I've been following with interest all of the activity in the US where they're celebrating Connected Educator Month through August, an initiative aimed at strengthening connected online communities of practice in education.
The notion of online communities of practice is nothing new – but interest and participation in them has increased markedly in the past year or so as educators are discovering the huge benefits that lie in being able to link with and learn from each other in these sorts of environment. In NZ, participation in the VLN, for instance, has be increasing exponentially during that time, and, of course, as more people join and participate, the greater the body of knowledge and shared experience that is available makes it attractive to even more to join.
Until now, participation in these sorts of things has been regarded widely as purely optional, and for the 'enthusiasts' and early adopters. But the tide appears to be changing, with some arguing that connectedness should now be the standard, and no longer an option.
So what is the appeal of being 'connected', and why are so many people suddenly taking an interest? In a recent article titled why educators should connect digitally, Tania Roscoria identifies professional development as a key theme. Increased costs associated with traditional forms of PD, the time it takes to participate, the difficulty in getting access to customised or tailored activities etc. etc. are familiar conversations in school staffrooms, and it would seem that there is a dawning realisation that these online environments provide opportunities that are of significant value as PD, as well as meeting expectations in terms of content and relevance. On top of that, participation isn't passive – it's highly contributory, where the expertise and experience of members is recognised and valued by others in the community.
In her blog, Edna Sackson speaks about her experience with communities of practice, noting:
Our communities of practice come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Curriculum Team Leaders, form the core of a group that meets weekly to learn together with other school leaders. They take the learning back to their co-teachers and bring back feedback from teams. These meetings have become a forum for shared reflection and for exploring new ideas.
Teachers are encouraged to share their own learning and expertise with their peers. Collaborative grade-level teams meet regularly to share practice. Each term, there is a flexible PD schedule and team leaders record their teams’ needs and ideas for how best to utilize after-school meetings times.
I completely concur. In my own work I've become increasing involved in using online community spaces as a focal point of the work I do with teachers and educator groups. I've recently begun a programme for a group of teachers in Christchurch titled 'emerging eLeaders' that has attracted a number of teachers who haven't previously been involved in learning this way, but who have been attracted to it because of the limited opportunities available to them through traditional approaches. Already in this group the sense of 'connectedness' is evident as participants have begun sharing thoughts and responses raised in our first meeting together, and respond to the challenges that have been posed.
Of course, online communities don't just 'happen'. There are some new skills and knowledge to be developed in order to adapt our facilitation approach and design these experiences. So too, there is a huge emphasis on participants taking responsibility for being active participants – with out that the community will languish and fail. There's plenty of help available for people wanting to make a start here – this week I came across an enormously useful set of links and references on How To Build An Online Community: The Ultimate List Of Resources (2012), put together by FeverBee founder Richard Millington. There's a plethora of great information here, starting with readings about the background and philosophical frameworks for online communities, how to establish then run and manage these, to measuring the effectiveness of them and the value they are providing.
My final comment piece of advice is – while reading about online communities and being a connected educator is very useful and an important thing to do, nothing can beat actually DOING it, so step out and have a go at participating in some of these online groups and environments, and combine your head knowledge with your practical, lived experience of being an online community member.