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August is Connected Educator Month, spurring discussion about social networks, online "communities of practice" and learning with one another.
We caught up with three education professionals to talk about why educators should learn from one another via digital tools and what happens when they don't.
Of course digital connections aren't the only means of connecting at work. Every educator should realize they are connected, whether online or in-person, said Steve Hargadon, founder of Classroom 2.0, a social network for educators on the Ning platform. But online connections come with a built-in advantage: They tend to reduce isolation and provide more opportunities for educators to share feedback and encouragement.
"What the Web and the Internet have done is substantially increase the potential opportunity for peer professional development and relationships that have always sustained educators, but often have not been as available," Hargadon said.
In the past, teachers didn't have as much time to talk with their colleagues in the local area because, obviously, they taught classes at the same time. Their opportunities were limited to quick conversations in the hall or the teacher lounge, said Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, co-founder and CEO of Powerful Learning Practice, a virtual professional development provider.
"Because of the technology that we have now, the opportunity to do that [talking] is almost limitless," Nussbaum-Beach said.
Some educators think they're connected solely because they read what other people share on Twitter, said Steve Dembo, online community manager for Discovery Education. But in reality that passive viewing is just the beginning.
"The real benefits start coming when people are active in these communities, when they're not just absorbing information or taking information in, but they're actually rebroadcasting it," Dembo said
It's important not to overstate the significance of digital connections. Nothing horrible happens when educators don't connect online, Nussbaum-Beach said. But if educators joined the profession to prepare students to be productive citizens and lifelong learners, they themselves need to make digital connections a part of their lives.
The future for students will include holding jobs that require them to connect with people around the world in virtual teams. They need to be prepared to live and learn in a connected space, Nussbaum-Beach said.
There are direct consequences for teachers too. Many educators who aren't part of online communities miss information about great educational sessions and no-cost digital tools to use with their students, Dembo said.
"They lose out," Dembo said. "There's a lot of professional development and opportunity for inspiration that teachers — if they aren't connected — just don't even hear about."
Without digital connections, educators could feel like they're consumers of information rather than seekers, Hargadon said. In a typical professional development session, top-down instruction encourages information consumption. But online connections help educators become passionately engaged learners, which is what they want for their students as well.
"What the Web has done for all of us is it's put the learning center stage," Hargadon said.
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