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

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.

2013 Blog Review — Courtesy of the Helper Monkeys

I am, at best, a sporadic blogger, violating all the rules of those “how to” blogging posts that tell you to post frequently and consistently. So it’s always interesting to me to see what I have managed to produce in a year, and it’s fascinating to note that some older posts keep popping up. Continue reading

The Liebster Award

liebster2I just learned that this blog has received the Liebster Award– Thanks to thrutheseeyes1 for nominating me. Her blog, The Direction Not the Destination is a wonderful blend of her personal and professional reflections on life and her work as a social worker–I recommend that you check it out!

Of course, the first thing I did upon being notified of this award was to Google “Liebster Award.” I discovered that the main purpose of the award is to discover and recognize new blogs. A wonderful summary of the award and it’s iterations can be found in this comprehensive post by Lorraine Reguly.

Here are the rules to the Liebster Award:

  • Thank your Liebster Blog Award presenter on your blog and link back to the blogger who presented this award to you.
  • Answer the 10 questions from the nominator
  • Nominate 10 blogs and create 10 questions for your nominees.

My task now is to answer the 10 questions put to me in the nomination, nominate 10 blogs for this award, and then ask the 10 questions I would like to have my nominees answer if they accept the award. Continue reading

How Strong is Your Personal Learning Network? Take this Quiz to Find Out

Establishing social networks to enhance professional development is a topic that I get excited about. So I was thrilled to stumble across this blog post by Lisa Nielson today (through my personal learning network- PLN!): Continue reading

Twitter 101

Twitter bird, blue on white

I’ve been speaking to colleagues a lot recently about the value of Twitter. Sometimes I manage to convince one or two to check it out; as a result, they are often looking for a good basic description of Twitter. I’ve tried to collect such posts over the years, but I have found them lacking in at least one or more of the elements that I would include, hence this post is my attempt to provide such a description that is current in July 2013, knowing that in a few months Twitter will have changed enough that parts of this post might become less relevant or even obsolete. Most of this post will pertain to anyone wanting to learn Twitter. However, I’ve inserted a section at the end on identifying social work content for any social work readers.

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Extending Your Professional Consultation Network with Social Media: How It Saved a Life

Global Network

A while back I wrote about why I’m here, that is, why I use social media. In that post, I talked primarily about the value of hearing from a broad network of people about ideas that are outside my discipline. Well today I read about a university colleague who used Twitter another way, to seek fast consultation from colleagues around the globe. Continue reading

Health Info & Social Networks: Some Unexpected News

Online Health Info Wordle
I’ve read quite a bit the last couple of years about battle for the search market: how Facebook is challenging Google in online search  because people want to search within their own social networks (e.g. Facebook vs. Google: It’s On in SearchHow Facebook Could Beat Google to Win the Net , and Wired’s Facebook vs. Google). So I was more than a little surprised to read some recent findings about health information search by the Pew Internet team in their new report, Health Online 2013. Beyond their main findings (59% of adults in the United States have looked online for health information in the past year), they found that people don’t start their search for health information with their social networks. Continue reading

Why Visual is the New Black

Visual Platforms Take Off

Although I was an early adopter of Pinterest, I confess that it took me a while to understand it. I set up an account sometime in mid-2011 after Jens P. Berget at Sly Marketing mentioned it in one of his newsletters. And then I  did nothing with it for about 6 months, because I didn’t really see it’s appeal.

I don’t recall why I reconnected with Pinterest, but as more people were using it and I saw their images, I began to understand it better. Initially it appealed to the part of me that likes to look through well-designed magazines: I found the images engaging and relaxing. Image of an eye and lashesYears ago I had started to create scrapbooks of magazine pictures that appealed to me (a project that was recommended by one of the creative journaling books I was reading) — eventually those scrapbooks gathered dust with a pile of images that I didn’t have the time to paste into the books. And finally I just threw them out. So Pinterest started as a virtual version of those scrapbooks for me. Then I began to see posts from people like Beth Kanter, who in January 2011 wrote about using Pinterest as a curation tool  and that non-profits were using it to promote their organizations and engage their communities. My understanding of Pinterest matured and I began to see more options for using it in other ways, for example, the Social Work Apps Pinterest board maintained by Dorlee M and me and the Visions of Social Work board that both promotes the profession and highlights some aspects of our school. In his recent Wired article, In Defense of Pinterest, Clive Thompson describes how a therapist used Pinterest to help her clients communicate their moods when words just wouldn’t work.
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