A Technoskepticism of Social Media for Teacher’s Professional Learning Networks (PLNs)
By Nanak Hikmatullah
The recent development in teacher education scholarship shows the growth of social media for teachers’ professional learning. A good body of research has been devoted to finding the benefits of digital professional learning, known as professional learning networks (PLNs). However, little has been given to investigating the unwanted or unintended consequences of its extensive use. This article attempts to investigate whether social media is good for educators’ professional learning.
Traditional vs Digitally-Enhanced Professional Development
The growing use of social media as a tool for teachers’ professional learning can be attributed to at least two factors: the dissatisfaction with traditional professional development programmes and the rise of social networking sites in the last decade. Traditional professional development (PD) programmes have been perceived as ineffective and time-consuming (Jim, 2000). Such programmes are often structured as workshop-like with a trainer or coach as the source of knowledge. This structure is so top-down that teachers are barely involved in decision-making processes. Their needs are not sought. Besides, the traditional approach to professional development tends to be task oriented. Teachers have tasks to perform in their hectic schedules, which can be overwhelming.
Traditional PD programmes are hierarchical and superficial in their design (Borko, 2004). A clear line between teachers and the trainer makes their relationship static rather than dynamic. Teachers are like patients, while the trainer is the doctor who will cure any issues in the school. It is intellectually superficial because no attempt is made to comprehend the complexity of the teaching profession and teacher learning. In other words, the traditional model tends to be taken in isolation, which is unsuitable for 21st-century teachers who are acclimated to and grew up with technology. It has failed to attract, prepare, and retain talented teachers (Moreno, 2007).
The New Way
The emergence of social networking sites (e.g., Facebook, Twitter, Instagram) provides an alternative to this sit-and-listen approach to professional teacher learning. With social media, teachers can learn from anyone, anywhere, and anytime. It shifts the concept of teacher learning from isolation to collaboration. They are no longer single fighters but lifelong learners who share their teaching experience with other teachers (Trust, 2012). Its affordances, timeliness, and immediacy allow for a more personalised, collaborative, and learner-centred teacher learning. It has deconstructed the conference style of traditional PD (unconference) (Demsky, 2012).
With this novelty, research on social media for professional learning networks is rising. PLNs is defined as a network of relationships and tools for teachers that promote informal learning and professional growth (Trust, 2012; Trust et al., 2017). With PLNs, teachers can connect with other teachers beyond their school districts and access a wealth of information to stay current. Building PLNs involves more than just participating in online forums; it also entails more passive activities like subscribing to educational materials (e.g., blogs, podcasts, news feeds). In other words, teachers can build their PLNs through accessing educational resources available on the internet (information aggregation) and connecting with other individuals through social networking sites (social media). With social media, teachers can especially access information asynchronously, such as by reading posts and watching short videos. They can also take advantage of its real-time features, such as chat rooms or direct messages, allowing them to build relationships and have one-on-one support (mentoring). Social media allows the creation of a more grassroots or organic-driven professional learning, in which teachers are not just knowledge consumers but also producers. With all these benefits, many view social media as a new way of doing professional development (Trust et al., 2016; 2018).
Twitter in PLNs
Teachers can create their personal learning networks (PLNs) using a variety of social media platforms, including Classroom 2.0, Edmodo (which, regrettably, will shortly shut down), the Educator’s PLN and Twitter (Trust, 2012). The latter has gained much attention, and many researchers have dedicated their time to investigating its benefits (see Carpenter & Krutka, 2014; 2015). Twitter is one of the biggest social media platforms influencing the sociocultural landscape of the twenty-first century. It is a platform for microblogging where everyone can broadcast messages of no more than 280 characters (tweets). It was founded by Evan Williams, Biz Stone, and Noah Glass in 2004. Today, Twitter has over 330 million active users, from ordinary citizens to celebrities to politicians (Britannica, 2022). Twitter has become a powerful social media platform people use to influence and change the status quo.
There are many ways Twitter is used for professional learning networks. It has features that can be classified into open (tweet, retweet, reply) and semi-private/ restricted (mention, direct message and list). Teachers typically use Twitter for collaboration, networking, and engagement with other users. Many find its use more fulfilling than face-to-face professional development (Ross et al., 2015). What is unique about Twitter is its hashtag feature, words or phrases specific to the events or issues being discussed. Using it helps other users search for the topic or issue to simply read about it or actively participate in the conversation (Doctor, 2013). In the PLN context, teachers can share their tweets with relevant hashtags for other teachers to follow. For instance, during the Covid-19 outbreak, hashtags #OnlineLearning or #EdChat grew in popularity to keep teachers informed about teaching skills and resources where face-to-face professional learning was impossible (Mancinelli, 2020). Twitter has indeed changed how teachers learn and relearn. It expands their circles beyond their school districts, broadens their knowledge beyond teaching popular topics (e.g., they can learn what and how restorative justice is), enables them to follow other teachers relevant to their teaching, and provides them with needs and resources that traditional PD cannot (Carpenter & Morrison, 2018).
Techno-optimism vs Technoskepticism
With all these benefits, we can easily adopt techno-optimism, an attitude that treats technology as the “saviour” of school problems. However, social media has trade-offs, much like other technological advancements. We have to give up some parts of our activities that are being replaced with technology, and such condition is not always beneficial (Krutka et al., 2022). Hence, using social media for professional teacher learning should be scrutinised for its unintended consequences. We have to adopt technoscepticism by asking questions beyond its benefits.
The first question is whether social media benefits teachers’ well-being. There have been reports of the negative effect of social media on teacher learning, such as information overload and addiction (Ivanova et al., 2012). Some teachers struggle to keep up with the content due to the overwhelming amount of information shared on social media. Others find it addictive and are unable to stop scrolling into the feeds. This addiction can cause anxiety or feelings of missing out (FoMO). Questions about privacy should also be considered. Some teachers are concerned about privacy issues when using social media (Seaman & Tinti-kane, 2013). When sharing online, the content becomes a public property that can be used against them (Pusey, 2019; Rapacon, 2016). What instructors share in PLNs could also conflict with school policies.
Although using social media in PLNs is an improvement over ineffective traditional PD, how effective is it? How can teachers use what they learn online to improve student learning in the classroom? Teachers’ use of social media may not always be educational that benefits students. Some teachers still use it as a platform for personal enjoyment than classroom tools (Manca & Ranieri, 2016). Additional research into its effects in classrooms is required (Ascione, 2018).
Social media in PLNs expands teachers’ networks outside their school district level that traditional PD falls short. However, to what extent is this expansion of the teacher’s circle diverse? Some teachers remain stuck in their own silos by only connecting and sharing with those they find similar culturally and ideologically (Krutka et al., 2017). This indicates that social media is still at the replacement level rather than modification or redefinition (Terada, 2020).
While traditional PD programmes are often structured systematically at specific times with specific activities, digitally enhanced professional learning tends to be sporadic. There is no specific time when teachers can access social media. This timelessness might be an issue for teachers if they cannot control the time to access their networks, such as when they teach in class. Thus, teachers need to know when to be personal and professional (Veletsianos & Kimmons, 2013). In addition, they need to know when to start, stop and resume accessing their PLNs to be sustainable (Prenger et al., 2021). Technology innovation is often like a sprint, but some teachers may prefer to walk. We should not ignore teachers who prefer doing traditional PD to digital (Ross et al., 2015).
Is social media beneficial for teachers’ professional development? Numerous studies indicate that it has more benefits than harms; however, even though there are fewer risks, it still poses a risk if it is not properly regulated. What is more important is its impact on student learning. That is how teachers learn from their PLNs, take up space in their classroom and society and make their leadership transformative.
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