Personal Learning Networks for Social Workers

pln2Actually, you probably already have a professional learning network (PLN) of your own, and didn’t even notice it.  A professional learning network (also known as a personalized learning network) includes the tools and processes used by a social worker to stay up-to-date and share information about current news, practice knowledge and the latest research findings. Prior to the explosion in online content and tools, a PLN might have included an article from trusted daily newspaper or a print version of a child welfare journal, which you photocopied to share with employees or colleagues (or if you are a social work educator, with students as part of a class discussion). Today, a PLN exists when a social worker uses social media to collect information related to professional interests, shares this information with others, and also collaborates with others on projects (Richardson & Manacebelli, 2011). For example, a social worker’s PLN might include the use of email alerts from online newspapers, blogs and scholarly journals to receive updates about child welfare research, and then shares this information with employees, colleagues or students via Twitter or a curated list on Diigo, a social bookmarking tool.

There are many benefits to developing a digital PLN with social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn:

– First, you can develop a network of trusted resources (individuals, organizations and publishers) that you can access at almost anytime. While learning from other professionals is nothing new, social media expands the number and variety of content, people and groups that you can access such as professionals from other countries, open-access peer-reviewed scholarship, and first-hand accounts of other people’s experiences. Because social media platforms are available 24/7, you can connect with your network when you want and from most any digital device including a laptop, tablet or smart phone.

– Second, you can easily stay up-to-date on any professional interest, quickly add or expand an interest on your network. For example, if you are interested in homelessness, you might start by following local and national housing advocacy agencies on Twitter and, in the process, you might discover individuals who are tweeting about their personal experiences with homelessness.

– Third, a digital PLN allows you to easily create and share content with others in real-time, offering tools that allow you to meaningfully contribute to professional conversations and public discourse. Maybe you don’t want to write a blog, but you can share interesting article and photos with your colleagues about self-care practices or other professional interests via a Facebook group. For good visual summary of the benefits of a PLN, watch this 15-minute video by Dean Nancy J Smyth and Mr. Mike Langlois from the University of Buffalo’s School of Social Work.

So how does one go about setting up a PLN?

The first step is build your PLN. Start by setting up two or three free social media accounts for professional use. When setting up your accounts, you will want to create an open and public account. If you keep your accounts private, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to network, communicate or share information with others. Remember that with a professional account, you want to present your authentic self in the best way possible. Use your real name and a real photo. This is the equivalent of attending a face-to-face professional meeting, introducing yourself and then handing out your business card. Also, learn about notification settings for each social media platform, which include texts or email alerts when new content is available. Use these settings to push content to you in a way that is most convenient for you.

I recommend the following platforms and practices as you build your network:

Start following Social Workers on Twitter: Set your account to public, add your picture, and write a brief profile description. Next, use the search function in Twitter to look for other social workers and start following them. See my Twitter list of social workers as a starting point.

Set up your LinkedIn Profile: Spend some time setting up your profile on LinkedIn which is an online resume. Start connecting with other social workers, and explore the different groups on LinkedIn. Join and participate in some of the different social work groups such as the National Association of Social Workers or the Association for Community Organizing and Social Administration (ACOSA).  Alternatively, you could use Facebook instead of LinkedIn.  I just prefer LinkedIn for professional work, and keep my Facebook account for personal interactions.

Join a Google+ Community: After setting up your account, search for a social work community or create your own community based on your interests. One of my favorite Google+ communities is Social Work and Technology moderated by Drs. Jonathan Singer and Melanie Sage.

– Start reading Social Work Blogs: Start following, reading and commenting on social work blogs. Check out the Inspired Advocates list of blogs by and for social workers.

Participate in a Live Chat with other Social Workers: Start participating in live Twitter chats with other social workers such as the #MacroSW Chats or the NASW Live Chat Series.  Click here for more information about how to participate in a live Twitter chat.

Once you have set up your PLN, the next step is to maintain and nurture your network. Plan to spend about twenty minutes a day reviewing content, sharing information and interacting with other social workers. Examples include responding to someone’s tweet, liking a post shared on LinkedIn or posting a link to an interesting article on a Google+ community. For me, a typical day with my PLN includes checking Twitter (where I post two or three tweets a day and respond to or re-tweet a colleagues’ tweets); sharing on LinkedIn (where actively post in a closed group with students about local job announcements and career building tips); and scanning my email for notifications/alerts from Google+, blogs, journals and other sources that I read and/or archive for later access.

If you want to take your PLN to the super-gold star level, activate your PLN when you have a question or learning need by actively reaching out to others. Tweet a question to select peers or invite others to collaborate on project.  I like to activate my network when attending professional conferences. Using Twitter and the conference’s hashtag, I post tweets from sessions that I attend and follow the tweets from my peers who attend other sessions. Not only do I learn about what is happening in different sessions, I can work with others to create an archive of the tweets that can be shared. See this transcript that I created from a recent social work education conference.

If you are a social work educator, not only should you develop your own PLN, but I would suggest helping students develop PLNs as a course assignment.  I would be very interested to hear about any experiences you have with developing your own PLN or working with students to develop their own PLN.  I’ll give a gold star to anyone who comments by sharing a tip or practice that worked for their PLN.

Richardson, W., & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks: Using the power of connections to transform education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Author: Laurel Hitchcock

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