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New PLN Research: Why Do Some Educators Lurk While Others Lead?

Listen and learn

Listen and learn : Research paper
Lecture presentation

Sunday, November 29, 10:15–11:00 am PST (Pacific Standard Time)
Presentation 1 of 2
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STEM Females Lead in Entrepreneurship

Sarah Prestridge  
Dr. Torrey Trust  

In this study, we present a new model that showcases the multifaceted nature of five influencers (goals, time, confidence, relationships, space dynamics) on educators’ PLN actions (e.g., lurking, collaborative learning, posting resources, leading). This study offers a new way of thinking about and examining educators' professional learning networks.

Audience: Coaches, Teacher education/higher ed faculty, Professional developers
Attendee devices: Devices not needed
Topic: Teacher education
Subject area: Preservice teacher education, Inservice teacher education
ISTE Standards: For Educators:
  • Pursue professional interests by creating and actively participating in local and global learning networks.

Proposal summary


PLNs are dynamic, multifaceted systems of learning support. Every educator has a PLN consisting of the spaces they go to for ideas, help, and information, the people with whom they interact, and the tools they use to access, curate, and share information. Historically, PLNs developed in in-person settings, such as schools, workshops, seminars, and conferences. With the new digital landscape, many educators have expanded their PLNs to include online spaces, contacts, and tools in order to access new learning opportunities.

While research related to educators’ PLNs is growing, the majority of the studies during the past two decades have focused on educators’ participation within a formal online community of practice or informal social media space, such as Twitter and Facebook (e.g., see Lantz-Andersson, Lundin, and Selwyn’s [2018] systematic review of 52 studies of formal and informal online teacher communities). Findings from these studies indicate that K-12 teachers often turn to digital spaces to augment their professional development, gain access to social and emotional support, expand their networks beyond their local contacts, and construct and share professional knowledge (Carpenter & Green, 2017; Carpenter & Krutka, 2014; Hur & Brush, 2009; Kelly & Antonio, 2016; Seo, 2014; Wesley, 2013). As opposed to traditional professional development activities, such as workshops and seminars, educator digital spaces offer flexible, self-driven learning experiences that can happen anytime, from anywhere, and with anyone around the world who has Internet access. Digital spaces support social, distributed, and situated learning experiences as educators seek out information that is directly related to their practice from the people within these virtual places who have diverse experiences and expertise. The innovative dynamics of digital spaces present new ways to grow professionally with both strong and weak ties (e.g., individuals with whom one does not have a direct connection) (Granovetter, 1973).

Educators’ actions can be fluid and shift within these online spaces depending on a variety of factors. Early research on online communities indicated that the social dynamics of the space (e.g., etiquette, trust, empathy, social presence, reciprocity, culture), educators’ technical competency, the usability of the space, and perceptions of the community influenced the level and type of participation (Barab, Schatz, & Scheckler, 2004; Carr & Chambers, 2006; Jones & Preece, 2006). Scholars have also found that time, motivation, goals, topics of discussion, and local contexts influence educators’ engagement in online spaces (Author A, 2017; Duncan-Howell, 2010; Lantz-Andersson, Lundin, & Selwyn, 2018; Tsiotakis & Jimoyiannis, 2016; Zhang, Liu, Chen, Wang & Huang, 2017). Hood (2017) found that the dominance of the in-person space directed action online. Veletsianos, Johnson, and Belikov (2019) contend that faculty members’ engagement within and across social media spaces are influenced by personal lives, professional transitions and responsibilities, evolution of technology, relationships, awareness of the needs of others, and the political environment. While Author B (2019) noted that curiosity, competitiveness, and compliancy (professional development requirements) played a role in shaping educators’ engagement with social media. Additionally, given the public facing nature of digital spaces, educators’ actions can be influenced by factors relating to fear, such as online safety, concerns of negative comments, or losing intellectual property, and impact on their online presence (Forbes, 2017; Veletsianos, Johnson, & Belikov, 2019). Ultimately, through studies of particular platforms, social media sites, and online communities, scholars have identified a number of different variables - both internal and external - that can influence educators’ actions and engagement.

However, there is limited research on educators’ actions within and across the multiple spaces that make up a PLN. Most educators’ PLNs consist of both digital (e.g., Twitter chats, Facebook groups, Pinterest boards) and in-person spaces (e.g., local meetings, book studies, edcamp unconferences, classrooms). As educators move fluidly among these spaces, what influences their actions, and ultimately shapes their learning experiences? And, how do these influencers interplay with one another to shift activity within and across in-person and online settings?


This exploratory, pilot study evolved out of an open online course for educators called PLNs for Teaching and Learning (name changed for blinded peer review). The course was designed by a cohort of 15 graduate level students as part of a project for an Educational Web Design class. In collaboration with Author A, who served as the subject matter expert, the students analyzed existing PLN research and identified five topics for the course modules (1: Defining PLNs; 2: Evaluating PLNs; 3: Expanding PLNs; 4: Enriching PLN engagement; 5: Reflecting on PLN growth).

The participants ranged from undergraduate and graduate students in Education programs to Teacher Education faculty and professional development coaches (see Appendix Table 2). Eleven of the 13 participants were located in the United States and two were from Nigeria. The participants who were in teaching positions at the time of the pre-course survey (n=10) reported working in urban (n=4), suburban (n=3), and rural (n=3) schools. The participants reported having between 0 and 34 years of teaching experience, with an average of 18 years. Participants shared diverse reasons for enrolling in the course, from wanting to learn more about PLNs to learning how to teach online.

Data Analysis
We conducted a thematic analysis to identify patterns across the dataset related to participants’ actions and engagement with their PLNs (Braun & Clarke, 2006). The thematic analysis was a multi-phase process that included curating and organizing the data, engaging in repeated cycles of reviewing, coding, and discussing the data, and developing criteria and themes to understand key elements within the dataset. Data triangulation and investigator triangulation techniques were designed to increase the credibility and trustworthiness of our data analysis (Twinning, Heller, Nussbaum, & Tsai, 2017).


Throughout the course, participants described diverse interactions with their PLNs, ranging from reading articles and following people on social media to engaging in ongoing virtual meetings to mentoring others. Upon evaluation of the course and survey data, we uncovered five elements that played a role in shaping participants’ actions in online and in-person spaces: goals, time, confidence, relationships, and space dynamics.

As part of the course activities, participants discussed their professional goals and their aims for modifying their PLNs to meet their goals. Building on established frameworks examined in the literature, we organized their professional goals into the following categories: Affective Growth; Cognitive Growth; Identity Growth; Social Growth; Career Growth; Support of Growth. Participants’ PLN goals included Expansion, Curation, Reciprocity, and Reformation.

Participants’ professional and PLN goals played a role in influencing the types of actions in which they engaged to grow as educators. Participants often identified multiple goals and described numerous ways to achieve those goals. Thus, while there was a connection between participants’ goals and their actions, there was not a direct correlation between specific types of goal and types of action. This points to the multifaceted, dynamic nature of PLNs, in which participants can interact with people, spaces, and tools in multiple ways.

The lack of available time was a common thread throughout participants’ reflections of their engagement with their PLNs. Educators must carve time out from their own personal schedules to participate in self-directed learning in digital spaces. As opposed to in-person settings, participating in online spaces requires extra time in figuring out how to make use of the space features, interact with others in meaningful ways, and sort through the information that is shared. As a result, participants reported having to restrict their online activity either by limiting how much time they spent online or minimizing their interactions with others. Participants also shared that they had to limit the amount of time they spent with their digital networks because they felt it was a time sink. Many participants felt that since the opportunities for learning with their digital PLNs were endless, they had to restrict their online activity or else risk losing too much of their own free time for their personal lives.

Having the confidence to interact in online spaces and share expertise were factors that shaped participants’ PLN engagement and actions. More than half of the participants reported that their level of confidence in online spaces influenced their online activity, and ultimately the roles they enacted. Participants who were not confident interacting in online spaces tended to limit their actions to reading posts and observing others. On the other hand, when participants developed confidence with engaging in online spaces, they were more likely to post, tweet, reply, moderate, or even lead conversations.

The educators in our study also reported that their level of confidence in their field influenced their interactions with their networks. Five out of the thirteen participants described instances where they lacked the confidence to share their knowledge with their PLNs, indicating that if educators do not have the confidence in their expertise, they may be more likely to lurk and learn rather than contribute to their PLNs. This, in turn, limits the distribution of ideas and resources within networks to only those people who have confidence in their field or in a particular space (e.g., Twitter).
The depth of relationships and social connections with others in a specific space influenced participants’ actions. When participants felt as though they had not developed strong relationships with individuals in a particular setting, they limited their interactions.

Space Dynamics
Every space has unique members and features, including tools, activities, and user interfaces (for digital spaces), that influence the types of interactions that occur. Participants discussed a number of different ways that space dynamics influenced their actions. For example, Stella described how the fast-paced, overwhelming nature of Twitter Chats (real-time live discussions using a hashtag) reduced her engagement to lurking. Kendra wrote about how the public-facing nature of YouTube shaped whether she shared videos that she created with her PLN. Katherine described how the public-facing nature of Facebook influenced her willingness to write posts. These participants identified a number of different issues and fears related to the space dynamics that shaped their actions, including members’ comments, the reliability of information shared, and the public nature of posts.

The influence of space dynamics was not limited to digital spaces, either. Given the ease of communicating in in-person settings, participants reported being more willing to engage in discussions and collaborate with others. However, in conference settings, many participants reported being lurkers. Conference presentations often lack interactivity, and thus, attendees expect to “sit and get” information. The dynamics of the space, as set up by conference organizers, shapes how people learn and interact. Ultimately, there are many aspects of in-person and digital spaces that play a role in either encouraging or restricting the types of actions and learning that happens.

Model of Influencers on PLN Actions
Throughout the dataset, it was evident that our participants’ actions were diverse and varied from space-to-space and time-to-time. Sometimes their actions were unidirectional (e.g., lurking, taking information) and other times their actions were multidirectional (e.g., co-constructing knowledge, finding and sharing information). Participants’ actions shifted within and among online and in-person spaces based on the complex, dynamic system of influence among relationships, time, goals, space dynamics, and confidence.
Drawing on this dataset, a conceptual model is put forward here as a representative of major influences on teachers’ action in their PLNs (See Figure 1 - At the center of the model is action, which is shaped by the five influencers, as indicated by the arrows. The actions in which teachers engage can shape relationships. For example, educators who simply lurk and learn are less likely to cultivate strong relationships with individuals in a particular setting. Thus, there is a bidirectional (double-edged) arrow indicating the reciprocal connection between actions and relationships. The arrows with dotted lines indicate a potential influential connection. As discussed previously, professional goals can influence PLN goals, and visa versa, but they might not always shape one another, so the bidirectional line is dotted rather than solid. Similarly, relationships can impact time available (e.g., time spent with family or significant others can take away from time spent online) and time can impact the depth and types of relationships people cultivate (e.g., less time for relationship building can limit the depth of relationships).

The remainder of the lines are unidirectional, indicating that one element influences (or potentially influences) another, but the influence is not reciprocal. For instance, space dynamics, like the public-facing nature of social media sites, might impact an educator’s confidence in sharing their knowledge, however, the confidence of an educator will not change the fact that Twitter’s user interface is confusing or that Twitter Chats are fast-paced. Similarly, space dynamics can foster or restrict opportunities for meaningful interactions, meaning that space dynamics influence relationships, but relationships don’t influence space dynamics. Time can impact PLN goals (e.g., participants with less time often identified PLN goals related to reducing their PLN size or engagement). In these ways, the interplay of the five influencers affects participants’ PLN actions.


Our study presents three key findings that build on prior literature. First, we found that there is an interconnected network of influencers that shape how and why educators engage with their PLNs. We offer a new conceptual model that demonstrates the dynamic unidirectional and bidirectional connections among the influencers on educators’ actions within and across in-person and online settings at any given moment. Second, we found that there was no hierarchy of power among the influencers or spaces. Instead, participants engaged in a range of actions based on the interplay of influencers at the time of activity. Educators might lurk in an in-person or online setting one moment and engage in collaborative learning the next given their goals, relationships, space dynamics, confidence, and time. Actions, therefore, are variable and will continue to be variable as responsive to these five influencers. The variance in actions occurs within and across people and spaces - that is, actions differ from person-to-person and space-to-space. Third, these findings reinforce the notion that PLNs are complex, multifaceted systems and that educators’ learning is individualized; that is, there is no standardized pattern of action that occurs. These three new findings contribute to new understandings of the dynamism of PLN activity, not qualified by action but rather by elements of influence.

In evidence of these findings, the theoretical discourse needs to shift from one that suggests supporting teachers to move from lurking to co-constructing knowledge in digital spaces to one that raises awareness of the professional learning opportunities that can occur within PLNs and the influencers that shape these opportunities. This is a stronger discourse for enhancing engagement in both in-person and online networked activity. In terms of professional development and teacher preparation, we recommend that current and future educators are given the opportunity to explore, analyze, and reflect upon how the network of influencers shapes their actions within and across spaces in their PLNs and how their actions impact their learning and practice. Through scaffolded, careful analysis, educators may identify ways to shift the influencers to change their actions and experience new types of professional learning opportunities. We believe that educators can benefit when they continually shift their actions to engage in varied types of learning experiences. Networks, too, will benefit when educators have the time and confidence to write and respond to posts. Otherwise, the learning is restricted by the few thought-influencers who share their knowledge in a given space.


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Sarah Prestridge, Griffith University, Australia
Dr. Torrey Trust, University of Massachusetts Amherst

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