Teaching Profession Opinion

Teacher Networks: Here, There, and Everywhere

By Charles Taylor Kerchner — December 15, 2016 3 min read
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In Disrupting Class, Clayton Christensen, Michael Horn, and Curtis Johnson predicted two areas of technological investment that would have the greatest impact in education: platforms allowing for the creation of student-centric learning tools and facilitated networks encouraging the distribution of those tools. [Review here]

Khan Academy and MOOCs have proven the tremendous demand that exists for personalized, on-demand learning for students, but less seen and arguably more powerful is the rise of Internet fueled teacher networks.

In 2014, Danielle Hagood’s well-researched Collaborative Network Inventory identified 61 networks of teachers operating throughout California to exchange resources and expertise “to enhance access to research and resources within and across schools and districts in order to enhance learning outcomes for Californian students.” The analysis focused primarily on county, inter-county, inter-district, and regional networks, as well as partnerships between higher education and K-12.

Teacher leaders shared with Hagood the list of networks they used to enhance their practice. The infographic below builds on her research adding an additional 15 statewide networks that teachers rely on to sharpen their expertise.

While it is difficult to pinpoint how many teachers are engaged with each network, recent survey data indicate that nearly six in ten teachers are now using technology to work with teaching colleagues they would not otherwise know (Primary sources: America’s teachers on teaching in an era of change). For California’s approximately 295,000 teachers, an estimated 168,000 are engaged in networks that connect them with unknown colleagues.

Yet, the story of how teachers are leveraging technology to increase one another’s capacity is just beginning to unfold.

Nearly every teacher who informed the infographic indicated multiple hashtags they consult on Twitter to find content, instructional ideas, and professional connection with colleagues teaching similar subject matter or student populations. Twitter is indeed changing professional development for educators. One need only look at the extensive calendar of regular education-related Twitter chats to get a sense of how specific, nuanced, and expansive are the topics of discussion among educators. University of California, San Diego, Professor Alan Daly has tracked network development among teachers. The graphic below shows how communication among math teachers changed over time. Notice how much more tightly teachers are coupled with one another at T2 than they were formerly, at T1, and how there are fewer social isolates.

Twitter traffic also turns political. Daly and colleagues are studying how Twitter networks have shaped the debate about the Common Core. They studied the traffic at #commoncore over a six month period and found 190,000 tweets from 53,000 discrete contributors. Relatively few of these tweets were directed toward the content of the Common Core itself. Largely, the contributors were from outside of education who saw the conflict over the Common Core as a proxy war for larger cultural disagreements about the future of American education, particularly the role of the federal government.

As we’ve just learned in a presidential election campaign, social media networks can be extremely influential. We’re also learning how well these informal communication avenues work as on-demand avenues for teacher adult learning and professional development.

As California builds it teacher training and professional development capacity under the Local Control Financing Formula, its leaders should harness the power of networks.

Graphics: Teacher Network, courtesy of Center for Teaching Quality; Math Network, Alan Daly.

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