When it comes to making effective use of tech in the classroom, the challenge is less about figuring out what to do than about spreading the innovative practices that educators are already employing, according to Richard Culatta, the head of the U.S. Department of Education's Office of Educational Technology.
To help speed that dissemination process along, Culatta's office just sponsored its second annual Connected Educator Month, an October-long series of more than 500 Twitter chats, webinars, contests, and other online events that involved a total of more than 6,000 educators.
In an interview, Culatta said the month is about moving beyond traditional forms of professional development—"Teachers sitting in a cafeteria and listening to a guest speaker, which is largely not very effective"—and taking advantage of the recent explosion of "vibrant online [educator] communities and the incredible sharing moments happening on Twitter."
The goal, Culatta said, is to "get every teacher in the country feeling like they're part of a virtual professional learning environment that happens online."
A scan of the Twitter hashtags associated with the month— including #ce13—turns up plenty of tweets that show the progress made on that front:
#ce13 CEM has brought me new friends 4 my PLN, inspired me to try new projects, and encouraged me to talk online!!— Bobbi Capwell (@BobbiC07) October 31, 2013
#edtechchat A5.... Being connected with colleagues in education via tech is the best professional development in my 20 yrs in education— Darah Bonham (@darahbonham) October 29, 2013
Events throughout the month included design challenges; webinars on everything from data privacy (provided by the Data Quality Campaign) to teaching the Common Core State Standards (provided by Share My Lesson and featuring well-known educational consultant Charlotte Danielson); and Twitter chats on topics like using social media for school leaders (by the national associations for elementary and secondary school principals) and developing a "student digital leadership team in your school" (by the Indiana Department of Education's Office of eLearning.)
Culatta said he was particularly pleased with the success of a new twist on this year's events: Digital badges, sometimes known as "microcredentials," available to participants who successfully demonstrated new skills, like becoming active on Twitter.
Christina Cantrill, a senior program associate with the National Writing Project, a nonprofit teacher professional-development network focused on literacy and centrally based in Berkeley, Calif., said her organization hosted a slew of Connected Educator Month events, including a series of "Geek-Outs" in which teens led webinars designed to help both classroom teachers and informal educators recognize students' tech interests and take advantage of that inside school. One teen, for example, shared his Tumblr blog about his fashion design work, and another shared her passion for the youth-oriented computer programming language Scratch.
Among the educator audience, Cantrill said, "There were a lot of 'Aha, I can do this with some of my kids' moments."
For teachers who are often isolated in their work, she said, it's important to take the time to acknowledge the value in those kinds of connections.
"I think it's really powerful to name the ways we learn informally from each other and to get them recognized in our schools and communities of practice," Cantrill said. "Just recognizing that it's important to be connected is itself important."
There remain, however, some significant structural obstacles to digital connections among educators, including inadequate bandwidth in schools and the continued prevalence of school and district policies for blocking access to social media websites.
That issue actually came up during one of the highlights of Connected Educator Month, an hour-long Twitter chat with U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan that drew over 1,500 followers. When one educator talked about the negative effects of his school's policy of restricting access to Twitter, Duncan offered to do a follow-up—a promise that Culatta said ultimately landed on his desk.
"It's a big signal that [Duncan] is putting out there to say that teacher voice is important," Culatta said. "And what teachers are saying is they want to be connected to people who help them be better teachers."
Archives and materials from Connected Educator Month can be found here.