Wyoming, like many states in the West, has numerous teachers that are hours apart. In any given building, you may be the only first grade teacher or you may teach all the social studies classes. This creates multiple challenges. With schools that are separated by up to 6,000 feet in elevation across the state and can differ in temperatures from anywhere to 30 to 80 degrees, each town and each school has the potential to become its own silo.
#edchats and the Power of Connection
In a state where educators are so often physically separated, virtual connection can play an especially big role. That’s what led to the start of #wyoedchat. After participating in other state #edchats and getting involved in other Wyoming schools as an edtech integration consultant, I was inspired to start the conversation alongside other Wyoming educators. We became an educational support group, as educators shared how technology was improving their students’ educations, what struggles they faced as they explored and moved toward a 1:1 environment, and effective strategies to get more parents and tech support on board.
Like Wyoming, a state where cowboy rules like “Do What Has to Be Done” apply to everything, #wyoedchat gives us an opportunity for an open and very honest discussion about how to improve education. The topics--from tried and true ways to engage students to parents’ questions that we should all be able to answer--are always relevant to today’s teachers, students and parents. We actively reach out to ALL shareholders across the state and nation, which epitomizes what we are proudest of about Wyoming: everyone has something to add to the discussion and we try our best to bring those opinions in. I have learned that each school is different, but faces similar issues with students, and can share its own best practices, giving us a chance to make education about collaboration rather than competition.
Go West: Expanding #wyoedchat to #westedchat
Each state surrounding Wyoming has its own #edchat: #IDedchat, #MTedchat, #NDedchat, #SDedchat. As moderators, we were continually dropping in all the other chats and building each of our own personal learning networks. This led to a true collaborative idea: let’s all get together once a month! So we decided that each state would moderate the regional #westedchat on the day that their local chat would be normally held, thereby opening each state’s group up to more ideas.
From there, we have tried live video broadcasting combined with a Twitter backchannel as well as the "normal" chat. The first attempt led us to a trending topic on Twitter and from there we knew this could be beneficial for all our states. In the following months we have all became friends and have helped teachers, administrators, students and parents connect across the many state lines.
Growing the Conversation Beyond 140 Characters: Hangouts, Voxer and Edcamps
As each group continued to grow, we have looked at how to move the conversation past 140 characters. Two options have sprouted and helped us build more meaningful connections within our PLNs. Google Hangouts allowed us to put a real live face to the many people we visited with weekly, and enabled educators to develop more of a presence in the conversation from the comfort of their own homes.
The most exciting evolution happened when the idea of our own talk radio popped up. We have all done podcasts, which ultimately are one-way conversations, as the listener can’t actively participate. Voxer changed all of that. Voxer, essentially a walkie talkie app, functions as talk radio for educators. The ability to have discussions that are ongoing, continuous and fit anyone’s schedules makes it powerful. The many miles between us all doesn't stop us from instant communication to ask for help or share ideas. The long Wyoming drives are made more manageable by educational Voxer radio driven by educators.
After sharing our stories in longer forms like Google Hangouts and Voxer radio, the next logical evolution of social collaboration was an edcamp. How do we get these people together and let them lead the change?
Yellowstone edcamp was born. With the mantra of the edcamp movement in hand--non-commercial, free and open--the plans were made. In the second weekend of October, Cody, Wyoming hosted 80 participants in our first edcamp. As the day approached, we all hoped to enjoy the chance to meet those that were excited about education.
The group’s most prolific takeaway was that professional development can be so much more than it is and has been. We immediately started planning how to implement these ideas within our own districts, and when to have another edcamp--professional development-focused days for a 2015 edcamp are taking root. The beauty of the day was meeting in person so many who we had shared ideas with virtually: the challenge of an isolated state was gone, if only for the day.