How important is Twitter in your Personal Learning Network?

By Clint Lalonde / September 2012

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Twitter and the Personal Learning Network (PLN). If you are a connected educator, chances are that you have often seen these two terms used together and, perhaps like me, you have wondered what's the connection?

This question formed the basis of my 2011 Masters thesis and while my research showed that you can have a PLN without Twitter (and, indeed, those non-Twitter spaces are important for a well developed PLN), Twitter does play a unique role within a PLN, which makes it a powerful platform for networked learning and professional development [1].

Literature Review

Twitter is a free service that is part microblogging platform and part social network, which allows users to send and receive short, 140 character messages [2]. In recent years, educators have been interested in how this online tool could be used in [3], examining how it could be used in the classroom [4], as a tool for collecting research data for formative course evaluations [5], and as a backchannel to facilitate real time conversations at conferences [6]. This last example illustrates a growing phenomenon among educators; the use of Twitter as a tool for informal learning [7] within a learning network known as a Personal Learning Network (PLN) [8, 9].

A PLN is an informal learning network of people you connect with for the specific purpose of learning, based on reciprocity and a level of trust that each party is actively seeking value added information for the other [10, 11]. In other words, there is a tacit understanding among participants that the reason they are connecting is for the purpose of active learning.

While a PLN involves negotiating social relationships for the purpose of learning, it is also a very personal and intimate construct in that decisions about who to include in your PLN are personal, autonomous decisions. According to Downes, this type of autonomy is one of the four defining properties of a learning network [12]. However, Downes notes learner autonomy does not mean that learners operate in the network without the input of others. Indeed, the input of others is vitally important to the learning that occurs within these informal learning networks [13, 14, 15]. In his early research on informal learning networks, Brookfield described the informal networks he observed in his empirical research, and noticed the working-class adult participants favored using peers, experts, and fellow learners as sources of information and skill models over libraries or textbooks [16]. Brookfield's description of the relationships within an informal learning network echo those we see today in a technology mediated PLN.

Methodology

To understand the role that Twitter plays in a PLN, I conducted a phenomenological study involving seven educators from both K-12 and higher education who use Twitter within a PLN. The seven study participants were chosen randomly from a sample of 2,818 Twitter users who used the Twitter hashtag #EdChat over a four-week period.

Data collection was done as in-depth interviews with each participant. These interviews were conducted using Skype, and ranged in length from 63 to 86 minutes. Each interview was recorded, transcribed and coded in Atlas.ti using a double hermeneutic analysis commonly used in Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis [17].

Results

The primary research question for this study was, "what role does Twitter play in the formation and maintenance of Personal Learning Networks?" While Twitter is only one of the tools used, it is clear from the examples and stories shared by the participants that Twitter plays an important role in their PLN.

Twitter allows participants to engage in instantaneous conversations with their PLN

The ability to have instant, anytime access to their PLN, and carry out spontaneous conversations with PLN members are important affordances of Twitter mentioned by each study participant. These conversations deepen the feeling of connectedness participants have with their PLN, which in turn deepens the relationships they have with the members of their PLN.

The open nature of Twitter and the fact that these conversations happen in open Web spaces is also an important aspect of using Twitter within a PLN. Because conversations are visible to anyone, this creates an "open space," which allows ambient participation by other people. This ambient participation takes the form of others "listening in" or observing conversations; a quality participants felt was important as these "overheard" conversations provided opportunities to learn by observing.

The open spaces also created opportunities for more active contributions by strangers. Participants relayed numerous stories and anecdotes about people "dropping in" on conversations they were having with people in their PLN, adding a richness to the conversation by adding in comments or observations about whatever was being discussed.

Twitter provides a way for participants to access the collective knowledge of their PLN

Twitter is a powerful tool to access the collective knowledge of a PLN, and participants who had a sizeable network of followers were able to take advantage of the network effect. The network effect is a network principle that states that a network gets more valuable the more nodes you add to that network [18]. In other words, the more connections you have in your PLN, the more useful your PLN becomes.

Sharing and exchanging resources are the most common way participants access the collective knowledge of their PLN using Twitter. While tweets are limited to 140 characters, it is long enough to share a link to a richer resource, such as a video, article, or blog post. Often, participants add context in the form of a description within the tweeted link to make the link more relevant to their PLN.

Using Twitter to ask their PLN for help is another common activity; a task where the benefit of the network effect becomes apparent. With more connections on Twitter, the greater the chances you will receive assistance. Participants who had sizeable Twitter networks indicated that they were able to use Twitter to ask their PLN for resources to help solve a problem, and have vetted resources quickly returned to them, often in a matter of moments.

Twitter also plays a role in facilitating larger, collaborative projects between the participants and their PLN. While Twitter itself is not a collaborative tool in the sense that participants jointly create a tweet, it is useful in coordinating the creation of objects, many of which are often shared back to the larger PLN. These projects varied in size and scope and included; creating and organizing both face-to-face and virtual conferences, recruiting members to assist in the delivery of course material in a class or workshop, securing partners for national funding grants, and the co-creation of learning materials, such as collaborative videos, and co-authored documents and books.

Specific Twitter functions help expand the PLN

There are advantages to having a large PLN, as the above examples of the network effect illustrate, and Twitter has a number of specific features that participants use to expand the membership in their PLN, including hashtags, retweets, and lists.

Hashtags are special keywords preceded by a hash (#) symbol and included in the body of a tweet. By subscribing, or following, specific hashtags they are interested in, participants are exposed to other people who are also contributing to that hashtag. The hashtag becomes a shared interest and, based on this shared interest, participants may choose to follow that person, increasing the size of their PLN.

Retweets, which are a reposting of another persons tweet on your own timeline, was also seen by some participants as a way to be introduced to new people on Twitter. If they see interesting resources or conversations being retweeted by someone they trust within their own PLN, this may prompt the participant to follow the person who was the original source of the tweet.

Finally, study participants also used lists as a way to expand their PLN, although lists were not used as often hashtags or retweets. Some participants would follow lists of Twitter users curated by members of their PLN, and in this way be virtually introduced to new people to include in their PLN.

Twitter as idea amplifier and motivator

Finally, all participants in the study said Twitter was an excellent platform to quickly amplify their own thoughts to a large audience. This was often done in conjunction with a blog. In addition to using Twitter, each participant in the study was an active blogger, and it appears there is a special relationship between blogging and their use of Twitter.

A common activity by participants is to write a blog post with a nascent idea and tweet the link out to their PLN with a prompt asking for feedback. From here, members of their PLN can retweet the link to their PLN, thus increasing the reach of the original blog post. People who click on the link can read the post and engage with the participant by leaving a comment on their blog. The speed and reach of the blog post is amplified by Twitter, which increases the potential feedback the participant can receive. Some participants cited this amplification effect as a motivational factor to blog more frequently. The more their posts got amplified by the network, the more comments they received, the more incentive they had to blog.

Conclusion

While this research examined the detailed experiences of a small group of educators operating within a very specific context, the results are valuable as they provide insight into the specific affordances of Twitter within a PLN.

It is not difficult to see a PLN using Twitter is different than one that does not, and while informal learning networks are not uncommon, the scope and scale of these networks have increased thanks to social networking tools like Twitter. Indeed, this ability to easily create a large network of people is one of the primary benefits of using Twitter as a tool within a PLN as these large networks are able to take advantage of the network effect.

Additionally, the open nature of Twitter means these learning networks are now no longer confined to closed and private spaces, but are open and public. This increases opportunities for collaboration, connections, and learning opportunities. Using Twitter, educators can access the collective knowledge of their peers, engage in discussions, debates, conversations, and participate in collaborative projects whenever and wherever they like. This active participation requires a high degree of transparency, self-motivation, and a willingness among participants to experiment with new ways of learning within a technology-mediated network.

References

[1] Lalonde, C. The Twitter experience: The role of Twitter in the formation and maintenance of personal learning networks. Royal Roads University. Master's Thesis, 2011. Retrieved September 13, 2011, from http://dspace.royalroads.ca/docs/handle/10170/451

[2] McNeil, T. Twitter in Higher Education. Scribd. September 21, 2009. Retrieved August 3, 2010, from http://www.scribd.com/doc/20025500/Twitter-in-Higher-Education

[3] EDUCAUSE Learning Inititative. 7 Things You Should Know About Twitter (Report No. ELI7027). 2007. Retrieved from http://www.educause.edu/ELI/7ThingsYouShouldKnowAboutTwitt/161801

[4] Costa, C., Beham, Guetner, Reinhardt, W., and Sillaots, M. Microblogging in technology enhanced learning: A use-case inspection of PPE summer school 2008. Presented at the European Conference on Technology Enhanced Learning, Maastricht, The Netherlands, 2008. Retrieved from http://know-center.tugraz.at/download_extern/papers/2008_ccosta_microblogging.pdf

[5] Stieger, S., and Burger, C. Let's go formative: Continuous student ratings with Web 2.0 application Twitter. Cyberpsychology & Behavior: The Impact of the Internet, Multimedia and Virtual Reality on Behavior and Society 13, 2 (April 2010).

[6]Reinhardt, W., Ebner, M., Beham, G�nter, Costa, C., and Luckmann, M. How people are using Twitter during conferences. Presented at the Fifth EduMedia conference, Salzburg, 2009. Retrieved from http://elearningblog.tugraz.at/archives/2157

[7] Elliott, J., Craft, C., and Feldon, D. Is informational material shared between K-12 professionals on Twitter supported by research? In Proceedings of Society for Information Technology & Teacher Education International Conference 2010 (San Diego, March 2010),444-448.

[8] Couros, A.Developing Personal Learning Networks for Open and Social Learning. In G. Veletsianos (Ed.) Emerging Technologies in Distance Education edited by . AU Press, Edmonton, Canada, 2010, pp. 109-127.

[9]Warlick, D. Grow your personal learning network: New technologies can keep you connected and help you manage information overload. Learning & Leading with Technology 36, 6 (2009), 12-16.

[10]Digenti, D. Collaborative learning: A core capability for organizations in the new economy. Reflections 1,2 (1999), 45-57. doi:10.1162/152417399570160

[11] Tobin, D. R. Building Your Personal Learning Network. Corporate Learning Strategies. 1998. Retrieved October 4, 2009, from http://www.tobincls.com/learningnetwork.htm

[12]Downes, S. Learning networks in practice. In D. Ley (Ed.) Emerging Technologies for Learning (Vol. 2). Coventry, UK, (2007). Retrieved from http://nparc.cisti-icist.nrc-cnrc.gc.ca/npsi/ctrl?action=rtdoc&an=8913424&lang=en

[13]Marsick, V. J., and Volpe, M. The nature and need for informal learning. Advances in Developing Human Resources 1, 3 (1999), 1-9. doi:10.1177/152342239900100302

[14] Livingstone, D. W. Exploring the icebergs of adult learning: Findings of the first Canadian survey of informal learning practices. NALL - New Approaches to Lifelong Learning, 2000. Retrieved August 24, 2010, from http://www.nall.ca/res/10exploring.htm

[15] Brookfield, S. Adult learning: An overview. International Encyclopedia of Education. Oxford, Pergamon Press, 1995. Retrieved from http://nlu.nl.edu/academics/cas/ace/facultypapers/StephenBrookfield_AdultLearning.cfm

[16]Brookfield, S. Self-directed adult learning: A critical paradigm. Adult Education Quarterly 35, 2 (1984), 59-71. doi:10.1177/0001848184035002001

[17]Smith, J. A., Flowers, P., and Larkin, M. (2009). Interpretative phenomenological analysis: Theory, method and research. SAGE Publications Ltd.

[18]Hendler, J., and Golbeck, J. Metcalfe's law, Web 2.0, and the Semantic Web. Web Semantics: Science, Services and Agents on the World Wide Web 6, 1 (2008), 14-20. doi:16/j.websem.2007.11.008

About the Author

Clint Lalonde is the Manager of Learning Technologies at Royal Roads University, which happens to be the same institution where he received his MA in Learning and Technology in 2011. He is an active edtech blogger, and you can find him publishing semi-coherent thoughts and ramblings on educational technology and network learning at http://clintlalonde.net.

© 2012 ACM 1535-394X/12/09 $15.00

DOI: 10.1145/2371029.2379624



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