Give Teachers Credit: They Know Learning Is Social

Opinion | Professional Development

Give Teachers Credit: They Know Learning Is Social

By Brad Spirrison     Jun 21, 2017

Give Teachers Credit: They Know Learning Is Social

The enthusiasm shared by educators who understand that social media will forever impact their lives and practice is very reminiscent of the vibe expressed by dot-commers two decades ago during the first wave of the Internet boom—this is a very good thing.

I’ve served as both a journalist and participant within each movement. My job is to interview and survey the pioneers, investors and stakeholders who drive technological change, share their stories, and collaborate with very smart people to build and distribute tools that help everyone else get involved.

The parallels between the early days of the world wide web and today’s edtech scene are surreal. First, you have your tinkerers who recognize the network potential of organizing information, resources and advice around communities. In the nineties, this included Geocities, Lycos and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web (later called Yahoo!). More recently, communities and directories including #edchat, eduClipper and Cybraryman (AKA Jerry Blumengarten’s guide to educational websites and chats) provided voice, structure and inspiration to educators looking to connect and collaborate in ways never before possible.

As more individuals organically buy into the movement, a second layer of investors, opportunists and outright charlatans get involved. In the nineties, I literally wrote half a dozen stories analyzing the hundreds of millions of dollars invested in the online pet foods space. Virtually all of those companies, along with thousands of other venture-backed outfits during that time, turned into doo-doo.

This is also a very good thing. Railroads, telephone networks and the internet could not have been built without financial and emotional excess. Whether you are an investor, participant or observer, the key amidst these periods is to recognize innovations that remain true to the underlying cause of whatever movements they spawn within. This means approaching the very individuals and organizations you want to serve, building trust, sharing stories and identifying what problem they wish to solve.

There is a lot of noise in edtech today, mostly coming from technology and consumer marketing-oriented companies. They are trying to cut and paste solutions they built for one industry and sell them to teachers and administrators because they feel the market is hot. This approach won’t work with passionate educators who recognize that their world is changing because of technology. They don’t have time for doo-doo.

Here’s what teachers are doing with their own time.

The future, and increasingly the present, of educator professional development is predicated upon insights and resources shared within professional learning communities. Teachers in 2017 are more likely to learn from a Twitter chat for education than most “sit and get” professional development sessions hosted by their school or district.

Here’s why.

We demand that our students build 21st century skills, master critical thinking and become fluent in digital media and technology. Yet scheduled institute days and workshops are all too often remedial and not responsive to the actual needs of a teacher. This is why hundreds of thousands of teachers around the world are participating in Twitter chats, Edcamps and other informal, organically organized professional learning communities. It is within these social environments where teachers can share best practices, as well as how they use various apps, open educational resources and digital tools in their instruction.

This new mindset recognizes that it is not about the acquisition of knowledge, but the ability to harness ideas they learn from peers down the hall—or across an ocean—and determine how they can most effectively share those ideas with their students.

I have written about and collaborated with educators who have transformed their practice as a result of social media. Many left the classroom and are now evangelizing the power of social media and education around the world and during conferences like ISTE.

When I look into the eyes of an educator through a Google Hangout conversation or during an Edcamp session, I am vividly reminded of what it was like to interview an entrepreneur or early-stage investor at a pitch competition during the dot-com boom. Everyone began to understand that the world would forever change as a result of the internet and mobile communication. We just couldn’t anticipate at the time exactly how.

Of course, there is always a lag between first-mover excitement and these behaviors becoming the norm. When the internet was first emerging, many of us were reluctant to share banking or financial information online. Now I can’t remember the last time I actually wrote a check. This is true within education as well. If you tell many superintendents or district administrators that you spent a couple hours on Twitter last night, they may think that meant keeping up with the Kardashians or getting into some political flame war.

The tipping point here will be when professional learning that exists within social networks is remediated and processed in a way so evaluators who were not part of the conversation can assess what is being learned, and how those lessons can positively impact students.

Badging, micro-credentials and curation technologies are making this a reality. Teachers are now able to earn graduate credit or continuing education units for taking part in an online conversation with peers or spending a Saturday at an Edcamp.

Based on the feedback and collaboration I received from pioneers within this movement, I am part of a team building a professional development platform at Participate. We are a 30-year-old education company whose mission is to support teachers learning in their own way, and at their own pace—which in turn impacts student learning.

We are never going back to how things used to be. Together, we have the opportunity to frame and define what’s next.

Brad Spirrison (@spirrison) is Senior Director at Participate

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