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Social Media Vital to Professional Development

Social Media Vital to Professional Development
Social media resources can serve a valuable purpose for adult students looking to enhance their careers through informal learning and networking.
Formal degree and training programs provide the foundation for our career paths, but long-term professional success depends largely on the quality of our personal learning networks (PLNs).

We all have basic PLNs, whether or not we recognize them as such. They typically encompass a diverse set of relationships that provide information, understanding and context for personal and professional development questions. Many of our key PLN relationships are with individuals we know and interact with on a regular basis. But adult learners are no longer limited to face-to-face interactions, thanks to a range of technology-driven environments that facilitate international networking and sharing.

Twitter, Google+, Pinterest, LinkedIn, Facebook and other social media platforms have the potential to amplify access to resources that fuel personal and professional development in ways never before possible. They create international settings for new collaborations, conversations and even career opportunities. They’re also subject to easy dismissal because of common stereotypes about what takes place within them.

Common misconceptions about social media often cluster around a theme of, “It’s all junk. I don’t care about what you had for lunch, or about Pop Star X … ” Those posts and exchanges exist. But the chance they will end up in the feeds of adult learners focused on building professional connections and knowledge is minimal. As with face-to-face interactions, the quality of our social media connections depends largely on whom we invite into the “room.”

Spaces such as Twitter, LinkedIn and Google+ offer instant opportunities to follow and learn from authors, educators, opinion leaders and professional icons who not only share information and resources but frequently initiate and invite direct engagement. Simply following people who would otherwise only be names in textbooks or journal articles is one legitimate way to be in these spaces. But if we stop there, we miss out. We also have legitimate opportunities to engage with these individuals and to learn directly from them.

Social media-based platforms provide access to professional organizations and resources of value to adult students and career changers. Some of that access may be to member-only spaces for information sharing. Others are public, giving anyone interested in the organization and its work access to resources and information.

Online communities created in these social media spaces provide opportunities to share resources, spark questions that expand collective learning and make connections that sometimes lead to employment offers, consulting requests and collaboration opportunities. Whether they’re formally created to support existing networks or on an ad-hoc basis to draw people with common interests, these communities can create new, rich spaces for learning and interacting.

Other social tools extend and enrich the PLN learning experience. For example, blogs, podcasts and video sharing sites facilitate creating and sharing content and engage global audiences around that content. RSS (really simple syndication) feeds and apps bring new content directly to subscribers’ computers and mobile devices. Social bookmarking tools not only allow learners to collect and curate resources, but to extend learning to include what others are gathering.

Getting started or expanding your PLN

For those inspired to explore the world of PLN options available via social tools and platforms, the following five recommendations may be helpful.

  1. If you already have a presence on a social media platform but have not yet begun to develop it as a learning tool, take some time to explore the networking and information sharing resources available to members. Look for groups that focus on your career/discipline area, connect with alumni or represent professional groups in your field.

  2. If you do not already have a presence, find one that fits your needs and interests and sign up. Ask peers, faculty and others in your field to recommend places for high-quality interaction and sharing. Create a profile, find and follow a select group of people connected to your interests and get a feel for how to participate.

  3. If the flow of information becomes overwhelming, look for ways to narrow focus (e.g. Twitter lists, which allow you to group those you’re following in categories and better filter your results).

  4. Remember that, while information is available 24/7, you have the power to decide when you access it and for how long.

  5. Just try it. Respect the inevitable learning curve and know that persistence will yield rich learning rewards.

In a global economy, adult students and professionals cannot confine themselves to purely local connections. Success increasingly depends on the breadth, depth and quality of our PLNs — and the social tools and environments where they’re taking place.

To learn more about building a personal learning network, visit my “Building Your PLN” board on Pinterest or my curated bookmarks on the topic.

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