Believe it or not, Twitter joined the digital world approximately ten years ago. A decade is ancient when it comes to technology, and for many teachers, Twitter has not been a friend. How many times have you had to tell your students to get off Twitter over the years? And really, how much can a person learn using only 140 characters or less?

The truth is, Twitter can support your Personalized Learning Network (PLN) and your professional development. It really can.

First, let’s look at the definition of PLN. Sometimes referred to as a Personal Learning Network or a Professional Learning Network, a PLN is a loosely connected group of individuals who come together to support each other’s growth with respect to a common subject such as education.  This form of professional development is more immediate in nature and tends to provide what is needed, when it is needed. Research has shown that the “one and done” workshop professional development model alone will not support deep learning and the interweaving of the new concepts into the day-to-day work that teachers do in the classroom. However, by nurturing your PLN, you can keep your professional development growing.

I remember when I first started teaching, I had a PLN even though I didn’t know it was called that. This network included my mentor teacher, my fellow English department teachers, my personal friends who were teachers, and my former professors. These individuals provided insight, listened to my concerns and questions, and even learned how to use educational technology from me. However, I found as time went on we had very little time to connect in person or we drifted apart because of changing jobs or moving to different locations. I met other individuals through my graduate work and through other jobs, and these people also joined my PLN (even if they didn’t know it officially). All of these individuals were connected to me through some other group or by physical location.

There are also ways to grow your PLN to include learners and experts from around the world. By growing your PLN beyond those who you personally know, you can learn additional perspectives and ideas.

Dr. Mark Wagner (2012) shared 10 tips for building your PLN. Of these tips, several stood out:

  • Instead of just connecting, it’s important to contribute and converse.
  • Instead of just gathering information and ideas from others, make sure to also post online your ideas and creations so that you can assist others.
  • Instead of just looking for followers, make connections by replying to questions and leave comments that add to the conversation

Dr. Wagner’s final two tips are probably the most important: be patient and be authentic. Building a PLN takes time and takes some effort. It is recommended that you spend about 20 minutes per day building your PLN. For example, check search for a subject that is important to you right now and find experts about that subject. Look at what they are posting and sharing. Believe me, 20 minutes goes very quickly! This is where the patience comes into play. Authenticity is essential as well. Just as in your personal life, if you are not true to who you are . . . people can tell.

There are a number of technology tools that can be used to build your PLN. You are most likely already using some of these tools in your own personal life: Facebook, LinkedIn, blogs, Instagram, Pinterest, YouTube, and of course, Twitter.

Let’s take a deeper look at how to use Twitter to build your PLN and increase your professional development. First of all, you can follow your favorite educational leaders. Some of mine include Scott McLeod (@mcleod), Alan November (@globalearner), Ian Jukes (@ijukes), David Warlick (@dwarlick), and Catapult Learning’s very own, Andrew Ordover (@Aordover). To find out if someone is on Twitter, you can search right on Twitter or Google for the person by typing their full name, maybe a topic they are known for, and the word “Twitter.” You can also search for organizations that may be on Twitter. Some organizations that you may want to follow include ASCD (@ASCD), TED Talks (@TEDTalks), and Edutopia (@edutopia). But remember, don’t just passively take in the information that you find from these thought leaders. Join the conversation. Add comments. Post questions and ideas. You don’t have to know these individuals personally to have them be part of your PLN.

Another way that you can use Twitter to build your PLN and your professional development is to attend a Twitter chat. Twitter chats are Twitter-based conversations held at specific times on a regular basis that have a specific hashtag (#) to follow. Typically there is a host who moderates the discussion and posts questions over the course of the chat. Participants add responses or follow along. The mechanics are a bit confusing at first, but if you have watched a favorite TV show and followed the tweets about the show, you have already participated in an informal Twitter chat.

But, let’s get back to building that PLN. There are currently over 150 educationally-focused Twitter chats held every week. The most popular, #edchat, also tends to be the most general. A calendar and list of all of these Twitter chats are maintained here. You can search for a particular topic or you can pick one that is focused on your region. For example, on Mondays at 8pm ET there is a chat focused on educational technology. The hashtag is #edtechchat. Before you decide to join a Twitter chat, browse through the list and find 3−5 that really sound intriguing. If you are not sure of where to start, follow #edchat to begin.

There are a few tips when participating in a Twitter chat. First of all, if you plan to tweet a lot during the session, let your own followers know ahead of time by posting a “high tweet volume” tweet in advance. Next, make sure to read the first few tweets at the beginning of the chat so you know what the format will be. Typically, questions are identified as Q1, Q2, etc. Answers correspond by using A1, A2, and so on. Make sure to include the chat hashtag in any tweet that you post. Also, if you are responding to a particular person’s comment and want all of the participants to see your response, add that person’s handle (for example, mine is @LaraEnglishHill). There are some etiquette rules that apply when participating. First of all, do not try and sell anything. This is not the time or place. Secondly, do not overshare personal information. Overall, remember to be polite and respectful.

But if all of this seems overwhelming at first, feel free to lurk. Lurking just means you will passively read through the chats and focus on key ideas for you. I always keep a pen and notebook (yes, paper) next to me when I am participating in a Twitter chat to jot ideas or participants that I want to follow. As you become more comfortable following the chats, definitely remember the importance of contributing and connecting by posting ideas, questions, experiences, and more. And remember… to build your PLN make sure you find a few participants that you may want to follow on Twitter. Perhaps they added an idea you were inspired by or they brought up a point that really made you think differently. Remember, there are two goals during Twitter chats. The first one is to find new ideas and resources. The second is to find other educators who may be great additions to your PLN.

Another way to improve the Twitter chat experience is to use an app or Web tool that provides a better interface when tweeting or lurking. If you are using a mobile device such as a smartphone or tablet, check out Twitterific for Apple iPhones or iPads. On Android devices such as Samsung, check out Tweetcaster. For desktops and laptops, I prefer Tweetdeck although Tweetchat is especially easy for new Twitter users. These Twitter clients provide additional features that allow you to take your tweeting further such as having multiple Twitter accounts (personal and professional), automatically adding the chat hashtag to any tweet you post, and more.

Are you new to Twitter and need help getting started? Don’t fret. Check out the resources below and maybe you will even find others to add to your PLN while you are learning. It would definitely be a nice birthday gift to Twitter. But more importantly, it will be the gift that keeps giving for you!

New to Twitter?