Expanding our Community – Social Media as Professional Development

This new learning world is about participation,
not just consumption, and it’s only with that participation that the real
connections can happen.

The Inquiry Context

A common thread through my 10 years as a teacher has been a passion for literacy and professional development.  I have spent countless hours developing my own understanding of curriculum and pedagogy through workshops, in service, reading and writing; however, over the past few years I have found a new interest in working with and supporting colleagues in their own professional development.  As a literacy and numeracy support teacher for the past 3 years, mentorship and professional development has become not only a passion, but part of my job.  Choosing a new literacies practice which focuses on professional development, therefore came quite naturally. Personal circumstances also inspired my inquiry decision.  Recently on leave from teaching, I found that I wanted to stay connected to my colleagues on a professional level and wanted to stay abreast of current research and resources.  I discovered that through social media I was able to meet these needs. Seeing the opportunities offered through online professional development I set out to explore how social media can support professional development in the dynamic teaching and learning context of the 21st century.

Coming into this assignment I was not a novice social media user. On a personal level, I had been using various social media platforms, such as Facebook and Instagram, to stay connected with friends and family from around the world.  I appreciated the ease and flexibility I was offered, the growing community I could connect with and the relatively simple and user-friendly platforms.  On a professional level, I had used blogging as a means of connecting with students and parents through a classroom blog using Blogger and more recently moved to using Edmodo as a home/school communication tool. Through these experiences I felt quite comfortable navigating the social media world.

With an interest in social media, an acute awareness of the changing landscape of literacy and questions around the effectiveness of traditional pro-d models, I set out on my inquiry with the following questions in mind:

  • How can I merge my outsider activities with social media to my insider practice?
  • What social media tools will I find most useful to meet my pro-d needs?
  • How can social media enhance professional development?

According to the Research

There is no denying that we are living, working and learning in a time of rapid change.  Within this context our social interactions, forms of communication, and the methods we use to search and gather information are being transformed.  With new media and new literacies we find that “Being a literate person in today’s society involves more than being able to construct meaning from a printed text.  A literate person needs to be able to ‘read’ and ‘write’ and learn with texts that have multimodal elements such as print, graphic design, audio, video, gesture, and nonstop interaction” (Vacca, Vacca & Maraz, 2014. p. 33).  Will Richardson (2013) suggests that the proliferation of technology and the influences of the web demand an ecological change in education.  More than just layering technology on traditional practices, schools need to focus on the needs of the learner.  Richardson asks, “What if we focused on developing kids who are ‘learners’ instead of trying to make sure they’re ‘learned’? What if, instead of delivering the same, common education to every student, we focused on developing the skills and dispositions necessary for them to learn whatever they need to learn whenever they need to learn it? That means rethinking classrooms to focus in individualized passions, inquiry, creation, sharing, patient problem solving, and innovation” (p. 14).

Research shows that Richardson’s thinking can be applied to professional development. Working within the same parameters, professional development needs to undergo its own ecological revolution.  Richard Beach argues that, “as classrooms change and as students bring more digital capabilities and sensibilities to school than ever before, our PD mechanisms also need to change” (2012, p. 256).  Traditional workshop models of pro-d are viewed as ineffective and teachers desire flexibility, individualization, increased collaboration and integrated support to meet the demands of teaching in a digital world.

Goals of professional development include supporting teachers’ understanding of current practice to provide meaningful learning experiences for their students. However, “Current professional development (PD) often does not effectively support teachers in transforming their instruction. One-shot workshops – ‘professional development’ days with little direct connections to classrooms, coaching support, or follow-up – often have minimal impact on teachers (Beach, p. 256). The success of educational reform rests in the success and effectiveness of professional development.  The continued prominence of mandated, short term pro-d proves to be “inadequate strategies for bringing about change” (McConnell, Parker, Eberhardt, Koehler, Lundeberg 2012, p. 267).  As an alternative, online professional development offers on-going, open ended platforms with an endless number of potential collaborators.

While traditional models of professional development provide opportunities for collaboration, teachers continue to be passive recipients of information.  Richardson and Mancabelli point out, “This new learning world is about participation, not just consumption, and it’s only with that participation that the real connections can happen” (2011, p. 37).  Social media is participatory by nature and teacher involvement in online pro-d connects them to a global community of colleagues with similar interests and inquiries. Through social media sites such as Twitter, teachers can become members of professional learning communities which focus on problem solving, planning, assessment and curriculum development (Beach, 2012).  The constraints associated with pre-determined or directive face- to-face pro-d are eliminated with social media as an, “online forum can support professional learning by giving teachers a platform for interacting with other professionals and providing a place to discuss current issues and trends” (Byington, 2011. pp. 282-283). Furthermore, Trinkle shares “A feature of PLCs that Twitter exemplifies better than many face- to-face communities is the ‘collective inquiry into best practice’ (Darfour 2008). By choosing whom you follow, you choose the best practices for your personal interests…and educators who Twitter, though spread out across the globe, are working together in a collaborative community for their professional development (2008, 18)” (2009 p. 22). The affordance of choice gives teachers a sense of ownership which increases their investment in developing personal practice (Bostock 2012, p. 223).  In addition to Twitter, research shows that blogs are effective online tools for collaboration. Blogs support the synthesis of ideas, connections with other teachers, communication around common interest (Richardson & Mancabelli, p. 50) and allow participants to access information at any time through archived conversations (Byington, p. 283).  Beyond collaboration, online professional development affords teachers the flexibility they desire, “Technology is providing new opportunities for creating professional connections within the field of education by eliminating time and space constraints” (Byington, p. 290).  Finding time within work schedules is not as challenging and cost restrictive as online learning and collaboration can take place in an ongoing, limitless timeframe.

When considering the necessity of educational reform to support 21 century learners, the research shows that increased meaningful professional development with digital tools and platforms is essential for sustained change.  As teachers develop their own digital insider perspective, they increasingly understand the skills they must bring to their literacy instruction (Colwell, Hutchinson & Reinking 2012, p. 233).  According to Bostock, “Active involvement in using digital technologies will enable teachers to better understand how to develop the types of learning activities that will be engaging and meaningful for their students, many of whom are familiar with these practices in their lives outside of school” (p. 223).

Personal Experience with Social Media as Pro-D

Resource sharing and gathering, I discovered, was one of the most useful elements of social media as professional development.  By choosing particular people or organizations to follow on Twitter I shared in their common interests and utilized the information they had to offer. With the favourites feature, I could save Tweets with links, inspirations, images and lesson ideas.  Furthermore, I could directly share the learning boards and pearls I created on Learnist and Pearltrees through sharing features on their sites. Collecting resources was simple with Pearltrees. I found that I could simply use their bookmarking tool to compile pearls (their version of a file) on specific topics. For example, whenever I came across a good website, blog, Youtube video, or image on digital citizenship I would add the link to my pearl.  Pearltrees has become one of my favourite digital tools as I finally have a place to efficiently collect the resources I come across. While Learnist is a good social bookmarking tool for searching information I have begun using it more to create my own learning boards which I can share with students and colleagues.  The layout of the learning board is more conducive, I believe, to sharing in a class, in a workshop, or with a group than Pearltrees as it is linear and the learnings (the links within a learning board) can be organized sequentially.

While comfortable with most of the navigational aspects of social media, I found that I had to overcome the fear of writing for an audience of my peers.  Writing for my blog was particularly stressful in the beginning as the nature of blogging invites opinion writing, personal perspective and experience – not to mention that I was being assessed for my Masters program. My opinions, writing abilities (or inabilities!) thoughts and feelings would be public property. With audience in mind, I had to craft my writing to assure the digital
footprint I was creating was one that portrayed a critical thinker who could support her ideas, and a reflective, supportive professional.  Finding myself in the position of writing in a public forum, with audience and voice in mind helped me understand the importance of explicit writing instruction in these areas for my own students. Students are likely writing more today than they ever have due to the connections they maintain in social media and through emailing, blogging, creating fanzines etc which means they need to be able to choose appropriate voice to fit their purpose and audience. Like the teachers in Bostock’s research, I “came to appreciate that these digital literacies were, in fact, a new and important language, a language that deserves recognition in the classroom curriculum as a significant form of communication” (p. 229).

I also went through a number of hair-pulling moments when transferring my blog from Blogger to WordPress. While it initially looked like a simple one or two-step process I quickly discovered that Blogger and WordPress work quite differently. I spent the better part of two days learning the new platform, making mistakes, emailing the helpdesk, watching how-to videos on Youtube and finally phoning my cousin who is a graphic and web designer who uses WordPress. In the end I was proud of the blog I created and pleased with the utility it offered viewers; however, I was slightly disheartened as it is quite simple in appearance and did not reflect the HOURS that went into its creation.  I did think of my colleagues a number of times throughout those two days and wondered how many would invest the same time in creating a professional development tool.  This could be a deterrent for many teachers and why Colwell, et al. suggest that “teachers not inclined to integrate digital forms of literacy into their practice may be more likely to do so with a tool that requires novice-level technical competence and minimal professional development” (p. 234).

My willingness to persevere speaks to my efficacy with social media.  Once I find a tool that I find valuable, I am willing to commit time and effort as I know the outcome with be worth it. Through my perseverance I have developed skills which lend to my efficiency; I can now filter, screen, upload, embed, summarize (to 144 characters!) and share with relative ease. I do still have areas to grow in. I would like to actively take part in some Twitter chats (I’m usually a silent observer)  and should utilize hashtags more often to find feeds on specific topics. It continues to be a learning journey.

What Others Need to Know

Here is one of the significant take-aways I have gleaned which could be helpful for anyone considering using social media as an online professional tool:

Online vs Combined Models: I found that there are two main ways to use online pro-d: fully online or a hybrid model (Byington, p. 287) of online and face-to-face collaboration.  The fully online model is useful for reaching out to educators across the globe, benefiting from a wealth of information and accessing resources. However, it can be an isolated experience and I find that without someone physically alongside you, there is no guarantee that the information gathered will translate into classroom practice or educational reform.  A solution  would be to set expectations or goals with a professional learning community and assign online meeting times where you could debrief and discuss progress made.  Alternatively, educators can use a combined model which can “sustain communities of practice between face-to-face events” (p. 287). I have appreciated my own experience with this model within my literacy/numeracy mentorship role. Mentors from across the district come together approximately four times a year. In between, we use Twitter to stay connected with a common hashtag – #sd61slm. A benefit of this model is that it supports localized goals and inquiries and provides a flexible model for participation. Here’s a teacher in our district who agrees:

Where do I go from Here?

For my own practice I have established three goals:

  1. Create an online professional learning community within my school
  2. Take part in the weekly BCEdChat on Sunday evenings
  3. Use a social bookmarking tool with my students to help them search and collect information to support their inquiries, research or personal interests

Want to get started?

Here is a handy resource with some quick and easy advice on how to begin collaborating with social media:

Social Media Savvy? Four Tips to Help You Get Started | Edutopia.

p.s. thanks to some Twitter friends for their insights!

The above is a shortened and modified version of a recent M Ed inquiry assignment

Beach, R. (2012). Can online learning communities foster professional development? Language Arts, 89(4), 256-262.

Bostock, S. (2012). Thirdspace: A perspective on professional development. Language Arts, 89(4), 222-231.

Byington, T. (2011). Communities of practice: Using blogs to increase collaboration. Intervention in School and Clinic, 46, 280-291.

Colwell, J., Hutchison, A., & Reinking, D. (2012). Using blogs to promote literacy response during professional development. Language Arts, 89(4), 232-243.

Darfour, R. (2008) Revisiting professional learning communities at work. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

McConnell, T., Parker, J., Eberhardt, J., Koehler, J., & Lundeberg, M. (2013). Virtual professional learning communities: Teachers’ perceptions of virtual versus face-to-face professional development. Journal of Science Education and Technology. 22, 267-277.

Richardson, W. (2013). Students first, not stuff. Educational Leadership. March 2013, 10-14.

Richardson, W. & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks: Using the power of connections to transform education. Bloomington, IN: Solution Tree.

Trinkle, C. (2009). Twitter as a professional learning community. School Library Monthly, 26(4), 22-23.

Vacca, R., Vacca, J., & Mraz, M. (2014). Learning with new literacies.


Goldie Eyes

It started with an inspiration. The Best Part of Me by Wendy Ewald  After reading this book I knew I wanted to do a similar activity with my class…two years later I finally had my chance. I set out to model the writing process with my students.

link to amazon.ca

I started here as a pre-write

I needed to think of who I was writing for, why I was writing and what were some of the big ideas I would use to discuss my eyes.

Pre-write continued…

I thought of some specific examples to fit with each of my big ideas. I explained that I wasn’t going into detail here, but I would be in my draft. This was to act as a reminder or an inspiration board to help me later.

It was time to piece it together in the writing phase
More challenging than expected (it’s not easy doing this in front of a crowd!), I pulled the ideas together making sure to share how I was organizing my thoughts.
Almost there – edit and revise
I read and re-read the poem aloud. I omitted phrases, added words, and reorganized sentences to help the flow or change the impact.  I left out a few words because they just wouldn’t come to me. I trusted that they eventually would.
Publish time…
my eyes are the best part of me
from peeking open in the morning 
drooping closed at night
they bring me gifts
my children’s SMILES
their tussled hair
sullen pouts
first soccer goals
dimpled cheeks and dirty knees
Without them I would never see
the fiery glow of the morning light on my favourite oak tree
the delight of a student’s “A- HA!” moment
the soothing words of my novel as it eases me to sleep
they are
flecked with gold and shades of green
odd and mismatched
almond shaped with eyelashes that pop when coated black
a memory of my father
the best part of me