Online Connections for Professional Learning


Image by Jurgen Appelo on Flickr (, shared under Creative Commons Attribution license

Cross-posted from my post on Social Work Synergy

I’m often asked how I stay current on new developments and trends that affect our profession. I use multiple strategies, but my most robust strategy is the professional/personal learning network (PLN) that I’ve developed online. Simply stated, PLNs employ, within an online environment, the same strategy that professionals have used for centuries: connect to people who share interests and with whom you can share useful information. Only now, these people could be in my city or on the other side of the world. The advantage of an online PLN is that it you can access it almost anytime, and it draws from a variety of sources: blogs, e-letters, interest communities (e.g., Facebook or LinkedIn groups, Google+ communities, Twitter chats), listservs, and various other social media platforms.

A true story from a UB colleague, Dr. Phillip Glick, illustrates the power of PLNs. One of his medical residents contacted him in the middle of the night, concerned about a child’s non-response to emergency treatment. Seeking to advise the resident on what might help, Dr. Glick immediately searched Medline, an online database of biomedical articles, but he was unable to find anything useful.  Next, Dr. Glick reached out to his Twitter network (using general statements, so as to not disclose protected health information). A few hours later, he had a suggestion from a doctor in Sweden who was writing up a series of similar cases – that suggestion saved the child’s life. What’s important to highlight is that Dr. Glick had already done the work, prior to the crisis, to build a trusted, professional learning network on that social media platform. How lucky for that child and family that they had a physician who was globally-connected.

Beyond staying abreast of new developments and providing opportunities for consultation, PLNs can open up opportunities for collaboration; for example, I’m writing a book with two social work academic colleagues who are part of my PLN – I met and came to know them well through social work conversations on Twitter and the Google+ Social Work and Technology Community.

You usually will see PLNs described as Personal Learning Networks. The term comes from the educational technology learning communities and has its origins in Connectivism, a learning theory developed by George Siemens to fit the network-based learning that occurs in the digital age. However, in social work the word “personal” can raise some concerns for clinical social workers who are especially sensitive to the need to keep boundaries between their personal and professional personas. For this reason, when I first introduce PLNs I use the word Professional, not Personal, and then later then I explain the origins and more general use of the term Personal in this context.

Want to learn more about PLNs? Some resources are listed below. However, honestly, it’s hard to understand them from just reading about them – the best way to learn is to get started, observe what others are doing, and then to reach out to others with questions and comments.

Resources on PLNs

Crowley, B. (2014, December 31). 3 Steps for Building a Professional Learning Network – Education Week. Teacher. Retrieved from

A good introduction to PLNs. While it’s targeted at teachers, it conveys the general strategy very well. The post also includes some excellent advice around not overwhelming yourself in the process of doing this.

Graffin, M. (n.d.). Step 1: What is a PLN? – Teacher Challenges. Retrieved July 28, 2016, from

A good overview of PLNs that was created for teachers; it includes helpful graphics and videos. Pay special attention to the right sidebar menu, because there are links to many other posts that will be helpful to someone who wants to develop a PLN.

Hitchcock, L. (2015, July 1). Personal Learning Networks for Social Workers. Retrieved from

A great introduction to the topic for social workers. She suggests some starting places, and shares links to good resources, including an introductory video that we developed here at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work.

Kanter, B. (2012, January 26). Peeragogy: Self Organized Peer Learning in Networks | Beth’s Blog. Retrieved July 29, 2016, from

A more advanced read for people who like to glimpse the “big picture,” in this case, higher level peer-to-peer learning projects. Mentioned here is the work of Howard Rheingold,  the man who is credited with first coining the term “virtual community.”

Michaeli, D. (2015, November 15). Personal Learning Network Twitter Cheat Sheet. Retrieved July 29, 2016, from

A focused, how-to guide for social workers to using Twitter to develop a PLN. Presents a great visual overview through an infographic (i.e., visual display of information).

Richardson, W., & Mancabelli, R. (2012). Personal Learning Networks: Using the Power of Connections to Transform Education (3rd edition). Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree Press.

Although this is a book targeting educators, it is an excellent overview of networked learning, and the need for all schools to move to this new learning model. The authors start by focusing on the need for teachers to develop their own PLNs and to become networked learners, before they can move this model into their classrooms. Most of the book then focuses on developing networked classrooms and schools, including policy issues that come into play.

Note: some of the content from this article appeared in the dean’s column in the Fall 2016 issue of Mosaics, the magazine of the University at Buffalo School of Social Work

If you have comments that you would like to share, please leave them on my post on Social Work Synergy, so that all the comments are in one place.

Nancy J. Smyth is the Dean of the School of Social Work, University at Buffalo, State University of New York

Social Worker’s Guide to Social Media

In the past year, I’ve been asked by many colleagues about where they can find materials related to the use of social media by social workers, especially for social work students. Many of the materials that I have seen developed by schools of social work don’t seem to address the professional use of social media, they mostly caution about private social media use. So we decided, at the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, to develop this infographic, with our partner, 12-Grain, who were the creative geniuses on the project. I like infographics as a way to share information, because they get shared much more than text-oriented posts (see Why Visual is the New Black).

Downloadable pdf copies of this infographic are available from the UB Social Work website (on a Creative Commons license) and by the end of April 2015, people will also be able to order paper copies there, as well. Finally, we hope to have some additional background materials (for more information about some of the guidelines) at that site in the future, as well.


A professional from another field (a notary) commented that she thought that this infographic applies to many professionals who use social media — that was good to hear. I agree that these are generally good principles that could apply to many people who use social media in their professional lives.

Thanks to Melanie Sage, faculty member at the University of North Dakota Department of Social Work, and Laurel Iverson Hitchcock, faculty member at University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Department of Social Work, for their feedback on an earlier version. You can check out their blogs (great resources!) here: Melanie Sage, Social Work Geek and Teaching Social Work (Laurel Iverson Hitchcock’s blog).

Why Choose a Master of Social Work (MSW) Degree?

Many arrows and question marks, and MSW?
I ‘m often asked why people should choose to pursue a master in social work (MSW) degree over the myriad of other human services graduate degrees that are available. My answer is the same one that influenced my degree choice many years ago: an MSW degree opens up more career paths than any other comparable degree. No other human services-oriented degree encompasses this breadth:

• Therapist, planner, community organizer, executive director, policy analyst, researcher, program developer
• Work across systems: individuals, families of all forms, groups, organizations, neighborhoods, service systems, communities, regions, states, nations Continue reading

How People Ignored Each Other Before Smartphones

Photo of family on front porch reading, gazing away, not interacting

How people ignored each other before smartphones

I came across this great image on Twitter (via @SBartner) yesterday, from the That is Priceless blog by Steve Melcher. Beyond giving me a chuckle, it reminds us that people have always had an ability to be together and not talk to one another (and who says that’s always a bad thing?).

And it reminded me of an image from a post I made one year ago that featured the negative impact of another technology on social interactions.

I would love to see any other images that continue this theme. If you have any, please share them in the comments.

As noted on Steve’s blog, the original painting is by Peder Severin Kroyer. Thanks to Laura Gibbs for her help identifying the painting, The Hirschsprung family, before I knew about the Steve Melcher’s original blog post.

There are many other funny technology-captioned paintings on the That is Priceless. Check them out!

2014 In Review: The Stats Helper Monkeys Come Through Again

The stats helper monkeys prepared a 2014 annual report for this blog.

Not my most productive year blogging, especially the last half of the year which was incredibly hectic at work. Here are the highlights:

Here’s an excerpt:

The concert hall at the Sydney Opera House holds 2,700 people. This blog was viewed about 10,000 times in 2014. If it were a concert at Sydney Opera House, it would take about 4 sold-out performances for that many people to see it.

Click here to see the complete report.

An E-book (free) on the Facebook Mood Experiments Controversy

Screenshot of E-Book Created on Readlists

E-Book Created with

In June 2014 the news of Facebook’s mood experiments with manipulating its users’ Facebook feeds broke with the publishing of the Atlantic article Everything We Know About Facebook’s Secret Mood Manipulation ExperimentsControversy ensued on all sides of the debate–even I jumped in with a blog post on the question of harm that could have been created.

Good educators always look for those real world examples that provide a compelling illustration of principles being learned in class. The Facebook Mood Experiment Controversy provides just such an opportunity for those teaching about research ethics, human subjects issues, and communications/marketing research; I could see using them a Social Work Research Methods Class. So with this in mind, I have created an e-reader using a cool tool called Readlists. Continue reading

See Big Data Grow on the Internet in Real Time

An animated preview of “The Internet in Real Time” website

Click the animation to open the full version (via PennyStocksLab).

We’ve all heard statistics about how much data is shared on the Internet in just a few minutes. Well here is a site that will make it come alive: The Internet in Real Time. This animated image gives you a preview of what the site does: but when you actually land on the web page, it starts counting at 0 for each of the types of data in question. And then it starts to count up.

Is this really what people mean by Big Data? No, not exactly. But I think it helps to make the concept of big data more understandable. If you sit with the website active for just a few minutes you very quickly understand how data can get to be so big.