Find meaningful professional learning opportunities with online communities and personal learning networks (PLNs).

male teacher working on a laptop

For most teachers, summer is both a time to recharge and a time to reflect on the past school year and consider new teaching strategies and curriculum. But with the coronavirus pandemic disrupting more traditional professional learning opportunities like in-person conferences and workshops, it's time for you to chart your own course.

Fortunately, there are plenty of informal ways to learn and grow professionally on your own. So after you've taken a needed respite from distance learning and its immense screen-time demands, consider these tips for engaging in meaningful online DIY professional learning this summer.

Expand your personal learning network (PLN)

Simply put, a PLN is a group of people you connect with, in order to learn from and with them, both formally and informally. The members of this group can constantly be in flux because you choose whom you want to interact with or reach out to. A PLN isn't just composed of people you interact with online, but online communities and social media platforms allow for an infinite number of possibilities and combinations depending on your interests.

Maybe you're a high school biology teacher who has connected with other teachers on Twitter. And you've also become friendly with a local greenhouse owner, who's more than happy to schedule a presentation to teach students about basic plant reproduction. You also have a relative with a keen interest in taxidermy -- you know his insights will be a hit with your students. And a Facebook group you've heard of is full of educators who are, like you, interested in project-based learning. Any combination of the aforementioned folks could end up being part of your network.

Consider your PLN to be a "best of" collection from your various real-life and online connections. There's no right or wrong way to create a PLN, but there are online places and communities where you're likely to find people who might become part of your PLN if you're willing to engage.

Explore online communities

While it's doubtful you'll find yourself in a cavernous conference hall this summer, buzzing with fellow educators eager to learn and share, online communities can still provide a facsimile of the energy and support you may have experienced in a productive face-to-face setting. Here are a few online communities worth checking out as you chart your own learning and expand your PLN:

  • Teaching Tolerance: This is the organization to check out for ideas to help expand your thinking and pedagogy about how to combat racism and explore bias with your students. Joining the organization will give you access to free resources and also allow you to create, save, print, and share customized lesson plans.
  • Common Sense Educators: A Facebook group with over 15,000 educators dedicated to a collaborative culture of digital learning and digital citizenship, this is a closed group, so you'll need to request to join.
  • EdCamp: The first EdCamp was hosted in 2010 in Philadelphia, and since then it has expanded into decentralized community, hosting events called "un-conferences." Teachers are empowered to create and collaborate in a low-stress environment at the un-conferences, which have moved into online spaces during the coronavirus pandemic. Check out their calendar to see whether there are any online events being sponsored near you.
  • Google educator groups: Educators from across the globe connect due to their reliance on -- and enthusiasm for -- Google's education tools. Find existing communities using this online interactive map.

Tap into Twitter

There's perhaps no more powerful way to expand your PLN and explore various education-related topics than by using Twitter efficiently. Once you understand the basics of how to use the platform, it's a breeze to connect with educators from around the globe. If you're currently in a situation where your colleagues don't share similar pedagogy or interests, you can quickly find like-minded people anywhere in the world.

Want to send a message directly to a teacher you admire -- but don't know -- from another state or country? No problem. The majority of teachers on Twitter, even if somewhat famous with thousands of followers, are there to support and connect with others. Want to join a Twitter chat on ideas ranging from #AntiRacistEd to #digcit to #edtech? Check out this list of some popular education-related hashtags. Then tag some colleagues near and/or far to start a conversation about how to best implement new curriculum in the fall.

Be kind to yourself

The coronavirus pandemic has undoubtedly been tough for everyone involved in education -- from parents, students, and teachers to community members. No matter what you decide to do this summer for your own learning, it also might be worth considering what you can do for self-care, especially as distance learning has forced shifts to new routines, skills, habits, and schedules.

Just like personalized learning -- the idea that student curriculum should be tailored to interests and passions and encompass plenty of choice -- consider this approach to PD a teacher's version of personalized learning via online communities and PLN growth and exploration. Take advantage of the opportunity to grow when, how, and with whom you want, even if you're lucky to be at the pool or beachside. Good luck!

Paul Barnwell

A New Hampshire-based handyman, writer, and hobby farmer, Paul Barnwell is a freelance contributor to Common Sense Education. Paul lived and taught high school English in Louisville, Kentucky, for 13 years, where he embraced bluegrass music, barbecue, and horse racing. He's been published in the Atlantic online, Education Week, and Harvard's Ed. magazine, among other outlets. Paul and his wife, Rebecca, now reside in central New Hampshire.