By Stephen Sawchuk
As support and professional-development opportunities for teachers begin to move from conference rooms to chat rooms, a burgeoning number of states and districts are drawing on features from course-management software and popular social-networking sites to establish online networks connecting teachers to peers who may live dozens or even hundreds of miles away.
Conceptually, these teacher networks reflect the “learning team” approach to professional development, in which teachers at a school site seek feedback, glean new ideas, and reflect on instructional practices through discussions with their colleagues. To this, the online networking adds the ability for teachers to connect to peers at any time of the day or night, say experts familiar with the networks.
“In the 21st century, no teacher should have to say he feels alone,” said Tom Carroll, the president of the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. The Washington-based advocacy group, which works to improve teaching standards, supports online teacher-networking projects in Denver, Memphis, Tenn., and Seattle as part of its Teachers Linked In Networked Communities initiative. “These teachers grew up connected. They have Facebook, they’re texting, they’re e-mailing. It’s time for us to bring their schoolwork into this environment,” he said.
In general, the networks connect novice teachers to others in their preparation classes, teachers who instruct in the same subject or grade level to one another, and teacher-mentors to colleagues—even when they are not located at the same schools. The sites facilitate online discussions, workshops, coaching, and collaborative study groups and work teams.
One of the three TLINC sites, housed at the University of Colorado at Denver, began after the “cooperating” teachers—the district’s term for the educators who mentor teacher-candidates during their clinical preparation—were hampered from regular meetings by the sprawling city’s distances.
“There was no way we could have had the time to drive and meet together and have the rich conversational discussions we needed to have,” said Cindy Gutierrez, the director of initial professional teacher education at the university.
In Illinois, a handful of supporters—primarily the Illinois state board of education, the college of education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and the State Farm Companies Foundation—financed the Illinois New Teacher Collaborative in 2004. The initiative was designed to spearhead induction programs across the state through which educators could advance up the credentials ladder, said Renée T. Clift, the collaborative’s director.
To facilitate the sharing of best practices across these programs, the collaborative subsequently launched its network, INTC Online, in 2006.
Both sites adapted existing networking platforms for their own use. Their distinguishing features lie in their sizes and scope.
Denver uses Tapped In, an education networking site that claims about 2,800 members from around the world and allows individuals to join online “classrooms” and user groups.
To this platform, officials embedded access to TLINC at specific junctures on the district’s teacher professional continuum. Groups of teacher-candidates in schools across the city can network through the site, as can the district’s cooperating teachers.
“We can be very strategic about the network, rather than just having an individual teacher joining Tapped In and seeing who’s out there,” Ms. Gutierrez said. “In doing it this way, it allows us to collaborate at a systems level.”
Illinois’ INTC Online grew out of an open-source course-management platform known as Moodle.
The network is not tied to a specific university, and can be accessed by every candidate who completes a state-approved teacher-training program, whether traditional or alternative, as well as any educator who works to support new teachers.
As on social-networking sites, users set up profiles and can connect to all others who list the same tags—such as “reading” or “biology”—on their profiles. They can join specific user groups oriented toward preservice teachers, new teachers, or pre-K-12 administrators.
Members can also set up restricted-access pages within the site for program-specific activities.
The networks are still in the early stages of adopting appropriate technology to support the online discussions. Both Denver and Illinois have instituted asynchronous communication tools, such as threaded discussions on bulletin boards.
Denver’s network permits real-time communications among teachers using chatrooms. Illinois officials are now piloting a similar tool.
Facebook for Teachers
In South Carolina, officials hope to tailor a teacher network specifically to those educators most physically isolated from their peers.
Rural districts make up the lion’s share of South Carolina’s school system. The smallest communities lack restaurants, entertainment, even a Wal-Mart.
With Blackboard, a for-profit leader in the course-management software industry, the state envisions a site similar to Facebook. As on that site, users would be able to connect to other teachers and post messages on electronic “walls.”
“The idea is that teachers would leave their college [online social] network and enter a professional network,” said Mark Bounds, the state’s deputy superintendent for educator quality and leadership.
In contrast to the Denver and Illinois networks, South Carolina’s initiative would primarily function as a social network, Mr. Bounds said. But he expects that teacher interactions would soon turn to discussions of students’ performance.
“We know that professional development would ensue—that teachers would discuss great lessons they’ve taught and things they’ve done to increase student achievement,” he said.
The project wasn’t included in the state’s budget this year, but Mr. Bounds said he will seek other funding to continue the initiative.
A Question of Data
With their focus on teachers seeking out their own peers for help and support, the virtual sites contain many features of professional-learning communities in actual school settings. But there is one key difference: The sites connect teachers who are not necessarily in the same schools or classrooms.
“The collaboration is less around specific data or classroom problems where everyone knows the students involved,” noted Hanna Doerr, the program manager for the national commission’s TLINC initiatives.
Instead, she said, the sites tend to facilitate broader discussions about curriculum, content-delivery, and classroom management.
The distinction raises some concerns for advocates of the learning-team approach to professional development.
“The danger of relying solely on networks beyond the school is that you get potentially fragmented results, and you’re affecting some teachers, not all teachers, and some students, not all students,” said Stephanie Hirsh, the president of the Oxford, Ohio-based National Staff Development Council, a nonprofit group that works to link professional development to school improvement efforts.
Ms. Hirsh said all schools should establish such in-house teams to meet two to three times in a week. Still, she added, online networking can afford teachers opportunities to deepen their content knowledge, especially when they have limited access to peers who instruct in the same grade or subject level.
Ms. Doerr underscored the importance of supplementing online interactions with face-to-face meetings—a mix her organization calls “bricks and clicks.”
“When you have that face-to-face interaction,” she said, “it’s easier to come out with your problems and reach out for help and support [online].”
A Critical Mass
As networks’ directors focus on how to build the right set of features to transform the networks from novelties to integral components of teachers’ professional learning, they are now running into questions about sustainability.
Obstacles include network interfaces that Ms. Gutierrez described as somewhat “clunky” and graphically limited compared with sites such as Facebook.
The Illinois INTC project officials have experienced challenges building a “critical mass” of users sufficient to ensure that teachers who log on to the network can immediately find the help they need.
“You’ll have new people who come online and are excited abut the site, but they don’t see much activity, and they don’t come back,” said Lara Hebert, the INTC online research and development coordinator.
INTC Online now has 978 registered users, but in July, only 50 logged on, she said.
Denver officials are addressing the problem through a mix of requirements and incentives.
Participation in TLINC is required as part of the teacher training at the University of Colorado at Denver, Ms. Gutierrez said. It is also an element of the district’s ProComp differentiated-pay system: Mentors can earn a compensation bonus if they participate.
Still, across the three TLINC sites, officials have observed a decrease in usage over time.
“Because the programs are focused in the schools of education, we get a lot of use in the first year by the teacher-candidates, but then it tends to fade out,” Ms. Doerr said. “We want to get the veteran teachers already in the schools onto the community.”
Illinois officials, so far, have resisted tying INTC Online to requirements, and the site remains purely voluntary. In part, that reflects the goal of allowing teachers to drive the system’s gradual evolution, Ms. Hebert said.
In the meantime, the site’s managers hope to develop a better understanding of what will make the networks self-sustaining over time.
“If [network participation] is required for something—a grade, a certification, a stipend—people will participate. We know that,” said Ms. Clift, the director of the Illinois collaborative. “What we don’t know is what are the triggers that will encourage people to get as much professional satisfaction out of a space like this as they are personal satisfaction using Facebook and MySpace.”
Coverage of policy efforts to improve the teaching profession is supported by a grant from the Joyce Foundation.