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Twitter and Facebook might soon replace traditional professional development for teachers. Instead of enduring hours-long workshops a few times a year, teachers could reach out to peers on the Internet in real time for advice on things like planning a lesson (or salvaging a lesson that’s going wrong), overcoming classroom management problems, or helping students with disabilities.
Or, at least, that’s what a group of Internet-savvy educators who convened in New York City this week are hoping.
“Being connected [through social-networking sites] is an opportunity for growth anytime, anywhere,” said Steve Anderson, director of instructional technology for the Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in North Carolina, speaking yesterday at the second annual #140edu conference, a reference to Twitter’s 140 character limit for tweets. A teacher can go on Twitter, he added, and “learn 10 new things.”
Traditional forms of on-the-job training for teachers have been much-maligned in recent years by experts and by teachers themselves. “Many times professional development is like herding cattle: We’re taking everybody in the same direction. We’re going to learn the same thing,” said Eric Sheninger, principal of New Milford High School in northern New Jersey.
For-profit companies, nonprofits and universities make lots of money providing training to schools, but little research exists on what types of professional development for teachers work best. Increasingly, schools and districts are adopting what experts say are more promising ways of training teachers that involve more coaching and teacher collaboration.
But some educators who attended the #140edu conference want to push the envelope further, to make teacher training even more individualized and self-directed. Among the attendees were teachers and principals who keep blogs documenting their daily travails and successes in the classroom, which work as guideposts for others and forums where they can glean tips. Some have thousands of Twitter followers and Facebook friends.
Kyle Pace, an instructional technology specialist for the Lee’s Summit School District, near Kansas City, gave an example of how personal networks and crowd-sourcing on the Internet could improve on the old ways of training teachers:
“A teacher could be teaching a lesson on the Civil War. That lesson could bomb. They could go to their network, pose a question, ask for a resource. In the next period they could have new resources, things to try immediately,” he said.
“Traditional professional development can’t offer that immediacy of being a connected educator,” Pace added.
In-person interaction shouldn’t be completely discarded, however, said Sheninger, who says he has revolutionized his school partly through help from people he met via Twitter. “I value my face-to-face connections more than I do my virtual ones,” he said. “Technology flattens our ability to connect with people. It just makes things easier. It’s not the only way I connect with people.”
Indeed, at the conference, a room set aside for in-person mingling and chatting was often more crowded than the auditorium where panelists were giving their talks.