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Social Media Feeds Freewheeling Professional Development

By Michelle R. Davis — October 24, 2011 7 min read
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Online social networking is spawning a new type of professional development that brings educators together to share face-to-face lessons, but in a more freewheeling—and, some argue, more targeted—way than traditional conferences intended to boost teaching skills.

Such events, dubbed Edcamps, are springing up across the country. The sessions are often organized by people who met through social-networking sites centered around PD for educators and are heavily advertised through sites like Twitter, Ning, and Facebook. The one-day, real-world gatherings have no preset agenda or speakers, but proponents say they provide educators with information on the latest trends and build on discussions that have taken place in online forums.

“It’s a completely new style of professional development, but it still hasn’t happened enough to be really well known” said Kyle Pace, an instructional technology specialist for the 17,500-student Lee’s Summit, Mo., school district, who helped organize an Edcamp in Kansas City last year that drew about 100 attendees and has another one planned for November.

Edcamps are taking their place among a growing menu of professional-development opportunities that happen in online social-networking venues or are inspired by them. Proponents say professional development gleaned through social networking can be instantaneous and promotes connections that lead to deeper conversations about new methods to inspire and educate students.

But sites where this professional development takes place, such as Google+, and the online conferences and webinars that offer such PD are often considered unconventional, and some school districts are still struggling to determine how they fit into required credits.

Educators are catching on, though. The professional social-networking site LinkedIn, for example, estimates it has nearly a million teachers among its members and features such groups as Teachers Lounge and Secondary School Teachers of America, where discussions are growing.

Steven W. Anderson, an instructional technologist for the 52,400-student Winston-Salem/Forsyth County schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., who gives presentations on the benefits of social networking, says the practice is still gaining traction.

“We’re seeing more and more educators using social media and networking for professional development,” he said. But “there’s still this feeling out there that social networking is evil and [that] it’s a time suck.”

Access to Smart Educators

Nicholas Provenzano, an English teacher and technology curriculum specialist for Grosse Pointe South High School in the 8,500-student Grosse Pointe, Mich., public schools, said professional development through social networking, particularly Twitter, “has been the best professional development I’ve had in my life, and I’ve been a teacher 10 years. It gives me 24/7 access to some of the smartest people in education.”

For Mr. Provenzano, a discussion on Twitter (where he has 10,000 followers) can prompt other teachers to tweet him classroom resources, which can lead to a follow-up post on his blog, The Nerdy Teacher, where a richer discussion may take place. That discussion then translates to his classroom, where he puts those ideas into action.

Last school year, Mr. Provenzano partnered with an Iowa teacher he met through social media to have their classes co-produce a filmed presentation of “Romeo and Juliet.” The project involved lengthy discussions and debates, writing online and talking through the Skype video service, between the two classes, with each acting out and filming separate acts of the play. The classes then pieced their films together and screened the production simultaneously at each school.

Twitter, blogging, and online discussions in a variety of forums have also led Mr. Provenzano to become a believer in Edcamps. He and his Iowa counterpart at Van Meter High School were presenters at Edcamp in Kansas City in 2010, and Mr. Provenzano helped organize an Edcamp in Detroit in May.

Mr. Pace, who helped organize the Kansas City Edcamp, said Edcamps differ from traditional conferences in that if people attend a session and aren’t getting a lot out of it, they’re encouraged to leave and try another.

“People end up voting with their feet,” he said. “At a traditional conference, that’s taboo.”

While some who attend Edcamps are new to social networking, many people know each other through online interactions already, Mr. Pace said. So when they meet face to face at Edcamp, “you get past all the formality stuff, and it makes for much deeper, enriching conversation,” he said.

‘EdChats’ on Twitter

For many educators, Twitter has been the gathering place for professional development for several years, with its weekly Edchats, in which moderators choose a topic ahead of time and educators share resources and comments (in no more than 140 characters, of course) using the hash tag #edchat. (A hash tag, which is signified using the # symbol, marks key words or topics on Twitter as a way to categorize subjects.)

The initial Edchats have now spawned close to 400 more topic-specific educator chats on Twitter, like “mathchat” and “elemchat,” said Shelly S. Terrell, a former elementary school teacher who moderates some Edchats and writes the blog Teacher Reboot Camp.

Like many others, Ms. Terrell doesn’t limit herself to Twitter. She also taps into Facebook, Ning, and other social-networking sites for professional development and has now added Google+ to her list of gathering places.

An alternative to Facebook that was launched earlier this year, Google+ makes it easy to group people into what it calls “circles” for sharing information and provides easy opportunities for video “hangouts” or videoconferencing with more than one person at a time, Ms. Terrell said.

“Teachers and I can go say, ‘let’s go hang out and have our conversation there and talk about different kinds of projects,’” she said.

But all those options can be overwhelming for a teacher new to seeking out professional development through social media, said Mr. Anderson of the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County district. “You can get to the point where you have information overload, depending on how you handle it,” he said.

And as beneficial as all the information gleaned from such sources can be, it can be hard to get districts to give teachers credit for what they learn through social networks, Mr. Anderson said.

“We need to change the mind-set at the district [to recognize that] the teacher can get high-quality professional development anytime, anywhere, and in a wide variety of formats,” he said. “Hopefully, if a teacher can document that they participated in Edchat for several months, they can get credit, because it is meaningful.”

The situation is starting to change. Mr. Provenzano said the Grosse Point district gave some teachers professional-development credit for attending the Detroit Edcamp. “That was really cool of them,” he said.

Ms. Terrell said teachers can improve their chances of getting credits for these types of professional development opportunities by approaching district officials beforehand. Last school year, Ms. Terrell created a three-day, nonstop, completely online conference that she billed as the Reform Symposium e-Conference. With 80 presenters, teachers could tune in live in any time zone to participate in webinar-like presentations or view the archived talks on everything from differentiation of instruction to multimedia in math.

Ms. Terrell provided attendees with a downloadable form to give principals or district leaders to request professional-development credit; many teachers received such credit, she said.

But many educators are pushing forward with finding professional development through social networking even without credit for their work, said Alec Couros, a professor of educational technology and media at the University of Regina in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. They want to add to their skills and continue learning, Mr. Couros said.

Social media—Twitter, for example—“is the best professional-development tool because it harnesses the power of thousands of teachers,” he said.

Mr. Couros is now reaching out to some of those teachers with an online graduate class he teaches called Social Media and Open Education. He allows about 20 students to enroll for credit, then opens it up for about 200 people anywhere in the world to take part. The extra people taking the course are most often experienced educators, he said.

“They kind of adopt some of my students, and because my students all have blogs and Twitter accounts, they participate in those different spaces,” Mr. Couros said. “The other 200 provide support to them while learning.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 26, 2011 edition of Education Week as Social Media Feeds Freewheeling Professional Development


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