The first week in October marks the beginning of Connected Educator Month (#CEM), a time that the Department of Education has dedicated to helping educators become more collaborative—er, at least it would have if it weren’t shut down. Despite the DoE’s impromptu lack of participation, the initiative has a number of partner organizations, organizers, and a technical working group behind it. More importantly, it has provided a national impetus to get educators connected, collaborating, and using online tools to link up with one another.
“We must support the incredibly complex work teachers do at every opportunity, including by sharing and promoting best practices through online resources and communities of practice,” said Education Secretary Arne Duncan in a recent piece at Huffington Post.
So, what is a “connected” educator anyway? Tom Whitby, a longtime teacher and founder of the Edublog Award-winning Twitter series #Edchat, gave a succinct definition in a recent post on his blog “My Island View:”
Those who are digitally literate and using that literacy to learn and share with other educators. These are the connected educators. Relevance is a primary concern. They don’t want to read about change, they want to lead it, or at least be involved with it. They write blogs and Tweet rather than email.
Whitby differentiates these professionals from “semi-connected” educators, who are somewhat digitally literate, yet choose to be consumers of information through technology rather than manipulators. “They want to be relevant, but are content with reading about what is relevant,” he explained. And then there is the “unconnected educator,” who, as Whitby put it, is more in-line with the “20th century” teacher. “Access to the internet is limited for whatever reason. Relevance in the 21st century is not a concern,” he explained.
The goal of CEM becomes apparent in Whitby’s explanations: to get those unconnected teachers more involved by using online platforms like Professional Learning Communities, or PLCs. Ideally, teachers can access these communities to share lesson plans, workarounds, and everyday tools with other educators. Historically, PLCs have taken place in the form of in-person meet-ups, but are now finding a home online, as Jonathan Kantrowitz of the Education Research Report explained in a recent blog post:
Overall, the evidence indicates that online communities of teachers can achieve the goals of PLCs. The literature finds that teachers who collaborate online are engaged with the group, develop a sense of community, improve their knowledge of subject and pedagogical content, and intend to modify their instructional practices accordingly. Flexibility is presented as the strongest advantage of online PLCs over the traditional face-to-face environment in facilitating teachers’ learning. The online environment enables teachers to access and share knowledge in a timely and comprehensive manner. The online environment is also consistently found to be better at promoting self-reflection on learning and instructional practices than is the face-to-face environment, even though both models appear to contribute equally to learning and mastering subject content.
Kantrowitz noted that working together online does have its challenges, and that studies have indicated that teachers feel less motivated to regularly contribute to online discussions compared to in-person meetings. He suggested that this could perhaps be attributed to the “greater isolation” that accompanies online-only collaboration.
As Whitby’s blog title hints, teachers shouldn’t feel like an island, although many teachers do. “For a lot of people, I think teaching is a very isolating experience,” said Karen Brennan, a research assistant at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “You don’t have as many opportunities as you’d like to connect with the teacher in the classroom next to you, or in the school or district. And that’s where I think network technologies have enormous potential.”
High school principal, author, and educational consultant Ben Johnson blogged about the isolation he encountered when he first began teaching in a recent post for Edutopia. “I was lucky to have a mentor in my next school that knew what teaching was all about. He would actually seek me out, ask me for advice and would share what he was working on in his classroom,” said Johnson. “I learned a lot from him. I could have learned even more if I had realized how much my professional development depended on effective teacher collaboration.”
The Huffington Post also spoke with president of the American Federation of Teachers, Randi Weingarten, who explained that part of the problem lies in a lack of professional development. “In places that out-compete us, places like Singapore, Finland, Canada, what you hear is that their districts spend a lot more time providing [teachers] the resources and the tools to do their job,” said Weingarten. “Teachers are far more equipped when they walk into the classroom.”
She is not alone in this sentiment. Edutopia’s Suzie Boss cited a report by the National Staff Development Council that pointed to data supporting Weingarten’s claim. “As the report points out, the United States is far behind in providing public school teachers with opportunities to participate in extended learning opportunities and productive collaborative communities,’” said Boss.
So then, aside from burgeoning online PLCs, how else are teachers sharing and collaborating online? Weingarten decided to take the lack of development into her own hands last year, and helped create Share My Lesson, a “by teachers, for teachers” community filled with resources that they can share, discuss, and customize.
There are more on the horizon too. Sites like Illustrative Mathematics have provided a community for math teachers to share resources. Or there’s the Literacy Design Collaborative, which is building a “template-based approach” to the literacy demands of college and the workplace, as defined by Common Core State Standards.
A group of teachers in Southern Arizona have also gotten involved, creating what was initially a district-wide wiki page for teachers to share lesson plans. Their plans are based on “curriculum calendars,” which estimate what Common Core State Standard should be taught at which time of year. The site has evolved into the nationally popular Beyond Textbooks organization, which has opened the wiki up to teachers across the world.
Sarah Bates, a fourth-grade teacher from Tucson, explained how the site has impacted her students in an Edutopia video. “A lot of kids will say ‘Ms. Bates, did you create that? That’s so cool!’ and I’ll have to say, ‘Another teacher in another school made this. Isn’t this so neat? You know there are other kids who are able to look at this too. Other kids are learning the same thing that you are,’ and then they feel a sense of connectedness to other students,” she said.
Meanwhile, CEM hosts a listing of educator communities, and Common Sense Media also has a section of its site devoted to online professional development for teachers. “Being a connected educator does not happen in a day,” wrote Tom Whitby on his blog. “It is a mindset. It becomes a great part of who you are as an educator. It enables you to hone in on your needs as a learner. I could not recommend anything else more strongly. If there is one thing that could best advance educators and education, it is teachers and administrators becoming connected educators.”