As a new school year approaches, school administrators and department chairs have made plans for faculty professional development (PD). Depending on the school, this very sentiment can elicit a wide range of emotions from teachers. Concurrent to these discussions, a form of self-directed PD is occurring as teachers are tapping back into Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) on social media, which are often brimming with optimism, excitement, and growth, something not always present in school-directed PD. The key differences lie in the nature of social media itself, which blends interactivity, asynchronous/synchronous experiences, and an individualized approach that is competency-based.
By nature, social media is a place to make connections and interact with others. Its core strength is predicated on the fact that connections and interactions are easier than previously imagined. Many teachers have taken to Twitter to form communities that share resources, discuss strategies, and highlight best practices. Two great examples are #inquirychat for inquiry-based learning and #isedchat for independent school faculty and staff. These chats serve as hubs for like-minded professionals not only to share ideas, but also to make connections with other educators across the globe. The level of engagement varies from deep discussions on pedagogical theory to passive consumption of shared resources. The varying degrees of interactivity reflect individuals engaging in different ways, often based on personal learning styles: some are connectors, some are thinkers, some are doers, some are cultivators, and more. The richness of this community stems from its diversity and the ease in which these strengths can be utilized.
Another powerful characteristic of social media as it relates to PD is the seamless blend of synchronous and asynchronous experiences. Teachers’ engagement with professional development on social media does not have to happen at a set time, in a set place. For example, at Global Online Academy (GOA), one of our main social media initiatives is called Friday Shares, hosted on YouTube. The idea behind this initiative was to publish best practices in online learning and to illustrate them with specific examples. As a teacher, one can view those videos at any time, or even on an as needed basis. Teachers can augment this experience with a synchronous discussion during a scheduled Skype or Twitter chat or even leave a comment to further the discussion asynchronously.
The fact that teachers can individualize their approach on social media is critical. One is not forced to hear presentations, participate in chats, or read articles on concepts that they’ve already mastered. Even the wide array of PLNs allows teachers to be selective about how they participate. If a teacher is an expert on rubrics and #edchat holds a discussion on them one week, that teacher can skip that week and wait to engage on another topic. Or, even better, the teacher can choose to contribute as an “expert” and help push people’s thinking on the topic. In other words, teachers are offered multiple ways to engage with the topic. Whether a teacher skips that week to pursue other professional development or becomes that “expert”, he or she has tailored the experience based on his or her background and needs.
These characteristics of social media may be able to teach us something about how PD should be defined in schools. Obviously, administrators have unique constraints and goals, but that should not prevent them from trying to tap into these three characteristics as they plan PD. Does it matter that PD taps into social media sites themselves? Hardly. More importantly, developing PD around the characteristics above, those which make organic PD on social media so vibrant, is paramount.