m on EST and it’s physically impossible for me to stay awake past 9:30. But I do get frustrated because sometimes I feel like I’m giving–commenting, sharing–but not getting much back.

    I also think the time of day a tweet goes out definitely affects the response one gets. For example, I didn’t see your tweet because it went out while I was teaching. I do, however, have a bibliography of articles I used in a presentation on close reading and writing I did this summer on my website. Maybe some of those will be helpful?


    1. Good point Samantha, about the timing of tweets. Time zones and daily routines affect participation. I share your same frustrations at times, about the give-take balance. Thank you for being an active member of my PLN!


  4. Interesting conundrum. As far as Twitter goes, I didn’t see your Tweet, which makes me think I need to streamline my feed. Maybe make a list? As far as my PLN, I agree 100% with your point about developing a community of practice. My PLN(s) are large, but when I need a specific answer (like you did), I go to a smaller group of people. That group changes depending on my need, but it almost always includes my co-authors at Two Writing Teachers. I guess having a go-to group like that would be helpful for anyone.


    1. Dana, it sounds like you have a good system for managing your online learning. I have made lists but rarely check them. Instead, I rely on Flipboard to follow lists and hashtags and present those posts in a more visually-appealing way.


  5. Hey, Matt,
    Everytime I hear, “Twitter is the greatest PD I ever had!” my head almost explodes. Twitter in and of itself is not professional development, but rather how we use the tool as just ONE TINY FRACTION of the many professional resources available to us. Like you, I’ve tweeted out something and received zero responses. It doesn’t happen often, though, and I am not afraid to retweet something or ask again if I don’t get a response. If I don’t, that indicates to me that I’m not seeking resources in the right place at the right time. The work of Harold Jarche and his Seek Sense Share model
    has really influenced my thinking in this area. It’s hard to convince someone new to Twitter that it is this one-stop-shop for PD, especially when someone with a limited amount of followers tries to elicit responses or support. But keeping Jarche’s model in mind, the user recognizes that various sources will help him “Seek” information and thus make sense of it. It’s all part of Jarche’s explanations for how we strive for personal knowledge management (PKM).
    I’m glad you wrote this post, and even more pleased to see that you received responses to your query in this space! Blogging rules.
    To be honest, I did see your original tweet. I didn’t respond because I had absolutely nothing of value to share on that topic 🙂


    1. Thank you Lyn for the comment and the resource you shared. I saved it for later use, as it looks very relevant.

      I have heard the same comment made by others too, about Twitter being the best PD. When I have engaged others in why this is the case, responses vary widely. To be honest, I use the phrase myself, but with the caveat that it is a wonderful way to start your self-directed, connected learning experience. It is how I started. However, if Twitter were where my professional learning ended, I would have missed out on some great relationships I have made in closer quarters, such as Google+ Communities, Voxer, and eventually in person.


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