Networked learning can range from relatively random and loosely connected contacts on social media, to more formal, structured, and organized personal learning networks (PLNs). #SquadGoalsNetwork exists in the continuum between these extremes. Participants meet face-to-face occasionally, and interact virtually much more frequently as they educate, entertain and delight each other. At its core, our declaration of effectiveness is that conferences serve as important incubator spaces for the creation of both networked PLNs and networks of PLNs that connect individuals and institutions throughout the year, allowing small professional development innovations to scale largely and vice versa. As a means of documenting this effective practice, the authors have created a framework for meaningful participation in a PLN that takes its origins from engaged conference attendance. Additionally, they have created a playbook (https://ryanstraight.github.io/SGN2) that outlines the formation of a PLN, as well as an open space on their website (https://squadgoalsnetwork.com/) for educators to share benefits of PLN participation and recommendations for creating and extending the reach of PLNs.
In its most simplistic and purest essence, this effective practice is about connecting with others longitudinally and co-creating as a form of professional development. While this story begins at an online education conference, its chapters weave in and out of many institutions around the U.S. and world. Formed out of connections via the Online Learning Consortium’s conferences and Technology Test Kitchen (Musgrove, et al, 2018), the #SquadGoalsNetwork PLN has authored articles and a book chapter, presented to overflowing conference rooms, and contributed leadership to several national and international conferences and conference experiences.
Neither networked learning, nor PLNs are new ideas (Bauer, 2010; Davis, 2013; Sie, et al., 2013; Moreillon, 2016). However, the authors propose that the way they have gone about formalizing informal, loosely joined constellations of people and skills is an effective practice in the field of online teaching, learning, and sharing. In a 2016 article in Educause Review, Gardner Campbell posed a seemingly simple question: “What kinds of educational experiences change lives?” Often, as Campbell does, we educators (practitioners, faculty, and administrators) think of this question in relation to the development of course experiences for students. We think about it in the context of professional development as individuals, as representatives of our institutions, as leaders, and as international collaborators on large-scale learning experiences. We believe, as Campbell notes, that “as we consider high-impact practices in light of contemporary culture, we must add digitally mediated networked learning...because the experience of building and participating within a digitally mediated network of discovery and collaboration is an increasingly necessary foundation for all other forms of experiential learning in a digital age.” However, we take this notion further in our assertion that a blended experience created by participation in large-scale, diverse conference experiences is important to fostering the growth, trust, connection, clarity and sustainability that are so important to impactful networked learning experiences (Campbell, 2016; Cronin, Cochrane & Gordon, 2016; Evans, 2015; Hodgson, de Laat, M, McConnell, & Ryberg, 2014). Furthermore, this participation is extended through an intentional push and pull of ideas and effective practices - new initiatives and practices are gleaned from conferences, implemented at our home institutions, and then brought back to future conferences as iterated and remixed practices.
The authors propose the following framework for others who wish to replicate the blended PLN experience defined in this effective practice submission. The PLN formation process is organic, but they have had success with the following guiding steps.
Figure 1.1—#SquadGoalsNetwork PLN Framework
Forge Connections - Establish a Network of Ideas and Collaborations at the Conference
How might educators construct a PLN that champions thought leaders at our institutions and allows us to collaborate with change agents outside of our institutions? Creating a strong foundation for a meaningful personal learning network can be a daunting task, but conferences offer the resources and connections to build a PLN. Chiefly, connections formed at conferences allow us to meet and collaborate with individuals beyond our predefined networks. Furthermore, additional outcomes for conference attendance that promote the formation of a PLN include the creation of a network to assist with crowd-sourcing solutions to ubiquitous problems, and representation of one’s home institution externally. Here are some concrete ways that conference participants can begin the process of creating a PLN:
Hone Practices - Iterate on Ideas and Foster Cross-Institutional Connections
Oftentimes, educators describe the return home from a conference as the lull after days of high-energy stimulation and inspiration. How might we sustain the collaborative spirit and energy in the conference after we return home? And how can we ensure that our best laid plans come to fruition once we get caught up in the hustle of our assigned job duties? The action items presented below allow for ongoing connections that are sustainable and impactful:
Feed the Fire - Amplify and Share Remixed Ideas at Future Events
You’ve formed your team and now are in search of ways to pay forward the abundance of riches collected from your collaborations. How do you break that wall to go from a conference participant to a leader in the space?
Table 1.1—The #SquadGoalsNetwork PLN Framework
A PLN is not for the contributing collaborators alone. It is a platform for innovation and testing - sharing ideas in a formal conference setting, then remixing and scaling those ideas for the benefit of our home institutions and the network of institutions the connection within the PLN builds. Our model relies on a combination of online, formal face-to-face experiences, informal face-to-face experiences, and loosely joined, flexible teams of people. The aims of submitting our PLN model as an effective practice are to remix the traditional notion of networked learning as a formal digital experience, to illuminate the threads that brought us together and connect us for the purposes of modeling, and to demonstrate techniques and ideas for the formation of other remixed PLNs. The authors have done this through narrative collection and storytelling, tied to the OLC success pillars of access, faculty satisfaction, learning effectiveness, scale, and student satisfaction.
As a means of formalizing the narrative collection and increasing the impact and reach of the stories shared, the authors created an open website for educators to use as a reference and connection point. The site shares the benefits of PLNs in the form of original posts by the authors, as well as content contributed by guests looking to share their own effective practices. Maintaining a site of myriad contributors requires a level of organization and structure to keep the space edited and curated. As such, the authors created a playbook (currently located at https://ryanstraight.github.io/SGN2) outlining the tasks required for keeping content on the website up to date. The #SquadGoalsNetwork also connects to various educators over social media, designating authors to take over monthly duties of maintaining social media accounts as guest hosts. Responsibilities include amplifying voices and resources over Twitter, creating co-writing prompts for individuals connected to the PLN to participate in, and curating and promoting published content on the website. Sharing the curatorial tasks helps to unite the authors in a shared initiative, thereby emphasizing one of the key elements of the #SquadGoalsNetwork PLN Framework and modeling its benefit.
Figure 1.2—Website Form
Data was collected from individuals identified as collaborators in PLNs that worked with Online Learning Consortium initiatives, which then expanded to other events and collaborations. The outcomes of this practice occur at several levels: students, faculty, institutions, and the PLN individual members’ professional lives. At the same time as they authors see PLN knowledge-sharing benefit students and faculty through improved practices and processes, they see individual PLN members accepting new positions with increasing responsibility in the realms of management and leadership.
Narratives were gathered, grounded in questions defined by the Online Learning Consortium’s Five Pillars of Quality as defined at https://onlinelearningconsortium.org/about/quality-framework-five-pillars/. The questions asked were as follows:
Our data was collected via invited submissions to the #SquadGoalsNetwork website, located at http://www.squadgoalsnetwork.com. The narrative submission process guided submitters through the series of interview questions, with the submission form garnering permission to share narratives on the website. Once the narratives were collected, two rounds of open coding were performed. Round one identified themes within each pillar. Round two looked for connecting themes between pillars. Narrative analysis surfaced the following data regarding perceived effectiveness of the #SquadGoalsNetwork PLN Framework.
According to the OLC Pillars, access is defined as providing “ the means for all qualified, motivated students to complete courses, degrees, or programs in their disciplines of choice. The goal is to provide meaningful and effective access throughout the entire student’s life cycle.” Our narratives indicate that access means different things to different people. This is an important thread in the PLN dialogue because for some access means increasing access to education, and for others it means increasing access to people and opportunities to build a PLN. In both cases, belonging and inclusivity are at the core of the discussion. This indicates effectiveness because this PLN structure models access as well as providing a platform within which organizational representatives discuss and implement means of increasing access for students, and developing accessible learning opportunities.
The OLC pillars define scale as “the principle that enables institutions to offer their best educational value to learners and to achieve capacity enrollment. Institutional commitment to quality and finite resources require continuous improvement policies for developing and assessment of cost-effectiveness measures and practices.” Our narratives indicate that scale of this effective practice is universally seen as possible, and possible with limited resources given the affordances of social media, synchronous video technologies, and virtual as well as on-site conference opportunities. Further, the PLN is seen as a scaling tool - offering amplification and proliferation of ideas and experiments across a number of contexts and organizations. These findings indicate effectiveness because
The learning effectiveness pillar is defined by the OLC as “concerned with ensuring that online students are provided with a high quality education. This means that online students’ learning should at least be equivalent to that of traditional students.” In this proposal, students are defined in two ways: as the learners in the PLN as well as the learners at the PLN participants’ institutions. Thus, learning effectiveness is driven by a sense of safety that the PLN brings, as well as the perception of safe spaces to experiment. Thus, innovations are tested outside of institutions before being translated and incorporated back into organizational contexts. Data collected indicates effectiveness in this framework in that each individual noted collaboration and safety to experiment as one of the benefits of engaging with the PLN.
FACULTY SATISFACTION/STUDENT SATISFACTION
The OLC pillars define faculty satisfaction as being achieved when “instructors find the online teaching experience personally rewarding and professionally beneficial.” Further, student satisfaction is defined as “reflecting the effectiveness of all aspects of the educational experience. The goal is that all students who complete a course express satisfaction with course rigor and fairness, with professor and peer interaction, and with support services.” So, effectiveness is defined as faculty who are fulfilled in teaching, and students who are fulfilled by the learning process and experiences. While faculty and students at PLN participants’ home institutions benefit from the work of the PLN, it is likely they are often unaware. The authors maintain that this is okay, and perhaps even preferable. They experience new support structures, and those structures are measured for effectiveness - but those measures are often not explicitly tied back to the work of the PLN, rather are organically evolved within the organization. This indicates effectiveness because good learning experiences are holistic but rigorous. The focus of this work is not simply on the individuals participating in the PLN, but on the good that can come from many hands making light work at individual institutions.
The effective practice of anchoring PLNs within and around conferences directly supports all five pillars of quality, as evidenced by the narratives collected on the #SquadGoalsNetwork website. Below, the authors have selected excerpts from the narratives submitted to the site that highlight the impact of PLNs on their work, their teaching and learning, and their students, with specific regard to each of the quality pillars.
As laid out, the #SquadGoalsNetwork PLN Framework needs little in regard to equipment. That said, the authors have had success incorporating some minor infrastructure, as described below.
Pen and Paper, Whiteboards and Markers
Projects as broad and multifaceted as the #SquadGoalsNetwork take considerable planning and resources, both in logistics and actual materials. At the earliest stages, brainstorming with simple pen and paper is key, much like a low-fidelity prototype in early interface design stages. Recording thoughts, ideas, risks, hurdles, et cetera, provides a team with a much clearer view of what lies ahead, as well as highlighting a potential roadmap and timeframe at very rough levels. That said, the individualistic nature of, say, a single document and owner precludes the collaboration necessary for this project.
After the initial planning stage, the move to more crowd-friendly equipment—a whiteboard and marker, for example—, while simplistic and low-tech, is encouraged. Brainstorming becomes crowdsourcing and collaboration begins to emerge. Proximity and possession of this equipment again becomes a hurdle to expansion and we move again beyond into the digital, itself—the experience of using different writing implements and mediums—is not without its own set of considerations and affordances (van Manen & Adams, 2009).
Computer, Internet, Specific Supporting Software
While it may be currently tempting to simply say, “Have access to a computer and an internet connection,” there are more considerations necessary. Before we discuss requirements for digital networking, there are more basic hardware requirements. In the development of a collective of minds and the presentation of that collective, much needs designed and decided upon, from websites to graphics to stylist decisions. A relatively new computer that can easily run a modern browser is absolutely essential as much of the work done in groups like the #SquadGoalsNetwork happens through websites, be it document editing as in Google Documents, form creation for data collection as in Qualtrics, for example, or in public-facing blog services like WordPress.
Beyond this, the design of graphics, icons, social media campaigns, et cetera, require a computer that can run considerably more computationally taxing software like the Adobe Creative Cloud. While there are less demanding options available like GIMP or some web services like Aviary, the Adobe suite is the industry standard and is what was used to create much of the graphics used by the #SquadGoalsNetwork. The Twitter banner used by the @SqdGlsNtwrk, for example, was created using both Adobe Illustrator and Adobe Photoshop. As demonstrated in the Playbook section on Colors, the greatest effectiveness and efficiency comes when the former software (like Google Documents) and the latter (Adobe Illustrator) come together to ensure consistency, as in a shared and consistent color palette.
Determining a method to distribute content like this in an extensible, replicable, efficient method actually becomes a software decision as much as a question of which business entity’s cloud servers the data resides on and associated concerns about ownership, migration, et cetera. While the #SquadGoalsNetwork blog is a WordPress installation, the decision was made to present the content of the Playbook using software called RStudio, an IDE for the popular statistics package R. This was for two reasons: first, content written in this way is replicable, platform- and language-agnostic (it being in Markdown and not using complicated, obfuscated code), and is portable, being easily and automatically delivered in whatever format the reader prefers, be it HTML, a PDF, or an eBook; second, it allows for built-in statistical analysis and data visualization within the text itself that is updated in real-time (see the Playbook page on the #squadgoalsnetwork Twitter hashtag for an example).
Video chatting and Collaborative Communication
Returning to proximity as a collaborative consideration, electronic communication is fundamentally necessary for a collective like the #SquadGoalsNetwork to both get off the ground and maintain forward movement. While many methods and services are available in this pursuit, choosing the method and protocol that affords a combination of variety and utility ensures the efficiency of communication is hindered by neither access to a particular device nor the amount of time available to individual members at any give moment. Much communication in the network has taken place using the Slack software, which allows for both synchronous group chatting as well as asynchronous discussions that can be returned to and continued at any time. The ability to share documents, files, and even code integrated into the chat means decisions can be made and implemented efficiently and in a single location.
Video chatting to have more organic, “human-centered” discussions is a key component to the Network and occurs on a regular basis. The Network decided to use Zoom for this for its ease of use and efficient bandwidth usage, making for higher quality video and audio without taxing those in the Network without high-speed internet access. Bandwidth can be a concern, again drawing attention to the need for a communication that seamlessly moves between high- and low-fidelity so as not to introduce a hurdle while providing a solution. The combination of synchronous video chatrooms and collaborative writing software like Google Documents makes for a streamlined collaborative work environment for colleagues that live thousands of miles apart.
Access to Social Media Accounts
The public-facing portion of the #SquadGoalsNetwork happens mainly in the main WordPress site but, being a “constellation of networked educators,” simply focusing on content presentation is insufficient. Bringing people together socially is a large portion of what makes the Network successful. To do this, social media seemed the obvious choice.
The @SqdGlsNtwrk Twitter account was created to serve as a single point of contact for the team while acting as a way to present the individuals as curators on a rolling basis. Without a devoted Social Media Coordinator, it was decided after the initial setup with the account creation, profile updates, images, et cetera, a single member of the team will “take over” running the Twitter account each month, very much like Sweden’s official Twitter account and its rotating Swede citizen author.
While only a single member of the team is expected to be tweeting “as” the official account for that month—retweeting relevant tweets, responding to replies, maintaining a relatively constant presence—the rest of the team uses TweetDeck to monitor the #SquadGoalsNetwork hashtag, encourage participation, and interact with the main account. TweetDeck allows for a number of options organized in columns, each with a different function, such as monitoring a hashtag or arbitrary search, displaying tweets from a list of specific users, and watching for notifications to or from a particular account. It allows allows the team to tweet from the main Twitter account without having to worry about sharing and remembering passwords. Scheduling tweets for future posting is also a feature that the team uses frequently. A spreadsheet of “core” tweets is maintained to ensure consistency in language and a basic history across the various monthly takeover authors.
Clearly there is much more to consider than simply coming up with ideas and sharing them with others. Effectively implementing a practice as wide-reaching and interconnected as the #SquadGoalsNetwork is complicated but can be made to run smoothly with these considerations.
This effective practice highlights the propensity of our connections at conferences to greatly impact our work as practitioners and researchers, and as such, requires conference attendance. While there are costs associated with face-to-face participation in conferences, using the strategies shared in the #SquadGoalsNetwork PLN Framework help to maximize the benefits of the experience. That being said, many educators find that due to limitations in institutional funding, they are restricted in their ability to attend conferences in person. Luckily, virtual attendance options have expanded significantly over the years, allowing participants to engage with face-to-face participants and virtual participants alike. Activities for virtual participants are not strictly limited to passive viewing of presentations - many conferences leverage synchronous meeting tools and other emerging technology to engage online attendees in constructivist, experiential, and collaborative tasks. These hybrid engagement opportunities challenge the premise that networking is limited to strictly defined spaces, and model the types of interaction we seek to foster and develop within our own classrooms. For virtual participants, costs associated with this effective practice include virtual conference registrations, as well as access to a microphone/headset, and optionally, a web camera.
Moving from the conference to connections outside the conference, practitioners may incur costs associated with the tools and materials needed to hold regular e-meetings (such as web cameras and microphones). Quite often, though, the software required to successfully connect, collaborate and create content is wholly free. The authors have collaborated over online meetings using Google Hangouts and Zoom, co-written publications on Google Drive, and have disseminated resources using the open source content management system, WordPress. Regardless of the goals of a PLN, the plethora of technology available freely and openly allows for members to connect at little to no cost, regardless of distance between members or size of the network.
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Graphics Used for #SquadGoalsNetwork PLN Framework created with the following open resources: