Using Personal Learning Networks in TEFL

There's a sad but key truth about teaching EFL overseas compared to in our home countries - our counterparts over there are often receiving more growth opportunities as educators.

Unless you’re working in an institution that is somewhat summit-adjacent on Mount TEFL, you may have become somewhat conditioned to not expect a lot of support to better yourself and your professional abilities.

It shouldn’t be this way, and shouldn’t be something any of us become comfortable with.

This situation is made worse by short-term contracts, a revolving door of expatriating and repatriating teachers, as well as less than reputable characters on both the employer and employee sides. Long story short, our professional industry can get pretty unprofessional at times. While it would be great to change things on a broader level, articles like this are designed to provide options for teachers wanting to take charge of their own professional development.

What is a personal learning network (PLN)?

This article will look at using Reddit, Twitter (including IFTTT integration), Podcasts and Blogs (via feed aggregators) to stay up to date with TEFL developments. Many of the suggested sources mentioned operate across platforms, however I’ve tried to include them in the sections I feel are most relevant.

For the purposes of this article, PLN means a way to harness information available on the internet in a manageable, relevant and timely way. Strictly speaking, PLNs can involve offline interactions and can involve a mutual exchange of information. Some know the term ‘PLN’ as synonymous with ‘feed aggregator’, a single platform to view updates about the industry. For this article, PLN will be the range of sources you choose to look at, as well as how you access and view content. If you get your PLN right, you’ll be challenged and inspired on a daily or weekly basis - as well as being more tapped into the industry zeitgeist.

PLNs are fairly standard in the formal education sphere of many of our respective home countries but in my experience, teachers of EFL aren’t always aware of how they work, why they’re needed, or how to use them in an effective way.

Reddit - Hit and miss

One of the benefits of Reddit in general, is being able to customize an experience that is uniquely tailored to your interests. In terms of TEFL it can: help you find a job, learn about the experience of teaching English in a specific place, know which companies and centers to embrace or avoid, keep up with linguistic theory or thoughts about language acquisition, and help with ideas for teaching (including asking for specific advice).

r/TEFL is the largest TEFL subreddit by followers, and it’s a broad network with a lot of different aspects of teaching English. However, there’s also a lot of people unhappy with their life in the TEFL industry on there, so soul searching (and negativity) can be a bit rife.

r/TEFLteachers is much smaller in terms of posts/ activity, focusing more on the teaching aspect, with many teachers using it to share materials.

r/Linguistics is a large, more academic take on anything language learning / language theory, and may be a good resource for those interested in pursuing further education in the field, to either find a specific subfield of linguistics that excites you, ask for advice from linguistics students and professors or just generally see those absolutely passionate about anything language-related interact with one another. (Note: r/BadLinguistics is a fun, if rather snarky offshoot.)

r/Languagelearning is not designed for teachers, but more a community of language learning enthusiasts (stand by for a lot of jokes about Duolingo). It is certainly much more light-hearted and may help you relate more to learners, but won’t necessarily keep you up to date with the latest developments in the field. And that’s okay, it’s not trying to.

If you already use Reddit, subscribing to one of these subreddits may enhance your professional development. It’s also very easy to connect with other teachers. However, due to the open nature of the platform, the quality can be very patchy and as a stand alone source of PD it may not quite help you develop your skills a great deal.

Twitter - A lot of signals, a lot of noise

When used correctly, Twitter can be a valuable resource to stay up to date with the latest academic research, engage or observe debate about TEFL-related topics, or simply get lesson tips and access materials.

Trying to make academic content more accessible for practitioners is an ongoing concern on Twitter, as many academic journals (you’ll note they’re not included here as a realistic method of PD) require practitioners to sieve through a lot of material to find elements that are relevant to their in-classroom experience. Accounts such as @ResearchBites (and this one!) aim to try to make content from TEFL journals / articles practical for the day-to-day lives of teachers.

Hashtags, such as #tefl, #tesol and even the non-TEFL specific #edutwitter can be used to track conversations on a particular topic or sub-specialty. Twitter Education Chats use the power of hashtags to conduct a more in-depth conversation on twitter, usually at a given time period (and usually lasting around an hour). There’s a fairly comprehensive list of educhats here, but for TEFL professionals, #eltchat / @eltchat is recommended as both a weekly educhat session (for almost ten years now!) and a more general hashtag to use to discuss elements of ELT. More information on how this works can be found here.

A further benefit of using these hashtags is to find accounts that you’d like to follow. As there are a plethora of talented, dedicated and learned EFL professionals on Twitter, it’s best to explore the hashtag to find those who do work that suits your personal interests, career aspirations and / or particular causes within the industry.

Using a Third-Party Tool to make Twitter work for you

Twitter is the kind of resource which seems to provide a never-ending stream of content. It can also be easy to miss things if you have to stay logged off for a day or two. To manage Twitter in a way that better suits your time, you can use your smartphone to harness the power of IFTTT (If This Then That). For example, you can receive an email digest of tweets by your favourite accounts, or by hashtag, or send an email to yourself of tweets you’ve saved for later. IFTTT is the kind of resource you can explore and discover ways to make your PD work for you in ways you never even realized. It’s included here in the twitter section, but can be explored for use with other platforms, and can hopefully help to make PD manageable and convenient for you.

Podcasts - How well can you multitask?

This audio-only medium may require a certain time investment, but may be suitable depending on how and what sort of PD you are after. Personally, I find it difficult to multitask when the tasks require more than a basic level of attention. If you’re like me, putting on a podcast may be a good way to combine a task like cleaning your home and upskill at the same time. I envy those who could lesson plan and listen at the same time (but I’ve heard they exist!).

TEFLology often features interviews with prominent figures in the industry - the kind of people you may recognize from bibliographies at the end of journal articles or the front of the books you use in class. The hosts discuss the industry itself, as well as theory and the implications on language teaching. It’s pretty light-hearted, but also expects a certain level of background knowledge.

The TEFL Training Institute Podcast provides 15-minute segments about a range of issues in the TEFL community, from native-speakerism to principles behind vocab teaching, all in easy to understand language that aims to make content as accessible as possible.

EnglishClub and TEFLCommute are more designed to help with in-class teaching ideas, and both are short and fairly straight to the point.

Other popular podcasts include: The International House (IH) podcast, TEFL Bootcamp and Masters of TESOL (who also have some YouTube videos, if that’s how you prefer to get content).

As a side note, podcasts can also be used effectively as a teaching tool. This article suggests some ways to maximize their use with a class.

Blogs & Sites - So many blogs, so little time

There are a lot of great blogs out there, to the point where creating a list would require an entirely separate article. Much like Twitter accounts, then can also specialize to the point where you can find something uniquely suited to your interests. If you’re interested in following blogs as a form of PD (which I highly recommend), using a Feed Reader as a starting point can be an effective way to manage all the information. I used to simply follow the Facebook pages of a lot of these sites, however found it distracting and ineffective to have highly valuable articles sandwiched between pictures of my nieces and nephews and a friend’s shopping trip to a christmas market. Now, I try to separate the social media I use for staying in touch with friends and family and the social media I follow for my professional purposes.

Feed Readers - Your PLN playground

Feed Readers, otherwise known as Feed Aggregators or RSS readers, are basically a way for you to see when websites you’re interested in are updated. They’ve gotten pretty good in the last few years. It’s basically a shell for you to build your own PD network, based on the blogs and sites you’re interested in.

There are a few different feed readers out there. I use Feedly, which works well, although I wish I could get it to integrate with Twitter more effectively. A couple of times a week I block time to click the link to my Feedly page, and see what has popped up since I was last there. I set up my Feedly by first following some blogs that I’d come across on Twitter. The recommended pages are also fairly intuitive (through it I have even discovered some new blogs like “Free Technology for Teachers” - now one of my favourites), and I can even keep track of when academic journals I follow publish a new edition.

Beyond TEFL

There are many sources that come from an education background that can also be highly applicable in the TEFL industry. Working in an EFL role in a Secondary (Middle) School, I’ve found Edutopia, Cult of Pedagogy and Mindshift by valuable resources. Mindshift in particular helps to remind me that I’m teaching actual human beings. They take a more holistic view of education from both a teachers’ and learners’ perspective that helps me not only with teaching ideas, but how to better understand my students. As none of these sites are made with TEFL specifically in mind, not all articles may be appropriate for you depending on your learning context.

Having now covered professional development opportunities using peer observations and social media, the final article in the series will discuss a few different other suggestions to improve your career prospects and knowledge of both the industry and practice.

Do you have a Social Media based PD routine that you think others could learn from? Please let us known on Twitter!

Feed readers can help you keep track of various sources