Why Social Networks for Educators' Professional Growth

I was pleased today to discover this new initiative by Steve Hargadon and others. Below are some of my thoughts on the importance of social networks for the professional development and growth of educators.

Social Networks - Challenge and Fun!

It has been an exceptionally busy 9 or 10 months. Although I have long finished my course work for a graduate degree in educational technology, over this time period I have developed richer and more meaningful relationships with like-minded (and sometimes not so like-minded) educators who have contributed to my growth as a teacher and mentor of my students.

I did not consciously or deliberately set out to create or extend a professional social learning network (not even sure it was in my lexicon!), it all sort of just happened. Like many of us, I am an early adopter of what some are calling web 2.0 tools and it is through these tools (again, not consciously) that I developed relationships. I would meet so-and-so, usually at a conference or other face-to-face meeting, and keep in touch through chatting or skype, and they, in turn, would introduce me to another so-and-so or to large group online synchronous get-togethers. I was challenged with new ideas and presented with new tools. Okay, I was even invited to be a part of Women of Web 2.0 and what an exceptional privilege that has been! And along the way I was having a great deal of fun. Challenge and fun certainly kept me coming back for more!

Several months ago, it occurred to me that I was a node in an extensive social network of educators from around the world. Professional development and growth were ongoing and I was being exposed to a high calibre of expertise and information that could not be provided by my school or administration or even a one-shot week-long conference. And I was meeting other educators who were experiencing the same phenomenon.

A Better Way

My observations about this phenomenon led me to believe that this was a new way, indeed a better way, of experiencing professional growth. As I was creating a conference presentation to discuss these ideas, I was challenged by some of my peeps with the most important question implicit in professional development for teachers - Were my students experiencing learning benefits from my exposure and participation in social networks? This is the real litmus test - and difficult to measure. Fortunately, I favour qualitative research that is based on researcher observation (with admitted involvement and possible bias). My own sense was that, yes, my students were engaged learners who were improving in their writing practices and in their critical thinking patterns as a result of my tweaks and changes through exposure to other ideas and practices.
However, I thought it might be interesting to throw that question out (and other such questions) to other educators who are involved in social networks. I planned to include the results in my conference presentation. A questionnaire was created using surveymonkey and, through my own social network tools (blog, podcast, webcast, email, and chats), I invited other educators to share their responses.

Influence of Learning Gains on Students

Some of the results were surprising and the open-ended questions provided some very interesting reflections and insights.

  • Over 50% of the 60 respondents reported they communicated with someone in their network between 1-5 times a day
  • An overwhelming majority claimed that it was through others' blogs that they most extended their social network
  • The top four tools most used to communicate with one's social network included email, skype, blog, and rss feeds (skype and blog tying for second place and third place)
  • An open-ended question which asked which tool was most influential in extending one's network - 21 of 49 respondents stated that blogs were that tool
  • More than 84% of respondents believed that their social networks had a direct impact on their teaching abilities
  • Greater than 80% believed that social networks positively influenced the learning gains of their students
While there is no silver bullet solution for learning gains of students through teacher professional development, one cannot overlook the positive experiences of these educators regarding the perceived learning gains of their students.
Value of Access to a Social Network

When asked about the value of access to a social network, here are some the comments of the participating educators:

  • I am able to bring great resources to my classroom and improve myself. The best teachers are great learners.
  • My very lifeline for my personal and professional development both intellectually and creatively.
  • I think it would be highly valuable if utilised by more staff. The majority of my personal experiences are within the area of personal interest, rather than teaching related. I have tried forums and email lists for teachers several times and found them to often be very quiet. Within the team of educators I work most directly with however, we have used skype, and a group discussion email list to great effect for networking, problem solving and brainstorming.
  • Social network will transform the teacher from 'blue screen of death' to an F5 'refresh' position. Hope you understand my comparison!
  • My network acts as a filter to help ferret out the most effective tools and approaches from the overwhelming variety available out there.
  • Three key things: - breadth of reach - I'm in touch with people with whom I'd never otherwise have connected with (apart from international conferences etc) - quality of interaction - the level of distributed expertise that I can tap into is enormous - timeliness of interaction - the ease with which i can connect with people at the time that I need to
  • Collaborative projects and sharing of ideas internationally.
(I added the boldification)
I could not have stated these ideas better myself! And that is another key reason for social networks - we no longer have to be innovators on our own. By developing a social network of relationships with progressive-thinking educators from around the world, we are collaborating together to create the best possible learning environment for all of our students.

So finally, what are the compelling reasons for social networks for educators' professional growth?

  • Teaching is a high burnout profession
  • Schools cannot keep up with the training of new software, online tools, or best practice solutions using technology tools
  • Efficient use of time and cost
  • Ultimately, learning gains for students
We are merely scratching the surface of the issues, implications and great potential. I welcome your thoughts as we continue the conversation about this important possibility.

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