One hundred years ago, many teachers taught classes within a certain geographic area. They were limited to talking with local people and following policies created by area administrators.
“It’s only been in the past 10 years with more of the advent of Web 2.0 that distance has really become a speed bump rather than a roadblock to long-distance collaboration between educators who are interested in the same topics,” said Jason Flom, a fifth-grade teacher at Cornerstone Learning Community in Tallahassee, Fla., and founder of the blog Ecology of Education.
Blogs, forums, list serves, chat rooms, Facebook, Twitter and other social networking tools have expanded the learning scene for educators. Now someone in Australia can collaborate with someone in the United States and trade ideas. And that’s crucial if teachers want to prepare their students for life in a global community.
“It’s really important to go over and see how other people in other states, other countries and other continents do early childhood and elementary education, because it’s done differently in different places,” said Alice Mercer, a computer prep teacher at Oak Ridge Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., who created the blog Reflections on Teaching. “If you’re doing it the way that’s mandated where you’re at, you may miss something that could be a really great idea.”
Networking online allows educators to discover what others are teaching, share their thoughts and fears, and realize that they’re not alone, said Michelle Everson, a lecturer at the University of Minnesota. She belongs to list serves and started a Google group last year to connect with other educators.
“Sometimes it can be sort of isolating when you’re an instructor if you don’t feel you have anyone to talk to and anyone to bounce ideas off of or get feedback from,” Everson said. “It can make you a better instructor if you have that community where you can go to.”
When Scott McLeod wants to learn more about preparing education leaders to teach their students how to use technology, the director of the UCEA Center for the Advanced Study of Technology Leadership in Education doesn’t read scholarly journals. The peer-reviewed academic literature doesn’t give him what he needs, so he goes to social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook as well as the blogosphere, where he started Dangerously Irrelevant.
A lot of smart people are finding great resources and sharing them with others for free online, but many educators don’t take advantage of them, he said, adding that they aren’t trained, don’t want to take risks and don’t understand the value of online social networking.
“We need to help students master this space, which means that we have to become more proficient in it ourselves,” McLeod said, “and I think most K-12 educators and most university professors have no clue about this stuff, so how are we going to prepare the next generation?”
Within minutes, an educator who has built an online personal learning network can access instructional resources that are research driven and right in the moment of what’s working, said Chad Ratliff, founder and publisher of the blog Edurati Review. Twitter especially has become a portal to instant knowledge and information.
“To say I learn something new every day is an understatement,” Ratliff said. “It’s more like you learn many things every day, and they open up just fields and resources that you never even knew existed.”
That connection extends to the global community, said Debi Ash, who teaches online classes for ITT Technical Institute and uses Facebook to network with other educators. For her dissertation on how to instruct at-risk students and high school dropouts, she’s working with a mentor in Australia, Ash said.
“If we don’t get out there and network via the tools that are given us, we’re going to fall behind.”
If you're just starting out in social networking, you can learn a lot from the educators who have gone before you. You'll find tips, tools and techniques in this space as well as anecdotal experiences to give you a head start in your online quest for knowledge.
“Twitter is like collaborating on crack because you can so quickly get to connect with others,” said Jason Flom, who has been using the social network since February.
Flom advises that other educators use the application TweetDeck to easily keep track of the people and topics they're following. To find people to follow, search for "followfriday education" or terms related to your interests.
Twitter is the most valuable tool that Chad Ratliff uses, but at first, he didn't know if it would be worth his while.
“You hear the stories of just people simply posting what they had for breakfast and what they’re doing for dinner, so you’re not quite sure,” Ratliff said. “That was me, definitely, but suddenly you start to follow some interesting folks that are putting out information that you personally find appealing, and then it sort of grows from there.”
He tells educators to be themselves no matter what and build relationships through social networking.
You don't have to read every tweet, Alice Mercer said. Check your account every now and then, look for the @ replies (messages directed to you over the Twitter stream) and read every tweet of educators you really like. She finds that it's a good place to throw questions out to others.
The first social networking tool that Scott McLeod recommends to educators is an RSS reader such as Google Reader. He says that once they set it up, they should ask someone to help them find a handful of Web sites to subscribe to, including a mix of professional and personal ones.
For example, subscribe to news feeds from three or four educational blogs, the local newspaper or a big national paper, your alma mater university, a weather site and a blog about your hobbies that you find on the blog search engine Technorati.
Often people don't give themselves permission to avoid their reader, he said. If they find 30 posts in their reader, they feel like they have to read all of them and become overwhelmed.
"Read what you can and ignore the rest," McLeod said. "If it's important, it'll come around again."
Collaborative education communities
If Michelle Everson wants to try something new, but isn't sure how it would work, she asks other educators on Facebook to give her feedback.
The social network is one of Debi Ash's greatest tools. She belongs to education groups on the site, connects with other people at different colleges and talks to her online friends about issues she's facing in her classes.
The most powerful tool for online faculty member Brian Steinberg is list serves. They might be old, but they're effective, and they've improved over the years with tools such as Yahoo! Groups.
Over on Google groups, Michelle Everson started a list serve called Statistics Instructors Lost in Cyberspace last year to connect with online educators who taught in the same field. She recommends that educators network with others who teach the same discipline as well as those who don't.
We've already mentioned a number of blogs and tips in this article, so you can use those as a jumping point into the blogosphere. Most pages include a list of other blogs on related topics that the authors like, which is useful when you're looking for variety.