How Social Media can Enhance Schools as Professional Learning Communities

The field of social media is a burgeoning area of communication, and one that educators cannot ignore. Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Diigo, GooglePlus – these platforms for communication are not going to go away; and while there is a great deal of negative media surrounding their use, they can be harnessed to create myriad possibilities for schools as learning communities. Current research only proves the dominance of Social Media as a modern communication medium: http://blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/social/

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This is the first of a series of posts planned in the area of social media and schools as learning communities. It is too big a topic to cover adequately in one post, and the value of social media tools as resources for learning is too great not to be addressed.

This post will consider what the term ‘social media’ connotes, and ways in which it may be used to overcome some of the obstacles schools face when attempting to develop a professional learning culture. The second post will focus specifically on a first step for teachers wishing to explore social media in a professional sense; building a Personal Learning Network using Twitter.

The third post planned will take readers a step beyond the Twitterverse, and introduce the idea of using multiple social media tools to enhance not only one’s Personal Learning Network, but also the possibility of bringing networked learning to the classroom and beyond.

If you are interested in following these posts and haven’t done so already, subscribe to our blog by entering your email address in the Subscribe box on the right hand side of this blog…and please feel free to leave your thoughts, suggestions or  criticisms in the comments box below!

Social Media – what do you need to know?

In the 21st century, learning networks are richer than ever before. Social media, including tools such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn allow connections with professionals to be developed in offline and online worlds in new and exciting ways. No longer are we limited geographically. Social media allows us to connect not only to those we know, but also to those who we don’t know, but who share our passions, our interests and our profession. Despite never having met in the physical sense, it is now possible to share links, comment on educational research, debate, collaborate and create new knowledge with individuals no matter where they are working.

The number of tools that create these opportunities may seem overwhelming. Each has their strengths and weaknesses. A fully rounded PLN may consist of a number of accounts that serve a number of different purposes.

So….Social Media and Professional Learning Communities? What is the connection?

A school which is a professional learning community focuses upon removing the walls between classrooms (metaphorically, in all cases, physically in some!), encouraging collaboration, dialogue, ready access to colleagues and an openness to challenge understandings and current ‘accepted’ knowledge.

Teachers model ongoing learning as they view themselves as lifelong learners also. Time is provided not only for professional development in the traditional sense of in-service days, but also for collegial discussion and reflection. As the walls between the classrooms are no longer there, teachers feel free to engage in co-teaching, team teaching, mentoring, and peer observation.

A professional learning community is based upon respect, responsibility and collaboration. It reflects the need for all members of the community to view themselves as learners. This creates flexibility, openness to change and adaptability, which are definitely requirements for successfully managing the fast paced, continually changing context education exists within.

How can social media help bring this about? Roberts and Pruitt, in their book Schools as Professional Learning Communities (p3, 2009) quote research that suggests that the major obstacle for schools who wish to develop as learning communities is the provision of resources such as time to collaborate, leadership support, information and ready access to colleagues. Social Media is not the total answer; but in schools where money and time are in short demand (and which school isn’t in this situation?), they can go part of the way in meeting these needs.

Here’s how:

1. Social media providing time to collaborate

Social media does not strictly speaking provide time – nothing will replace relief from face to face teaching to allow teachers to focus on their professional learning – however by embracing the asynchronous nature of social media, collaboration can occur at a time that suits each individual. It is almost impossible to co-ordinate meeting times with the variety of competing demands teachers respond to each day. Social media allows each teacher to add their thoughts, comments and input to a conversation that can continue through the working day. Using blogging software, twitter hash tags and discussion forums allows the discussion to flow and new knowledge to be created despite geographical location.

2. Social media providing leadership support

There is usually only one Principal in a school. The ratio of leaders to staff does not have to determine the amount of support a leadership team can provide if social media is used as a way of communicating. Meetings that a leadership representative cannot physically attend can be shared online, or the input collected and reflected upon by leadership at a later date. Members of a leadership team can ‘check in’ with staff by posting a tweet, posting a discussion starter or asking for input using a variety of channels. Of course nothing replaces face to face meetings and the presence of leadership representatives at various events, but if it is just not possible to be there, there are ways support can still be provided.

 3. Social media providing information

This is a key role of social media when used in a professional context. Questions can be posted online for response from a global audience (you can use preferences to manage whether your question goes out to specific individuals or the whole world in general). The development of  a PLN in Twitter or LinkedIn provides ready access to experts in the educational field who more often than not are willing to share. Social bookmarking services such as Diigo are brilliant for discovering new websites and sources of information – join one of the many groups for educators, and digests of useful links will be sent automatically to your email inbox on a daily, weekly or monthly basis. Social media truly comes into its own when searching for targeted, reliable information sources.

 4. Social media providing ready access to colleagues

This directly links to Number 1. If colleagues have a Social Media account, they are just a few keystrokes away. This might sound like a recipe for disaster, however in terms of networking with colleagues from across the country and globally, or even for setting meeting times with fellow staff members, making contact with colleagues has never been easier.

Stay tuned for our next post which will introduce you to how Twitter may be a powerful tool for initiating and maintaining a Personal Learning Network.

Comments as always are welcome!