Can social network sites support effective professional learning?

[Cross-posted from CORE Education’s blog]

This blog post is based on my Masters of Education thesis, Online social networking and its impact on New Zealand educators’ professional learning. It informs the thinking behind this October’s Connected Educator Month 2014.

The changing face of professional learning for educators

Studies into effective school change and system-lift place professional development at the heart of the process (Fullan, 2006, 2011; Timperley, Wilson, Barrar, & Fung, 2007). We know that professional development in the service of student learning requires deep factual knowledge, a clear conceptual framework, and an approach to learning that allows adults to define their goals and progress towards them (Bransford, Brown, & Cocking, 2001; Timperley, 2011).

In The New Zealand Curriculum, the methodology that underpins effective professional learning has been deliberately articulated, placing an action research – ‘teaching as inquiry’ – process at the heart of the professional learning framework (Ministry of Education, 2007). This model allows for a more individualised approach to professional learning than might previously have been the case. It is arguable, however, how far school models of professional learning have evolved over the last few years; in some cases, the ‘top down’, one-size fits all, episodic model still prevails (Bull & Gilbert, 2012).

The shift online: The push towards personalised learning

In recent years, traditional models of delivering professional development for staff have begun to contrast sharply with increased attention on personalising the learning experience.  Educators are beginning to use social networks to gather, connect, share and develop knowledge using individually tailored pathways, unencumbered by the school’s annual professional development calendar. The video below [from Connected Educator Month, 2013 – US Dept.of Education]  highlights how such networks are enthusiastically perceived:

It is crucial, however, to bear in mind that collaboration, connection and conversation online only provide pre-conditions for effective professional learning. Researchers warn that practice is unlikely to change “if the process [of professional learning] is purely voluntary, left to teachers to take up or not take up” (Earle, 2007, p. ix). Fullan (2012) suggests 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” (p. 1).

How we can weave personally-driven professional learning across these networks into learner-focused inquiry in our kura, centres, and schools?

Strategic integration of socially networked spaces

A useful way to look at this informal approach to information gathering and sharing might be to frame it in terms of the way it can complement and add to the contextual knowledge on which teachers draw to drive their inquiries in school. Timperley et al. (2007) suggest that learning focused on promoting specific skills, or on adding new information to existing practices, has its place as long as it is acknowledged that this assimilation does not bring about deep, sustainable changes in practice.

The enthusiasm that most of the participants had for this self-driven, informal mode of staying connected cannot be dismissed as faddy or irrelevant.  Seely-Brown (2008) argues for a broad framework that can encompass all forms of professional learning, rather than one correct approach. Informal learning, therefore, must surely play a legitimate part in the overall design of learning for educators and increasingly so with the growth of ubiquitous, connected access to information.

However, it is important that we position these activities in the wider framework of professional learning and do not confuse enthusiastic dialogue with deep critique of practice.

An example: How educators used the VLN Groups social network

The thesis from which this blog post is drawn explored the way educators were using the VLN Groups social network – and the potential for such activities to have impact on students.

In the network, accessing content related to immediate issues, such as students bringing their own devices, was a far greater motivator than knowing the people who were sharing the content. Reading and staying on top of ideas was seen as more important than creating, adding to or developing new content in a coordinated way.

[I use it] as a kind of educator Wikipedia/encyclopedia really! It’s a great place for me to start looking at/for stuff. Then of course the ease of access to other perspectives provides a really quick indicator of whether my take on something needs more added to it. It’s also really good for passing on discussions to colleagues and others who might show an interest in a particular topic (Toby, survey, Q. 13).

Activities such as browsing and following interests were to the fore. Some members were gathering information or staying on top of trends to inform in-school planning:

“I have used what I’ve learnt on the VLN to support how I run PD and manage change in our e-learning and ICT groups” (survey respondent #32).

In terms of outcomes, the value appeared to be in the way the site efficiently brokered access to information. There was a perceived advantage in being able to shore up in-school learning conversations with information gleaned from the site.

Overall, the study suggested that social networks such as the VLN Groups can indeed provide a participatory system that enables educators to engage in an informal kind of professional learning focused on immediate concerns and contexts in their own teaching and leadership contexts. Hearing one interviewee describe the network as a taonga / treasure and reading about the way it has impacted positively on educators’ experiences was highly encouraging. For some, this ability to share and leverage previously invisible or unreachable networks, cross-sector and cross-discipline, has brought a new dimension to what it means to be a lifelong professional learner.

Considerations for schools

  1. What ‘counts’ as effective professional learning in your school? Understand the role of activities in a social network site like the VLN Groups and strategically plan ways to integrate informal learning so professional learning is flexible, inclusive and tailored to inquiries. Ensure the activities of connected, ‘boundary rider’ staff members are a legitimate part of a broader, in-school learning cycle.
  2. How networked is your school? Schools might capitalise on educators’ connections as ways to source and share information with others, bringing fresh perspectives to current professional learning.
  3. How far does the culture allow educators to have agency over their learning? Leaders might consider reviewing the professional learning design so it supports the openness, safety and collaboration that we espouse as being important for our students.
  4. How digitally literate is the staff? Provide opportunities for upskilling and growth in digital confidence so that practice can be made visible effectively and safely.



  • Bransford, J. D., Brown, A. L., & Cocking, R. R. (2001). How people learn. Washington, DC: National Academy Press. Retrieved from
  • Bull, A., & Gilbert, J. (2012). Swimming out of our depth? Leading learning in 21st century schools.Wellington, New Zealand: New Zealand Council for Educational Research. Retrieved from
  • Earle, L. (2007). International foreword. In H. Timperley, A. Wilson, H. Barrar, & I. Fung (Eds.),Teacher professional learning and development: Best evidence synthesis. Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education. Retrieved from
  • Fullan, M. (2006). Leading professional learning. School Administrator, 63(10), 10–14. Retrieved from ProQuest Education Journals database.
  • Fullan, M. (2011). Choosing the wrong drivers for whole system reform. Melbourne, Australia: Centre for Strategic Education. Retrieved from
  • Ministry of Education. (2007). New Zealand Curriculum for English-medium teaching and learning in years 1-13. Wellington, New Zealand: Learning Media Ltd
  • Seely Brown, J., Collins, A., & Duguid, P. (1989). Situated cognition and the culture of learning.Educational Researcher, 18(1), 32–42. doi:10.2307/1176008
  • Timperley, H. S. (2011). Realising the power of professional learning. Maidenhead, England: McGraw-Hill Education.
  • Timperley, H., Wilson, A., Barrar, H., & Fung, I. (2007). Teacher professional learning and development: Best evidence synthesis iteration (BES). Wellington, New Zealand: Ministry of Education. Retrieved from

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