Thoughts on: Connected Conferences (or lack thereof)

Reflection, Uncategorized

This post has been in my draft folder for a far too long, and I think it’s about time to sit down and bang it out.

In the last couple of years, I have come to embrace social media as an invaluable tool for my continuing education and participation within the field of ESL (and education in general). I use Twitter every day, although I don’t have a smart phone, so I check it a few times a day instead of getting constant updates. I blog (obviously) about my experiences in the classroom and within my own profession. I subscribe to blogs and websites and read them on an RSS feed daily. These tools have become a part of my daily professional life, and as I venture out into the field and attend in-person professional development opportunities as well, I feel excited to blend the two experiences.

I recently attended the International TESOL Convention and Language Expo in Dallas, as well as a local Minnesota Writing and English Conference in Bloomington, MN. While I wrote about my experiences at these PD events in previous posts, I wanted to write this post about the lack of connectivity via social media present at these events. There were thousands of educators and professionals at the convention in Dallas, and while they had a TV set up in a central area of the convention center, there were probably less than 20 people tweeting about their experiences during the convention. Why was social media present but so under utilized? I understand that many people have yet to embrace Twitter as a legitimate channel for online professional learning, but I was really surprised at the lack of participation and discussion via Twitter at the event.

By the Twitter feed at TESOL.

I have been to a grand total of one international convention and three state-level conferences thus far in my career, and I have noticed a few things about the way social media outlets are utilized by event coordinators and participants:

  1. Participants seem to be situated along a spectrum of social media participation that extends from not connected at all to 100% connected and participating. It seems that conference participants fall at one of those two edges of the spectrum, rarely in the middle.
  2. Not only do larger conferences seem to understand the potential benefits of utilizing social networking sites during such events, but they also use them more effectively.
  3. Different fields have different feelings about using social networking sites for professional development. For example, the first thing a group of web designers discussed while planning a local event was getting a Twitter account up and running. While within the field of ESL (at least in Minnesota), those in charge of events (MinneTESOL) are unconvinced of the benefits (however, there are a few subgroups within the MinneTESOL organization that have embraced Twitter completely).

I guess I’m just unimpressed with the degree to which the field of ESL has embraced this new (sort of) technology. Change takes time, especially in education, I guess.

Thoughts on: Sharing Information

Reflection

I came across this post by Tom Whitby today, and it sort of made me smile. The post amounts to a well-written rant about the online culture of information exchange and sharing. While just about every social media tool allows users to participate at varying levels of actual participation, there is something to be said for taking that step into contributing to the discussion by sharing pre-existing information of interest or information straight from your own brain.

When I look back at my own relationship with my personal learning network, I realize that I spent the first year or so only participating passively, receptively via my RSS feed. I didn’t use my Twitter account yet, and I didn’t blog about my experiences in academia. However, I was reading posts of interest and building my subscription list. I was also tagging and saving posts of interest via Diigo (which I found to be a valuable archiving tool). About a year into what I now realize was my unguided attempt at self-directed professional learning, I began sharing articles I found on my RSS feed with the Twitter #esl community. I slowly began following fellow educators after I sat in on a #ellchat Tweetchat session. It was my first experience with the synchronous use of Twitter, and I was hooked. After some fumbling around with netiquette conventions, I found myself interacting with Twitter followers and freely sharing information I came across via RSS feeds and other sources.

While lurking is an acceptable form of social media use, Whitby is onto something:

If we are to benefit from the Internet as a profession or a society we need to feel an obligation to be more than takers. We need to be makers and exchangers as well. We need to keep the exchange alive by not counting on the few, but by involving the many. We need to believe in the premise of Share and Share alike.

One of the best things about collaborating and learning online via social media is the fact that both novice and experienced teachers have a voice. It can be kind of daunting or scary to think that people will read and judge you based on what you share online, but when it comes down to it, your voice is only as loud as you make it. Everyone has something to say, and even novice teachers should not stifle their voices in fear of reproach.

Thoughts on: What it means to be a connected professional.

Reflection, Teacher Support

With the advent of the Google Reader closure and my impending departure to the TESOL Convention in Dallas, I am wondering what exactly it means to be a connected professional. I suppose the definition varies from field to field, but within the field of education and ESL, more specifically, there are a few things I think define a “connected professional.”

  • Engaged in conversation. Whether online via micro-blogging sites like Twitter, or in person with your immediate co-workers, being engaged in conversation seems to be a key part of the definition of a connected professional. With technology in mind, Twitter and other social media tools allow teachers to be engaged in multiple conversations simultaneously without needing to be in the same geographical area. While I’m partial to these tools, the good-old traditional conversation with co-workers should not be overlooked. After all, you are serving the same population of students, and communication is very important to understanding and meeting your population’s unique needs.
  • Open to new voices. One of the best facets of utilizing social media with a world-wide learning community is that both experienced/expert teachers and novice teachers can interact and learn from one another. It is my opinion that a truly connected professional is not only open to new voices in the field, but also varying perspectives. All that being said, it can be easy to fall in with an online crowd that agree in perspective (on whatever matter) with yourself. A necessary challenge to being connected and actively participating is to not only expose yourself to new voices, but to engage with them in an amicable and exploratory way.
  • Makes connections between conversations and their own practice. Connected professionals may be bombarded with a constant stream of input with a variety of perspectives, but it is their job to take the information and perspectives presented online and implement them appropriately in their own classrooms. If everything goes back to serving our students, an effective connected professional must take some of what she learns from other voices and reflect upon her own practice. While my perspective would state that varying degrees of participation may indeed contribute positively to an educator’s professional identity, there are voices out there that deem any interaction online not taken and implemented in the classroom as meaningless. Everyone is entitled to their own opinion on how best to implement what is gathered from learning communities and implemented their practice. I simply propose that students must always be kept in mind.

It seems clear that simply having a Twitter account or subscribing to an educator’s blog does not make one a “connected professional.” While online, social media tools may be invaluable to a teacher’s self-directed professional development, they are ultimately just tools to be used by the professional. How we use them is what really matters.

 

Google Reader is Shutting Down

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Image representing Google Reader as depicted i...

Image via CrunchBase

I was saddened to learn that Google Reader will no longer be available after July 1st of this year. Over the past couple years, Google Reader has been the cornerstone of my online engagement. When I started using Google Reader, I subscribed to blogs and articles that interested me personally, that did not necessarily pertain to my teaching or networking. However, when I started grad school  a year and a half ago I slowly built my RSS feed into a collection of voices from around the ESL field. Before I embraced Twitter, I relied solely on Google Reader to provide for me a steady stream of information and insight. Even after I became a Twitter addict, I start my social media engagement every day by checking my RSS feed on Google Reader.

I hope that the powers that be decided to revamp Google Reader and roll out something new to take its place because I feel like the rug has been pulled out from under my feet.

Here’s a pretty good article about the shut down from The Huffington Post.

Let the search for a Google Reader replacement begin!

How mainstream are PLNs anyways?

Reflection

I have been building my personal learning network over the last couple of years with a more rigorous engagement in the last few months, and I have recently been asking myself a few questions about how widespread the idea of developing a personal learning network may be. I am planning on presenting on how teachers (ESL specifically) can use social media to network and build support networks outside of their immediate networks after graduate school at a local conference in April, and I’m wondering how obvious my ideas will be to those in attendance. Will everyone leave my talk shaking their heads, wishing they had gone to another concurrent session? My own insecurities aside, how mainstream is the idea of PLNs and using social media tools like Twitter and RSS feeds to facilitate continuing education really? I have only touched on the topic with a few other teachers in my program, and none of them seemed familiar with the idea. However, I am constantly receiving notifications via Twitter and Google Reader that new blog posts have been written about building your PLN and using social media for self-driven professional development. I’m inclined to think that the topic feels like a mainstream, paramount topic of discussion in the field because it interests me and I have built my online network around using technology and self-directed professional development. Perhaps it’s time to broaden my personal learning network to include voices that do not make PLNs their primary concern.

 

Thoughts on: Using social media tools to fit your professional development & support networking needs

Reflection, Teacher Support

When exploring the vast pool of online tools and resources, it becomes clear that there are various types of tools available for any purpose. With the purpose of self-directed professional development and language education in mind, there are a few categories of tools that I have come to appreciate. I write this with a novice language teacher in mind, but much of the following information may be applicable to learners and social media as well.

Social media and online tools could be organized by how engaged the user must be with the platform and how the content is experienced by both the user and the support network (learning community). Every social media platform seems to fall along a plane that ranges from totally receptive to totally productive on one axis and collaborative to individual on the other axis. It might look something like this:

social media categories

 

In reality, the classifications of social media tools may not be so simplistic. Each tool has the potential to be used in a variety of ways depending on the context and purpose. Where Twitter seems to be a fairly collaborative and productive tool (users create content and often share from and interact with other users), it could be a more individual, receptive tool if a user simply collected information others shared via Twitter. Information can be transferred, moved around, edited, and conveyed again using Twitter, but each user will engage with the tool in the way that works best for their purposes.

In the coming months, I hope to explore a few different social media tools in relation to my own continuing education and professional development. I hope to share my findings here and ultimately in my MA degree qualifying paper.

Thoughts on: A study about novice teachers and their social support networks

Reflection, Teacher Support

I have begun my examination of novice teachers and their personal learning networks by reading a study published in TESOL Quarterly (2012) called Novice ESOL teachers’ perceptions of social support networks. I find it inspiring and informative with regard to my own research related to social support and ESL professionals.

The article (Brannan, D. 2012) describes three main sources of support reported by participants in the study: mentors, coworkers, and family. Of those three sources, only family was viewed as providing the affective support necessary to foster overall well-being and health in the novice teacher participants with relation to their perceived efficacy. That being said, the support from family did not seem to provide adequate pragmatic and technical support for the novice teachers. Both branches of support were deemed necessary for overall effective teacher development and success (perceived efficacy in the study).

With regard to this study, I aim to extend the social support network into the digital realm. Professional teachers and novice teachers currently participate in PLNs (personal/professional learning networks) mediated by online tools like Twitter, RSS feeds, Diigo, and other social media tools. I wonder how participants in the Brannan study would have responded with regard to these sources of social support. It seems that a novice teacher would be able to receive ample pragmatic and technical support via social media and other online tools (whether actively or passively). It also seems probable that a novice teacher might receive affective support via social media and other online tools from both their personal and professional online networks.

I’m excited to explore this topic further as my research continues.

References:

Brannan, D., & Bleistein, T. (2012). Novice ESOL teachers’ perceptions of social support networks. TESOL Quarterly, 46(3), 519-541. doi: 10.1002/tesq.40

Self-Directed Professional Development

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I have become somewhat enamored with the use of digital media in relation to professional development. The idea that I can create a personal learning network that will allow me to connect and collaborate with teachers around the world from all walks of life and levels of experience using social media and other digital tools amazes me!

During my practicum experience last year where I was paired with a mentor teacher, I really began to appreciate the value of connecting with more experienced teachers within my field. I sometimes feel like teaching can be a pretty isolating profession, unless teachers reach out to others within the field and share their ideas. While this may seem obvious, I think it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day operations of being in the classroom. Having the opportunity to teach alongside my mentor teacher and get valuable feedback from him was an awesome experience. However, engaging in a mentor/apprentice sort of relationship seems like the analog version of an experience that can be so much more fulfilling and enlightening within a digital medium. Having said that, I don’t think that one experience should replace the other, but that having a wider vision of what it means to develop professionally and collaborate with fellow teachers might be more beneficial than engaging in the traditional practicum experience alone.

If collaborating and expanding my ever-changing personal learning network is good for my own education, couldn’t it be said that such a network might benefit my learners as well? This is a line of thought I have yet to dive into, but with the hopes of cultivating learning and creating a space in which my learners can use English freely, I have created a class wiki. I’m sure there will be more meditation on this matter to come.

My mind has been buzzing with these ideas recently, and in an attempt to self-educate I have begun collecting some resources that address the topic of collective learning and self-directed professional development in the digital age. Here are a few of the books I’m exploring now:

Professional Learning in the Digital Age: The Educator’s Guide to User Generated Learning by Kristen Swanson

A New Culture of Learning: Cultivating the Imagination for a World of Constant Change by Douglas Thomas and John Seely Brown

The Digital Divide: Arguments for and Against Facebook, Google, Texting, and the Age of Social Networking

From Fear to Facebook: One School’s Journey by Matt Levinson

 

Personal Learning Networks (PLNs)

Uncategorized

While embarking on this quest for collaboration and shared knowledge, I have come to realize the importance of professional learning networks. With all the data and knowledge available to everyone anywhere at anytime, it would seem nearly impossible to organize and access this knowledge in a simple and effective way. Professional learning networks act as a supplement for in-person networking (say at your university or program). The benefits of participating and maintaining a professional learning network (PLN) seem infinite, all depending on how the network is accessed and used.

I am no expert on PLNs, but I hope to continue to engage and explore their role in my own professional development as an ESL teacher. I think teachers often end up working in isolation or with a small group of peers at the institution in which they teach, but I don’t think that necessarily has to be the case. There is a vast knowledge pool of experience online just waiting to be tapped into.

Here are some valuable articles and resources for building and engaging with your own personal learning network:

20 Tips for Creating a Professional Learning Network by @miriamoclifford

Teachers, Here’s Why You Need to Network by Andrianes Pinantoan

The Best Ways ESL Teachers Can Develop Personal Learning Networks by Larry Ferlazzo

Personal Learning Networks Simplified for Teachers

How to Create a Robust and Meaningful Personal Learning Network 

How’s Your PLN? by Lisette Casey

Why (and How) You Should Create a Personal Learning Network by Eric Patnoudes

How to Create a “Personal Learning Environment” to Stay Relevant in 2013