Learning, PLN, Professional Learning, Research, social media, Teachers

Navigating the network for quality, credibility and authenticity: A challenge for connected professionals

On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog…

via GIPHY

It’s funny because it is true.

When engaging with professional learning through your PLN, it is essential to have the capacity to quickly and effectively evaluate information and resources for their authenticity and credibility. With so much information available (see my previous post on Managing Infowhelm!) and many demands on your time (find strategies for Time Management here) it can be incredibly frustrating when you think you have discovered the perfect resource, but later find that it does not live up to its claims.

Not everyone who interacts online shares the goal of learning, and when individuals with different goals interact, sometimes great things are possible…however sometimes, it doesn’t all work out quite so well. The openly networked nature of the PLN, with its low barriers to entry and foundations in trust and reciprocity can create amazing synergy, but can also be exploited by those who are working towards less participatory ends. Whether you welcome vendors and commercial representatives into your PLN is a personal decision, and in many cases, companies and organisations can add genuine value to professional learning opportunities, whether by alerting you to more formal learning experiences (e.g. webinars or courses you might find relevant/interesting) or by introducing you to new, innovative or creatively different resources or information sources. However, situations may also arise when the participants in your network have other intentions.

In my research, teacher participants shared many positive interactions and discoveries, but they also mentioned the shadow side. They noted that not all information or resources shared are of uniformly high quality, and when individuals are less well known, as happens in networks, it may be challenging to assess whether their contributions to discussions or debates are well informed and based on evidence.

Participants in my research also shared some less positive interactions they had experienced. These took different forms. Whether it was followers who filled the network with ‘noise’ by constantly advertising their business or commercial interests, network participants unintentionally sharing mis-information or individuals simply displaying poor network ‘manners’ (e.g. not acknowledging sources or saying ‘thank you’ when resources were shared), learning through social media is not always a completely positive experience.

We have to remember that social networks were not actually designed for professional learning. They have incredible affordances which mediate wonderful learning experiences, but we also need to apply strategies to ensure our learning is of high quality within an ambiguous context.

So what are these strategies? How do we ensure quality, credibility and authenticity in our PLNs? Check out some of the ideas below, shared by teachers who are regularly engaging with their PLN!

1. SIFT information before sharing

There are many acronyms which may used to remind us of useful steps to evaluate the quality and validity of information shared online. You may have heard of the CRAAP test (Currency, Relevance, Authority, Accuracy and Purpose), the STAAR method (Slant, Topical, Authority, Accuracy, Relevance), the CARS checklist (Credibility, Accuracy, Reasonableness, and Support) or the REAL approach (Read the URL, Examine the site’s content, Ask about the author/publisher, Look at the links).

Each of these encourage consideration of different features of websites or posts that will give indications of its credibility and purpose; however Mike Caulfield warns us that these approaches may be better suited to simpler web examples. When applied in more complex instances, sometimes these approaches can create confusion, especially when a content item meets two or more of the criteria, but fails on others. This “tidal wave of conflicting signals” may lead us to question whether there is even any point in evaluating web information.

In addition, Caulfield adds, some of the features these methods point out may be misleading; they are not foolproof, and may lead to poor decisions being made.  He suggests we take a different approach – which fits the nifty acronym of SIFT. This ‘four moves and a habit’ approach allows the reader to contextualise the information and identify quality and accuracy quickly by taking active steps which check the veracity of the claims; SIFT stands for: Stop, Investigate the source, Find better coverage and Trace claims, quotes, and media to the original context. You can learn more about each of these stages by watching these videos or reading more here

When engaging with information sourced through your PLN, it is good to SIFT it, or in other words, check it for quality and authenticity before sharing it on. Even though your Twitter account may state ‘retweets do not guarantee endorsement’, it is irresponsible to redistribute material which you have not checked out yourself. Often, resources look terrific when we see them in a brief tweet, or mentioned in a Facebook post, but without actually going to the site and evaluating it for yourself, there is no guarantee that it is a high quality resource, or that it is credible information. It is far better to redistribute fewer links or resources which are of higher quality than to retweet or reshare every item that sounds even the least bit useful.

2. Curate your network connections

Developing a PLN takes time, and building a network of connections you truly value does not happen by accident. Deciding who to follow and which groups to be a part of is an important aspect of managing effective professional learning through your PLN. This doesn’t mean being elitist in any way; often we learn from individuals who have completely different backgrounds, experiences or expertise; but it does mean being aware of who is in your network, and not accepting every follow or friend request.

There are people (and bots!) who simply harvest social media networks for connections for a variety of reasons, usually none of them associated with professional learning. Being aware of this helps us to create networks where connections share our professional interests and where high quality information exchange is more likely to take place.

At times (often after attending a conference or professional learning event) you may find that you have followed people who were sharing valuable content, but who have now moved into different areas which are not related to your interests or needs. As time passes and your own interests change, ‘pruning’ your network and keeping it aligned with your current focus can help to ensure a more effective learning experience. Not everyone does this. Some of my research participants found they enjoyed the serendipity of having connections with many different people from a wide range of different interest areas; however if your time is short, or your focus is specific, pruning can help.

Another way to manage this is to create lists in Twitter, around different interest or learning areas. This way you can enjoy your whole network when you have time, but zero in on information more aligned to your needs by going to the lists of people who are sharing around that topic when needed.

3. Use mute and block

This is a strategy aligned with the one above. Don’t be afraid to use the ‘Mute’ or ‘Block’ tools in social network platforms! Muting and blocking accounts is not only a strategy to manage cyberbullying or harrassment. Of course, no one wants to be muted or blocked. However it is not uncommon to have bots or spam accounts begin following you and sharing content which is completely unrelated to your PLN.

At these times, muting or blocking the account is completely appropriate, and indeed essential to maintain the professionalism of your presence and the quality of the information being shared through your network. You don’t want to have to dodge a stream filled with unrelated, commercial or inappropriate posts, and so staying on top of these accounts is an important strategy.

Sometimes these accounts can look very ‘real’, and it can be difficult to identify them. There are a few ways to pick them out. One is the check the profile photo. Is it appropriate for that type of account? A reverse image search (using a tool like TinEye) can also be revealing. Another tip is to look at the Followers and Following numbers; while we all have to start somewhere, an account which is following a huge number of people yet has next to no followers can be a red flag. Finally, look at what content is being shared by the account. A quick browse of their stream can give you an idea of whether their focus is professional learning, or aligned to your own interests…or something completely different. While we all make occasional posts about unrelated topics, it’s easy to get the picture when you don’t share the same purpose for being online!

Muting and blocking are features of different social network platforms; although they generally do the same thing, finding and operating these little tools can be different on different platforms. Of course this information will probably become out of date quickly, but at the moment, here’s how to use mute and block on Instagram; Whatsapp; Twitter and Facebook.

4. Beware of echo chambers and filter bubbles

All of the above strategies come with a word of warning. Be careful not to curate a network that unintentionally acts as an echo chamber, populated only with individuals who completely share your views. There is nothing wrong with limiting your network, but it is great to include a wide range of professionals. When your connections come from different geographic locations, different backgrounds, different nationalities, different political persuasions or even completely different fields and disciplines, your eyes may be opened to perspectives and approaches you had never considered before.

Several of my research participants said that they had experienced significant learning opportunities through their interactions with connections from outside of the education field; offering learning when they least expected it. Curating your network means finding balance between those who share your professional interests and those who will challenge you and push you to consider new ways of thinking and practicing.

It is also good to be wary of filter bubbles. With algorithms tailoring our search results and deciding which posts to promote in our feeds and from whom, it is possible that your PLN may fall into a bubble where you are only hearing particular voices or encountering resources and information from the same sources all of the time. While these voices and sources may be of high quality, your professional learning network should be about you accessing from the widest range; not seeking the same old same old.

Some teachers have described breaking out of their filter bubbles by actively searching using different hashtags or connecting with new communities, participating in Twitter Chats on different topics or seeking out new people to add to their network, who will bring different opinions and perspectives. Others change up their search engines, trying Duck Duck Go for a different take on search results. We may not be able to ‘beat’ the algorithms, but we can be aware of their influence on our network and actively manage their impact.

Has this post been useful for you? Interested in learning more strategies to manage the challenging aspects of professional learning through your PLN? Why not check out these previous posts on managing infowhelm and effective time management; and stay tuned for the next post, on developing a professional digital identity that works for you!

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