The knowledge is in the network

network of hands[Here’s an article recently published and cross-posted here from the Education Review, Leadership & PD July 2013. This article has also appeared in the Education Gazette.]

Atarangi is a teacher working in a large secondary school in the North Island. She is passionate about ensuring her students engage with her English lessons in ways that are meaningful to them.

A few years ago, Atarangi’s professional learning didn’t extend much further than sessions in the staff room on Monday afternoons and the occasional whole day workshop. Sometimes she chose what was most useful to her; sometimes others chose for her. When a colleague with specialist literacy knowledge left the team, taking their expertise with them, it was challenging to find others who could offer the same support.

Fast forward to 2013. Atarangi is still working hard for her students, which means she is also working hard for herself to stay on top of current trends. When she reflects on her practice, she wants to make sure it’s from an informed position. So Atarangi has begun to change the way she uses her time. She harnesses the power of digital technologies and online networks, often through her smartphone, so that she can target specialty information and learn from colleagues in ways that are tailored to her needs, and the needs of her students. Her day isn’t any longer, nor does she have extra release time, but how she spends her time on professional learning is evolving.

What does this new professional learning look like?

Atarangi funnels education news and blogs to her tablet using an RSS feed reader, skimming for relevant articles over coffee. She belongs to a number of groups in the Ministry’s VLN Group’s social network ( as well as the English Online listserv. She has gathered a highly-informed group of educators around her across a range of online networks, and when she can, she joins webinars and live chats. She has inspired others in her schools to be more open about their practice, the resources they develop, and the inquiries they are pursuing. More staff in her school blog their work, integrating them into their appraisal process and extending face-to-face conversations with online notes and reflections.

Welcome to the world of the highly connected professional, powered by digital networks, driven by students’ strengths and needs.

The drivers

The drivers are partly technological, with particular focus on the use of mobile technologies and cloud computing. Currently, the global total of mobile-cellular subscriptions almost equals the world’s population, with mobile penetration reaching saturation in developed countries. Combine this with ubiquitous access through their home/school networks and the growth in online software that you can tailor to your needs and you have all the technical ingredients for a connected approach to learning.

A second key driver is the innate desire for us to set our own goals, drive our learning, and engage in professional conversations that have direct relevance to our work, strengths, and needs. The social advantage of working collaboratively and of constructing knowledge through shared endeavours is not new. The way we construct new learning together is a well-established pedagogical approach. But now, personal access to technologies allows us to engage in shared learning faster, more flexibly, and with a much wider circle of colleagues than might have been possible before.

There is a plethora of online networks and communities available for New Zealand educators, both local and global. Examples include Twitter conversations tagged to #edchatnz and #edchat, community groups in the VLN Groups on everything from e-learning to science, conferences that offer backchannels using social media, and content on various topics curated by keen specialists.

Networked PD

Being able to engage in professional learning in this networked way offers educators, schools, and regional clusters a number of advantages.

Firstly, the ease with which we can access information across a network offers efficiencies in terms of resource exchange. Access to some of the best minds in education is often only a few clicks away. Toby, a deputy principal in a recent study exploring the impact of social networking on professional learning, described this way of working as offering “total control over the content that you are looking at. You are much more able to pick the stuff that challenges you or refines what you think with more detail … There are a whole lot of people out there with really well thought out perspectives on things, really informed, a lot more informed than me in many situations, and that’s really helpful because I am able to build my own understanding …”

This also highlights the way that user-generated networks offer the keen educator a mechanism to drive their own learning, set their own goals, and tailor their inquiry to their students’ needs. It can support a strength-based approach to learning, balancing whole school goals with inclusive pathways for staff. Technology can enable agentic approaches to professional learning that simply weren’t possible a few years ago.

Secondly, working with other colleagues who share common interests makes a lot of sense, especially if you are the sole specialist in your school or geographically isolated. The range and variety of educational content and services available to us is instantly broadened once you belong to an active educational network or choose to attend webinars or enrol in MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses). Increasing numbers of shared voices can help surface examples of effective practice, common ponderings, and problems of practice that begin to create a shared story of the educational profession in action. Increasingly, for example, schools are seeing advantages in shared access to e-portfolios and integrating evidence-based inquiry with practice in ways that open up the doors on practice in each other’s classrooms. Ask a question in the enabling e-Learning groups in the VLN Groups and it will be answered within hours, often by a number of educators.

Most importantly, a third advantage of this connected approach is that it can help sustain and support schools during times of change and uncertainty. Future proofing may not be possible, but collaboration amongst clusters and networks can complement schools’ strengths and fill gaps in expertise that might be hard to fill.

Julie, a facilitator, reflecting on the growth of the VLN Groups, commented that “there is a recognition that one teacher can’t be everything to all those children in that one class, that one school cannot have that wide range of experiences that they may need to address the emerging trends, that it means that having a broader wider network can help people have those conversations and come to common understandings together”.

Integrating connectivity

The challenge for teachers and school leaders now is to consider the extent to which such connectivity and networking can be integrated into professional learning design in ways that offer staff the same inclusive, flexible learning pathways that we want for our students. Research in the field of online and blended professional learning recognises the potential for digital technologies to enable a flexible, personalised approach to learning for educators. It is crucial, however, to bear in mind that collaboration, connection, and rapid conversation do not make for effective professional learning on their own. It is vital that frameworks, such as the teaching as inquiry model, provide an approach to ground the use of such networks.

Michael Fullan, in his book Leading Professional Learning, warns that, “we have many examples of superficial professional learning communities – educators simply calling what they are doing professional learning … without going very deep into learning”.

To maximise the opportunities of online learning in schools, schools and educators might ask themselves the following questions:

  • What kinds of professional learning models do we currently use?
  • How far do you current models allow us to set their own goals and inquiries?
  • How can we integrate online networks to extend and enhance our face-to-face learning?

The next steps

Practical first steps might include exploring New Zealand educator groups on Twitter, while joining the 10,000 New Zealand educators on the VLN Groups might be a useful way to dip your toes into local networking waters, without the risk of sharks.

We are 55,000 educators spread across two large islands, and sometimes it can be hard to stay connected even to other schools in our own area. With ultra-fast broadband an increasing reality for

New Zealand schools, combined with a growing appreciation for educator-driven inquiry, social networks offer us the easiest way yet to find our own doorway into relevant professional conversations and help us sustain our learning. Even if it is one tweet at a time.

[Image credit: CC Michael.Heiss]

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