Online communities are transforming professional development for teachers

From blogging and Twitter to online networks, Fearghal Kelly charts the evolution of professional development and interactions for teachers in the social media age. This is from the Guardian…

It’s strange looking back now at when I first started teaching 10 years ago. I moved a long distance to take up my first post, and so the only teachers I knew in my new area were the ones who worked in my new school. When I left three years later, this was still the case. In those three years, the only teachers I discussed teaching with were those who happened to occupy the same staff room as me. Even CPD events weren’t that great an opportunity to network as the population of teachers in the south of England, where I was working at the time, is so vast that I never a encountered the same teacher more than once at any course.

This form of professional isolation isn’t a big problem if you work in a large and vibrant school where the staff and the leadership team are innovating and have open minds to change. However, not all schools are like this. Too often teachers have found themselves in schools where innovation can be a dirty word. Where to speak up and share your practice risks ostracisation from your peers. Where any attempt to change your practice is met with resistance, and even ridicule. In this environment, it’s not surprising that some teachers can eventually lose some of their motivation and willingness. I’ve heard many teachers, including myself at one point in my career, describing themselves as having got “stuck in a rut”.

This first began to change for me when I encountered blogging. Although I was sceptical at first, the geek in me was intrigued and so I was easily persuaded to give it a go. I soon discovered a whole new world of professional dialogue. Through blogging, I began to have stimulating and challenging conversations with teachers from around the world, but mainly in Scotland. These were like-minded individuals who I’d never met, and yet they provided me with huge amounts of professional support. Unfortunately, there weren’t that many of us, but in some ways that was nice as we were slowly developing into a sort of community.

And then Twitter arrived. To begin with, Twitter for me was just a sort of RSS reader. It allowed me to easily see when the blogs I already followed had published a new post. But gradually, it began to grow. Suddenly teachers were joining who didn’t have a blog, and then the growth became exponential. Thousands of teachers took to Twitter and my professional learning network exploded. Now, instead of interacting with a dozen bloggers, Twitter was allowing me to share and discuss with hundreds, even thousands, of teachers all over the world – a far cry from those isolated initial years.

But after a while, I began to feel something had been lost with the growth of the network – we’d lost the community. I didn’t actually know many of my network very well. Teachers weren’t able to communicate the nuances of the development of their practice in 140 characters, so they didn’t. It’s hard to challenge someone you don’t actually know very well in 140 characters without offending them, so I stopped trying. And although there were thousands of like-minded individuals now networking, we weren’t able to ever speak with one voice. Our potential influence wasn’t being realised. We needed a community which could cope with the new scale of the network.

At the time of this realisation there didn’t appear to be many majorly successful online teacher communities which provided the sort of positive environment I was looking for. There were some noble attempts to achieve this in Scotland’s national education intranet, Glow, but there weren’t the sufficient numbers of teachers operating successfully within Glow for this to really work. Of course, there have always been websites aimed at teachers which provide discussion forums, but while these do attract a large number of teachers, they tend to be quite negative places. It is this for these reasons that a group of fellow teachers in Scotland and I introduced the now blossoming community Pedagoo.org. There are now other examples of sites providing a community approach, including of course the Guardian Teacher Network!

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Fearghal Kelly is a biology teacher and learning coach at Preston Lodge High School, East Lothian and helped kick-start the Pedagoo.org community. He blogs at www.fkelly.co.uk. This post originally appeared on Pedagoo.org.

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