Social media changed how the world works. Pascal Finette of Mozilla referred to this change in a TEDx talk as the “rise of a culture of participation.” Social media organizes political upheavals, unites families whose members span the globe, and connects young people 24/7 with peers in the same room and on other continents.
Educators have discovered the professional power of global networking, too. And from where I’m sitting, as a Superintendent of Albemarle School District, this virtual participation tears down the walls of schools and school districts, transforming the way we define professional development, communication, contemporary learning, and educational opportunity.
Often isolated by a profession that, in some cases, prides itself on a philosophy of “just close your doors and teach,” educators put the hierarchical factory school model of the 20th century behind them and are now venturing out beyond the walls of their “factories.”
Facing The Twitter Bird
In 2009, I was forced as superintendent to consider the impact of such a social media culture within my own district when I was first introduced to Twitter by a teacher, colleague and Apple Distinguished Educator, Paula White (@paulawhite). After this I began to lurk in the Tweet stream, finding myself both excited and a bit frightened by my explorations--from deciphering the language of word abbreviations to sometimes witnessing fierce online arguments. However, I followed Paula’s advice and spent time observing the flow of the Twitter-verse and hashtagged chats such as #edchat and #engchat.
I began to notice a few staff from my district were tweeting with people outside our district about education topics that informed the contemporary learning work we were doing. One night while watching a heated discussion occur--140 characters at a time--among educators from Michigan, New Jersey, and my district I started to see them exert influence upon each other. They were developing and influencing each other’s practice. This was quite different than the normal process of controlled professional development that is usually determined by the district and delivered within the district walls.
I discovered as I began to venture into Twitter that my voice was just one of many engaging in a democratic process of discussing, challenging, and resourcing ideas about teaching. I found that the boundaries of my school district had become transparent, no longer protected by a “moat and drawbridge” surrounding our local conversations. I realized that Albemarle educators had wide open access to a world of education that as superintendent I could not control.
The District Is Flat
My observations led me to a very conscious decision. I had to figure out how we could turn social media connectivity, which some consider a challenge to hierarchical control of educational systems, into an advantage in our work to transform contemporary learning.
We began with an internal communication system, Yammer (“Twitter on training wheels” as @beckyfisher73 liked to describe it). On this platform we went from single digits to hundreds of educators communicating with each other, forming groups around specific topics and sharing resources across our 26 schools. It wasn’t long before educators--administrators and teachers--began to venture out into Twitter along with early explorers such as @csratliff, @beckyfisher73, @mthornton78, @mpcraddock @bkayser11, @darahbonham and @mtechman.
I joined in nightly conversations with teachers and administrators about our work, along with educators from across the country and world: @colonelb, @meenurami, @poh, @irasocol @liamdunphy, among hundreds of others. Soon, I found myself seen less as a superintendent and more as a peer. Along with others, I was trying to figure out the hard work of educating young people as lifelong learners while abandoning the factory schools of the century in which I once was a young student.
Almost five years after my first Tweet, I’ve realized that Finette was right. The culture of participation fueled by social media is changing politics, media, families, communities, the economy, medicine, governments and...education. Here are some ways it’s changed our district:
I’ve watched high school seniors Skype with an Egyptologist to discuss their “boots on the ground” perspectives on the Egyptian people’s overthrow of their government.
I’ve witnessed third graders Tweet the question of whether a straw is a simple machine and seen sparks of debate fly from a NASA astronaut, the New York Hall of Science staff, and physicists at the University of Nottingham.
In a remotely co-presented workshop for the DML Research Hub National conference in Chicago, Albemarle teachers and kids from four schools engaged in Google Hangout dialogue with participants at the conference.
Children have blogged and Skyped with children from five continents about holiday differences across their cultures.
Today, our children routinely read their own stories aloud over a live stream to local peers as well as worldwide audiences.
And, more and more Albemarle educators continue to grow professional relationships with administrators, teachers, and education consultants from every state and many countries.
Change Is A'Coming
From the district level, I’ve seen the hierarchical pyramid of public schools change as we all participate together. When I walk into schools and visit with the many educators with whom I connect on Twitter, I realize they don’t see me as the superintendent. They see me as @pammoran, a colleague who like them is working to support young people to search, connect, communicate and make in powerful ways.
Our thinking is enhanced and challenged by our connections with diverse people who add different perspectives to our own points of view. Social media drives our discussions to a higher level of critical and creative thought. And, I believe we are learning in our globalizing participation culture that no one of us is more powerful or important than all of us together.