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Edtech Advocacy &
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Table1: Learning, Leading, and Advocacy: Professional Learning Networks for School & Instructional Leaders

Location: W179a, Table 1

Listen and learn

Listen and learn : Research paper

Monday, June 25, 11:30 am–12:30 pm
Location: W179a, Table 1

Dr. Jeffrey Carpenter   Dr. Daniel Krutka   Dr. Torrey Trust  
How do school administrators and instructional leaders leverage social media to develop professional learning networks (PLNs) that span beyond their schools and districts? How do these PLNs shape learning, teaching, and practice? In this session we will share findings from survey data of 400 PK-12 school and instructional leaders.

Skill level: Beginner
Attendee devices: Devices not needed
Focus: Professional learning
Topic: Professional learning models
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Pursue professional interests by creating and actively participating in local and global learning networks.
For Administrators:
Digital Age Learning Culture
  • Model and promote the frequent and effective use of technology for learning.
  • Promote and participate in local, national and global learning communities that stimulate innovation, creativity and digital age collaboration.

Proposal summary


From a social learning theory perspective (Putnam & Borko, 2000), learning with a PLN is situated, social, and distributed. Because educators can cultivate diverse PLNs based on their professional interests, needs, and goals, they are able to explore and acquire knowledge that is situated in and relevant to the contexts in which they work. Furthermore, the nature of learning within PLNs is social, as educators interact with other individuals in ways that help them discover, reflect, experiment, and share (Authors, 2017). Learning is also distributed across people and tools in PLNs, which allows educators to connect to new ideas and information as they can reach out to others in their PLN with different knowledge and expertise. School and instructional leaders, just like K-12 teachers, need professional development opportunities that are situated in practice, long-term, provide opportunities for collaborative problem solving, and encourage reflective practices (e.g., National Staff Development Council, 2000).


We drafted, discussed, revised, and finalized an online survey to collect qualitative data about educators’ PLNs (see Appendix A). Existing PLN literature (e.g., Wenger, Trayner, & de Laat, 2011) and our own experiences with PLNs informed our survey design. The survey consisted of three sections concerning informed consent, demographics, and PLNs, and included both close-ended and open-ended items.

We targeted our survey at educators who were likely familiar with the PLN concept by posting invitations to a variety of online spaces during a seventy-five day time-period. We posted multiple invitations to a variety of online platforms utilized by educators for professional purposes (see Table 1). Across these sites, we distributed the survey invitation systematically at different times of the day throughout the week so it would be visible to a broad range of educators.

A total of 1,417 educators responded to the survey. This article focuses on the 400 respondents (28.2%) who reported that they worked at the PK-12 level as school or instructional leaders, rather than as classroom teachers. Because the survey did not require participants to respond to every prompt, the number of respondents for individual prompts varied slightly. The majority of the participants were female (n=270; 67.5%) and lived in the United States (n=335; 83.8%). Participants resided in 21 different countries including Canada (n=28; 7.0%), and Australia (n=7; 1.8%).

We conducted a thematic analysis in order to identify and explore patterns related to our research questions (Braun & Clarke, 2006). We began data analysis using the codes we had developed inductively in analyzing the PK-12 teacher (Authors, 2016) and higher educator (Authors, 2017) data from our larger sample. We remained open to the emergence of new codes that might be relevant to this sample of educators. For our initial study of 732 K-12 teachers in this dataset, we engaged in repeated iterations of individual coding followed by comparison of interpretations. In total, we engaged in seven cycles of coding that included regular research team meetings to discuss the data and coding structure, and reconcile differences (Saldaña, 2016). Through discussion, comparison, and consolidation we arrived at a set of 36 codes. We drew from these codes, in addition to codes we identified during our analysis of the higher education faculty and professionals’ PLN dataset (Authors, 2017), to generate an initial list of 23 codes to guide our analysis. In teams of 2, we coded the first 100 responses from the three open-ended survey prompts. We discussed responses that did not fit with our previous codes and collaboratively determined nine new codes that were relevant to the data set and three that could be eliminated. With our new set of 29 codes, we re-coded the entire dataset. Then, we met to discuss and organize the codes into broader themes.


RQ1: How do educators describe their PLNs?
A total of 310 participants offered descriptions of their PLNs. Participants commonly cited people (n=250; 81%), organizations (n=101; 33% ), face-to-face spaces (n=38; 12%), virtual spaces (n=280; 90%), and/or tools (n=189; 61%) when defining their PLNs (see Tables 3 & 4). For example, an instructional leader from Canada, characterized her PLN in terms of the people with whom she could learn:
Educators including teachers, principals, superintendents, ECEs, professors, parents, students, and people in all walks of life, make up my PLN. All of these people are innovative in their thinking, following their own learning journeys, and sharing from where they stand. I find each person inspiring, thought-provoking, and insightful.
Another participant shared that his PLN consisted of various people, spaces, and tools:
My PLN is comprised of Twitter followers and those I follow, contacts I've made from conferences, participation in online courses and MOOCs, and national and state ed tech leaders. The tools I use most often are LinkedIn, Edmodo, Google+, Blogger, Feedly, etc. Blogs I follow are Free Tech for Teachers, Dangerously Irrelevant, and Committed Sardine.
These two quotes highlight the diversity in participants’ descriptions of their PLNs. While some participants focused their responses on people, others listed spaces for connecting and interacting with people or tools for accessing and organizing information. Many participants (n=270; 87%) included two or more of these components in their responses.

RQ2: How do educators perceive that their participation in PLNs impacts their learning and practice?

Two hundred and twenty-seven participants described a variety of most important impacts on their learning via their PLNs. Some educators shared excitement (n=9, 4%) or increased professional confidence (n=7, 3%), a shift in their learning disposition (n=30, 13%) or philosophy (n=7, 3%), or the benefits of online professional community with whom they could connect (n=75, 33%). Concerning the benefits of professional community, one participant echoed a similar refrain that, “working together to problem solve and create is better than working independently as many ideas are generated based on the comments of others,” and another participant claimed her PLN “exposes me to new innovative ideas and hope to carry on so I don't feel alone. Specific charges include being a digital and lead learner as a campus and district leader.” Comments were overwhelmingly positive and often referred to PLN members as central to a sense of community and a positive space for educational learning.

Other participants mentioned more gaining knowledge about assessment strategies, educational technology (n=79, 35%), current trends (n=21, 9%), and professional knowledge about resources, wise practices, or research (n=76, 34%). Many participants regularly shared technology apps, sites, or tips they learned or general or specific knowledge about educational ideas. Furthermore, our participants were able to better serve as instructional leaders as PLNs helped find professional (n=6, 3%) or learning (n=23, 10%) opportunities, gain leadership knowledge and skills (n=17, 8%), and better understand, make recommendations to, and advocate for teachers (n=20, 9%).

Two hundred twenty-six respondents described changes to their practices that they attributed to what they have learned from their PLN activities. Participants most commonly cited changes to their leadership actions or activities (n=80; 35%). For instance, one participant described several changes in her leadership:
As a professional development consultant, I am more likely to contact experts and other educators with questions. I also have become more vocal and involved through social media, creating Twitter chats and book studies. I'm learning how to shift my vision of what effective professional learning is and promoting it to educators in our area rather than relying on face-to-face meetings.
A small number of respondents also described changes in their dispositions related to leadership (n=18; 8%). For example, one respondent wrote, “By seeing the amazing things others are doing around the world, it inspired me to be more than simply a school counselor. My PLNs have motivated me to be more of an educational leader not only within my building, but across my state.”
 Many participants credited their PLNs with making changes in the teaching strategies (n=57; 25%) and technology (n=55; 24%) they used in their own work and/or they encouraged the educators with whom they worked to use. Fifty-three participants (23%) described ways in which their PLN had led them to be more involved with various professional communities. Respondents also reported becoming more reflective about (n=21; 9%) and confident in (n=17; 8%) their practices because of their PLNs. For example, one participant wrote, “My PLN gives me an opportunity to reflect on practice, to become aware of others' perceptions regarding similar issues, to widen my scope of thinking and making better informed decisions” and another commented, “I have been more courageous in implementing new ideas (like PBL) because I had a lot more background knowledge, ideas and advice (via Twitter and blogs).”


This paper provides one of the first glimpses at school and instructional leaders’ perspectives on the impact of their PLN activities. Respondents’ described diverse PLNs that supported their growth as learners, educators, and leaders. They asserted that their PLN activities positively impacted their learning and practice in a number of different ways. Given common cynicism regarding traditional PD approaches, participants’ enthusiasm for their PLNs and their perceptions of positive impacts are noteworthy. Results from this study offer insights into networked professional learning that is less constrained by the temporal, geographic, programmatic, and certification concerns that historically have played central roles in defining educators’ professional collaboration. These findings thus have implications for defining the present and future of educator learning and leadership in a digital age.


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Dr. Jeffrey Carpenter, Elon University
Dr. Daniel Krutka, University of North Texas
Dr. Torrey Trust, University of Massachusetts Amherst

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