What are educators’ professional obligations to learn from social media channels?

TrappedPaul Bogush pushed back (in a nice way) on my recently-popular post, If you were on Twitter. First he wrote about how most educators are too busy to be involved in social media. Then he wrote about all of the wonderful things that happened during the time when he wasn’t on Twitter. Because he’s a good writer, Paul evoked all the right feelings in my heart and head. Of course I want to spend time with my wife and kids instead of being on Twitter. Of course I want to read books and take walks in the woods and get my job done, all instead of being in front of a screen. But even though there are only so many hours in a day, it’s still a false dichotomy. As I said in my comment to Paul’s first post,

there are countless educators who are finding ways to tap into the connective and learning power of social media while simultaneously having healthy, balanced personal and professional lives. In other words, you do not have to be superhuman to do this stuff. We find time for what we think is important…

All of this time balance stuff aside, I believe that there’s a bigger issue worth considering. Let me explain…

Although there is a lot of noise out there on the Web, it’s hard to argue that there is little learning value in social media. There are numerous ways in which teachers and administrators could be using blogs, Twitter, Facebook, online videos, podcasts, online slideshows, and other social media tools to advance their own practice. Whether it’s subscribing to other innovative educators’ feeds, interacting and sharing resources with global colleagues, or consuming and using high-quality peer-created resources, there are myriad teaching ideas, lesson plans, Web resources, conversation spaces, technology tools, reflections on practice, and other pedagogical fruits that are ripe for the picking by online-savvy educators. Peer-to-peer online learning networks can help educators sort the wheat from the chaff and curate what’s relevant and powerful.

The barriers to using social media as learning tools usually are more mental, emotional, or logistical than technological. Most of the time we can teach people how to use these tools (or they can pick up the basics themselves) in just a few hours of focused learning.

In an era in which the possibilities for ongoing professional learning are numerous and significant, I wonder how long will it take us for us to start expecting educators to use these social media tools. It’s been 30 years since the advent of the personal computer and we’re still struggling to get teachers and administrators to integrate digital technologies into their daily work in ways that are substantive and meaningful. Meanwhile, we now have a bevy of powerful learning tools available to us that can advance our own professional learning (and, of course, make our technology integration and implementation efforts more efficient and effective).

  • When will we start incorporating the use of social media learning channels into the broader definition of what it means to be an education professional?
  • When will we renorm the education profession to include the expectation that teachers and administrators will use these tools to advance their own practice? 
  • When will we view educators that opt out of the use of social media for professional learning as an aberration rather than the norm?

In other words, will we ever stop saying that whatever print publications we may subscribe to, a few professional development days spread across the year, and occasional and sporadic attendance at conferences sufficiently satisfy our obligations to be learners of our craft?

Image credit: Internet open

25 Responses to “What are educators’ professional obligations to learn from social media channels?”

  1. As a partial start to answering the final question you pose, I would remove the last four words from the title of this post.

  2. Shelia K. Blume Reply May 5, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    I agree that school staff do not keep learning and I feel that all professional development starts with the individual. “All politics are local” and so is professional development. We need to push this message to he individuals we see every day.
    I have grown grey in the educational profession but,luckily, I have a tech savvy daughter and a need for knowledge. I need to know what younger”movers and shakers” are thinking and doing in the profession. That’s why I have a Twitter account. If they are going to share, I’m going to get the information.
    Lately, however, I have been feeling guilty about not sharing what I know. I’m working on correcting that. Balance is the key. Thanks for letting me know I can find it.

  3. Interesting post.

    I think the push to get teachers up to speed with using social media and digital tools both as a part of their practice and their professional development has met resistance for a number of reasons.

    First is time. I now you site in your post a “Most of the time we can teach people how to use these tools (or they can pick up the basics themselves) in just a few hours of focused learning”. While this may be true in some cases, some people are simply not willing to invest the extra time it would take over and above what they are already doing for 200+ students, to become proficient in digital environment. Give them time in their schedule it might happen.

    The other reason I feel some teachers have no interest in using social media or digital tools is simply this. The digital resistant teachers I work with, are very good at what they do. They turn out high achieving students every year without being wired, so why start. Digital tools and social media is simply not part of their practice and if kids are learning just fine without their teacher being a part of the wired world, why change that practice OR… as you suggest, be required to change their practice.

    Yes kids exist in the digital world but a little time in the real world doesn’t do them any harm.


    • Hi Keith,

      Thanks so much for your comment. I have 4 concerns…

      1. Knowledge work in the real world is done with computers. We can’t continue to ignore the fact that doing knowledge work in schools with our ring binders and notebook paper in no way mirrors how real knowledge work is done by real people in the real world.

      2. Our educators often are less capable learners of digital tools than our 11-year-olds. This is embarrassing. We give reasons about time and disinterest and ‘we don’t really need to know this stuff’ but the bottom line is that we make time for what is important. Guess what? Technology is important. In fact, it’s arguably the most transformative force in the world right now. The idea that ‘some people are simply not willing to take the time to become proficient in a digital environment’ is no longer acceptable. We need to do better as educators and as educational systems.

      3. ‘A little time in the real world doesn’t do them any harm’ implies a) that our digital tools are not part of ‘the real world’ and b) that our kids aren’t already spending the vast majority of their time in analog learning environments. I disagree with both implications.

      4. When the world has changed, looking back at old standards of proficiency and saying, ‘See, we’re good at those, so leave us alone!’ doesn’t cut it. We have to be good at the new metrics and the new standards of proficiency that are relevant for today and beyond, not yesteryear (‘See, I can shoe a horse. Leave me alone!’). Those now include digital technologies. In a technology-suffused world, analog teachers no longer can be considered ‘proficient’ or ‘successful.’

      • Amen. Reminds me of a music teacher who won’t use digital tools in her practice because they aren’t “real instruments”. I’m guessing at some point in history someone said the same about a guitar.

      • First of all you are singing to the choir when you are talking to me, in fact I am one of the people the luddites amongst us dislike BUT I do make the effort to see the other side.

        Undoubtedly real work is done with the digital world but when the “real world” become less important then the digital?

        Once again there are still teachers out there, doing great work the good old fashioned way but it would seem that you are suggesting that these teachers are neither “Proficient” or “Successful”.

        I find it very difficult to tell an award winning old school teacher that they are not doing their job just because they are not a slave to the latest technology.

        As for kids, my own daughters spend minimal time in digital environments because my wife and I wanted them to be proficient with the old ways of processing information. They are A students and can crank out a digital presentation better then most of their more digital savvy classmates and I believe it is because their foundational skills were acquired without a digital crutch.

        Because people are not immersed in digital environments, does not mean they are ineffectual or have no worth in a digital world.


        • Hi Keith,

          Thanks for the pushback. I always appreciate the dialogue. That said, it’s one thing for a typical adult to say, “No thanks. I prefer to be less digital than the world around me.” For example, my wife who has no interest in Facebook and other social media tools likely would fit into that category (you can imagine some of the conversations we have in our house!).

          But educators have the responsibility to prepare students for the world as it is and will be and thus have responsibilities to others that must be taken into consideration. Since knowledge work is done with computers in the real world and since schools are supposed to be about knowledge work, schools have a responsibility to prepare kids to be technology-fluent knowledge workers, technology-fluent citizens, technology-fluent college students, etc. Are you going to let a teacher – even an award-winning one – opt out of this responsibility? If so, what percentage of a school’s staff will you allow to opt out and how will you justify where you draw the line (“Sorry, she gets to opt out but you don’t”)? If you allow some teachers to opt out, many will opt out. And the aggregate impact of all of those individual choices to opt out is that many students will not get the technology-infused learning opportunities that they deserve. See also: http://bit.ly/cOB1Wy

          We have to separate judgments about people from judgments about the job. I am in no way saying that analog educators are worthless as people. But, given the requirements of the job of ‘educator’ these days, we should be insisting on digital teaching practices, not just analog ones. See also: http://bit.ly/UUPJzO and http://bit.ly/9tkAGZ

          • No prob! I love pushing back.

            I see your point, I really do but I think there is a place for both the luddite and the DigiGeek in our education system.

            I like the thought of my child being expected to be competent in both the digital and pen and paper world and if that means having to sit in a class where the teacher is an old school book lernin type, so be it.

            Over time the school system will evolve to a point where all teachers will be Digi competent but why are we drawing a line in the sand?

            I also think when the world has gone all digital, we will have lost a very special part of our history and our civilization.


          • Sorry Scott, but I think you you might be half-right on this, but that means half-wrong.
            We in education have a bad habit of trying to aim at a moving target and hitting where it used to be. Imagine if 5 years ago you had said the same thing about MySpace that you are now about Facebook or Twitter… you’d sound ridiculous now. If you teach an elementary or secondary student how to use [current version of piece of software] a few years from now they have useless bits of trivia, not actual skills. On the other hand, you can effectively teach how to collaborate, communicate and work in groups using the Postal Service. If we are not teaching the skills, providing better tools will not magically make the change.
            It does not matter if educators read appropriate journals and news in print or online, or attend virtual conferences or real ones, so long as they are staying current and developing. Being on twitter and following Ashton Kutcher, or playing Farmville on Facebook will not make them better teachers. I think you’re seriously misprioritizing what the actual problems are.

          • Bill, I think you’re missing the point of social media. We’re not asking our teachers to use Facebook and Twitter the same way our students do. It’s all about connecting and sharing on a professional level but also understanding how our own students are connecting with each other outside of our classrooms.

            Textbooks and workshops are still legitimate sources of information but they are also much slower to push out that information. I can get many more ideas and inspiration out of PLCs online than I an in the time it takes me to register for and attend a workshop and it’s all free.

            As educators, we don’t get to say, “I don’t see the value in this so I’m not going to learn how to do it.” Imagine if we let our students learn with that attitude.

            And the evolving nature of technology doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be taught. We wouldn’t teach our students how to use MySpace so they could master the technical skills to use just that site. We’d teach it to them so they could take those skills and transfer them to Facebook, Twitter, or whatever comes along later to take their place. Learning Microsoft Word didn’t become a complete waste of my time just because I switched over to Google Docs. There are skills and lessons and responsibilities that carry over from one platform to another.

          • @Bill Bradley: Half right! Woo hoo! That’s better than some think about me! 🙂

            I’m not advocating for any particular tools. And I’m definitely not saying that educators need to follow celebrities on Twitter or master Farmville (is that really what you think we ed tech advocates are asking for?). I’m advocating for mastery of an entire thinking/communicating ecosystem/environment. The tools will change. Our competencies and fluencies must too…

            See my post tomorrow regarding your comment about the Postal Service!

          • You do seem to be a strong advocate for “Social Media”. The problem is that “Social Media” is just not really an appropriate tool for many, if not most educational subjects. I have my students use Google Docs to be able to collaborate on lab reports and projects. I reply with comments, suggestions, and grading. That’s very different than trying to use Facebook to teach the Distributive Property. As for interacting with teachers, sites like this, or Dan Meyer’s, Rhett Alain’s, Kate Nowak’s, etc. on RSS provide a nice stream of relevant content and discussion, without having to wade through the dross on Twitter, or to figure out what the next cool hash-tag is to follow.
            I’ve been using the internet (email, chats, newsgroups, bulletin boards, instant messaging, video conferencing, etc.) for almost 25 years, so I’m hardly new to this, and the reason that you don’t see many of the “Social” technologies applied is that they’re just not that useful or appropriate, and then there’s the distraction factor. We’ve heard this with things from the Apple II and Laserdisc to modern day, but most of it just doesn’t work any better (or often as well) as what we’d done before.

            Anyone who thinks that you can get as much from an online conference as an in-person one has obviously been going to the wrong conferences! In either case, the problem is that there is a large percentage of teachers who are not doing anything to get exposed to new ideas, methods, or materials. In some cases, it is lack of interest, but for many, it’s just a matter of time. Coming up with new lessons, and learning new tools to create lessons (that may or may not be useful or relevant in a few years, giving rapidly changing trends and technologies) is a burden that many of them have no interest in taking on.

      • I teach computers in an elementary school and #2 is a big problem for me. I understand it’s difficult to keep up with technology and there’s a feeling, mostly justified, that adults just can’t keep up as well as kids do. Their minds aren’t conditioned the way ours are and they have a lot more free time at their disposal.

        But it doesn’t need to be as big an issue as we make it out to be. I try to teach technology the same way I teach gifted and talented students in that I remove the requirement that I need to know more about a subject than my students do. A teacher doesn’t need to know how to use every function of an application to let his/her students use it. We can serve as guides who help them focus their energies on the topic at hand and model quality work. They can explore and discover functions of technology we don’t know about and use them to express what they’ve learned in our classes and that’s ok.

        Unfortunately, too many teachers are afraid to let their students explore areas they themselves don’t know much about and rather than embrace that curiosity, they distance themselves from it.

  4. While I agree with both you and Paul, believing there’s a settler and a pioneer heart in most of us, I think the problem may be how schools and their leaders have approached technology use. Schools like the tangible, things they could point to during an open house, things like a new auditorium, the latest football turf, up to date technology, etc. Unfortunately, they don’t always do a good job selling the value and purpose in these tangible assets, which should be improved learning, opportunity, experience for students.

    At my old school, they ushered in a wave of technology, which some of us embraced and others shunned. What was missing was a central, compelling argument as to how this technology could enhance learning, the raison etre for schools to begin with. Instead, principals checked into classrooms to make sure the bells and whistles were going off – SmartBoards on, laptops in use.

    But in the end they were asking us to chase a red herring, while the big fish (learning) continued to elude them. Sure, some of us got it because we recognized the inherent value in these tools both to help support the learning results we hoped to achieve and also to help students become proficient maneuvering through the technological terrain where ideas and information are exchanged.
    But the majority clung to their old methods of teaching because they were afraid that incorporating technology would sacrifice students’ deep learning.

    So I guess my personal experience causes me to empathize a little more strongly with some of these “analog” educators who probably need their leaders to sell your argument a little better.

    • Hi Holly,

      Absolutely. Technology in schools should focus on the learning first, not the tools.

      But it’s also very hard for analog educators to understand the learning potential of technology tools when they don’t understand the tools in the first place (i.e., you can’t envision the power of something if you don’t understand what the something is and how it works). For example, I’m not a physicist. If you ask me what the various creative and powerful uses are for lasers and particle accelerators and electron scanning microscopes, I would have only a rudimentary understanding at best. But a physicist would know AND would be expected to know.

      See also Item A here: http://bit.ly/PmgRee

      In education, usually we’re not talking about high-end, domain-specific tools like lasers and particle accelerators. We’re talking about more general-purpose, general-population technologies or easily-learnable, education-specific tools that have tremendous power IF WE CHOOSE TO LEARN THEM. Our kids should not be more powerful learners than we are as educators. We should know AND be expected to know these learning technologies.

      • Scott, the reason that it’s hard to understand the potential of the technologies is that there just isn’t that much good content out there, full stop. In some cases it’s because it takes a lot of time to get the bugs worked out of a good idea and the technology is too new or immature, in other cases trends have come and gone (been a few years since I was at a presentation when anyone talked about setting up a Moodle… but for a while that was what everyone was hot and heavy about). The quality of material from the textbook publishers is horrible (power point slides of the textbook) and both the teachers and educational businesses are frustrated with not knowing what technology will be available and dealing with other issues (bandwidth, content filters, etc.) Oh, and that’s ignoring the cost/budget issue for both purchasing and maintaining the technology.

        The second problem is that even when there is an amazing technology (video motion analysis in Physics, video microscopes in biology, interactive worksheets in mathematics) how do we get that in front of most educators to even let them know it exists? Budget cuts mean that workshops for teachers are largely a thing of the past, and most of the “Professional Development” run by the districts is about Standardized Testing, new laws that teachers need to know about, or new administrative software that the district has purchased. It would be nice if “Post about it on Twitter or Facebook” was a realistic solution, but it’s not. Meanwhile, I’m going to the local Physics Teachers conference next Saturday. I expect to see a whole lot of familiar faces, but not many new ones… no matter how many we invite.

  5. Agreed, but I think the answer to your latest question “Why are we educators having so much trouble mobilizing our voice in ways that are effective?” is that the leaders don’t know how to sell something that isn’t tangible. They understand and can dispense the meaning behind test scores, but the change you and I are advocating cannot be measured by old assessment models; it’s like pouring new wine into old wineskins. We’re going to have to assess the success of these new models differently too. An overhaul of the whole system. Risky and time-consuming. So instead, they sell what’s easy to sell – technology.

    We’ve got so many fragmented strategies these days in education that we’re not getting the central message out – we’re here to help kids learn. In a recent conversation, a parent shared that his daughter, a high school senior, had only one teacher in her 12 years of schooling who had inspired curiosity. She and her dad would shoot hoops in the driveway while they discussed, challenged, and sorted through the ideas in that one teacher’s class.

    But one teacher here and there is not going to change education. How do we shift the culture so that developing learning, curiosity, and motivation become the defining goals? There’s nothing inherently wrong with technology, blended learning, flipping the classroom, design thinking, or shared inquiry, but we can’t begin the conversation from these entry points. We’ve got to begin with learning and show how the methodologies above can increase it.

    You asked if we need to do a better job of marketing. Yes, I think we do. But we need to challenge who the “we” will be. Tony Wagner talks about how he was inspired by Friedman’s book The World is Flat, recognizing that in a connected world, opportunity is everywhere. Yes, but not always in a school. It’s the most hierarchical institution I can think of, second to the Church. The key will be getting the people at the top to understand this urgency. When they start posting signs outside of their schools that read, “It’s About Learning!” we’ll know we’ve arrived.

    • Well said. I don’t disagree with anything you say here, which is why I made this slide long ago:


      Of course school administrators are a subset of the larger group of educators that isn’t knowledgeable about technology and thus struggles to envision the learning potential. And we can’t forget to include policymakers in our leaders category either…

  6. Hi Scott,

    Im a big proponent of using there tools wherever they can benefit learning. I would argue that we can no longer talk about the “digital” world and the “real” world as separate things. My students would say that the real world is a digital one and too many teachers force them to step into a fantasy world at school where to use a mobile device is labelled cheating. At our school in New Zealand, it is now incorporated as a part of our performance management and teacher registration that we will make use of e-learning tools where they can support student outcomes. Teachers who don’t are being seen as less and less relevant by their students and colleagues. Basically i think as teachers we need to just accept that this is now expected and get on with making wise and considered use of the tools where they are appropriate.

  7. As someone who embraces many social media technologies but who also considers himself an “old school” teacher, I think part of the problem is the ethos that’s intrinsic to many so-called connected educators.

    Let me blunt: many of these educators and “education experts” are presumptuous to the point of arrogance. Just jump onto Twitter for a few minutes, and you are sure to find another homily about the magical qualities of technology and/or 21st century learning, and the failure/incompetence/fearfulness of those teachers who aren’t on the bandwagon.

    I rarely see any credible evidence, and usually it consists of other experts who repeat the same philosophical beliefs. And, of course, the echo chamber gets so loud that evidence – including that which favours direct instruction – really becomes irrelevant.

    I know many educators – secondary school educators I’ve helped onto Twitter and blogging directly – who go online for awhile, shake their heads at the insulting dismissal of their practices, and tune out. [I’m stubborn, however; I like being a gadfly.]

    As Keith has said above, there are many great teachers in our system who do not use social media. Their excellence ought to be part of the conversation, but I’m afraid the echo chamber rarely allows for humility or the exploration of old truths.

    • Thanks for the comment, Colin. We know that our knowledge and information landscape is increasingly digital and decreasingly analog. Shouldn’t our teaching practices – which are supposed to be focused on knowledge and information work – become increasingly digital and decreasingly analog? If so, is it arrogant or presumptuous to make desperate pleas for the majority of our educators (who still are primarily analog) to move faster?

      We have loads of research indicating that digital technologies can be powerful learning enhancers. And we also see anecdotally everywhere we look that digital technologies are allowing us to learn, live, work, play, and do everything else in ways previously unimaginable. What kind of ‘credible evidence’ are you searching for that doesn’t currently exist all around us?

  8. I believe a better question is “when will a conscious practice of continuous learning/improvement be the norm?”

    Just as we need to strive to see our students/children as individuals, respecting differences and strengths/weaknesses/preferences – so we also need to do that for teachers/parents/administrators/leaders.

    Get clear on what our purpose is. To learn. To embrace failure and difficulty and to persevere. To connect. To share.

    I see many parents who don’t “get” social media. But *I* do. I have an extensive network and a passion for learning more about education, kids, parenting, leadership, personal growth.

    So I become an “information concierge” within my community. It’s my strength and passion! Why should everyone have to figure out what I’m already good at?

    Sure, it would be EASIER for me, if they would just get onto Twitter and follow me. But who said everything of value was going to be easy??

    Frankly, I’m lousy at lots of other things – I need help. So, for example, I turn to my friend, a school psychologist who has no time/energy/interest in social media, for perspective and help to understnading my gifted/LD son’s learning needs, or for a shoulder to lean on. And she picks my brain about assistive technology and for what’s going on out on the internet.

    I see nothing wrong with that. We both have a commitment to learning and seeking resources/knowledge/growth/improvement.

    I believe it’s important for all of us to respect each other and ourselves – to value different contributions rather than judge those that don’t run to embrace OUR favorite tools. Judgement does nothing but alienate and shame people for not being “the same” as us. What does that accomplish, except hurt relationships and close a door to valuable skills/perspective/knowledge.

    Offer assistance, to those that want to learn about social media, for sure. And value/include those that aren’t ready or interested in going there.

  9. One addendum – I would actually guess that such a culture of continuous learning is already pervasive. I don’t know many teachers or parents or leaders in education who are doing NOTHING to learn or change.

    If we dont’ have a drive to do so, our kids force us to! 🙂

    I wonder if we’re actually feeling the need to be conscious about it? All of us need to do that.

    Conscious of how we learn, why we learn, what works for us.

    Conscious of our gaps and how to find resources to support us effectively?

    Conscious of how others learn and interact, what works for THEM. And how we can work together?

    And conscious of ourselves – our baggage, learning to embrace failure yet not let it define us, to be vulnerable. For without that willingness, deep learning can’t happen. Because failure and even plain ol’ learning are risks!

    It’s important to ask the right questions, don’t you think?

  10. I am responding to this blog as this is an issue I am struggling with as a new educator. I made a mid-life change of careers from sales and broadcasting to become a teacher. Between my last position and when I started attending graduate school, almost seven years had passed. During the seven years, I was a stay at home mom. I had an e-mail address I had used since 1999, but Face book and Twitter were born during my technological sabbatical.
    When Facebook became a ‘thing’ in my age group and social circle, I opted to stay off it. At the time, I felt being on Facebook would be time away from my small children and family. Plus, I heard many stories from friends of being pursued for friendship by old, happily forgotten acquaintances and learning, as you mentioned, how wonderful Jerry thought his sandwich tasted while chilling out watching the game. Ugh! Gag me! I am a private person by nature and Facebook seemed akin to a never ending high school reunion or putting my teenage diaries on the internet – way to public. I also have what I consider to be a healthy social circle and figured if I had wanted to keep up with my high school buddies, I would have been in touch already.
    I had been in television and radio production early in my career. I was on-air in radio and edited both sound and video once in television. I worked for AT&T when I actually had to explain what the internet was and WHY my clients would want a website. That was in the mid-1990’s. And now, nearly fifteen years later, I returned to school feeling like a technological outsider.
    I started substituting for Chicago Public Schools this fall and have been taking two middle level courses to get my endorsements. We have done projects that stretched me again technologically. Making a documentary, a graphic novel and a CD were things I hadn’t done in my leisure, but in doing them I felt the struggles of the experience and the senses of accomplishment that came with completion, too. In my classes we have had a lot of discussion on the need for young adolescents to know we as teachers comprehend their world. Our professor even mentioned that many schools will not look at an applicant if they cannot find a social media profile. So, I feel pulled in two directions – my desire for privacy and my desire for employment. My husband tells me I don’t have to friend anyone or post anything but I feel kind of like that is going to the party and not speaking to anyone and ignoring those who might speak to me. I am not so opposed to Twitter. Your top twenty things I missed list is a strong case for being there as an educator.
    Middle school students live with a permanent sense of unease. I guess Facebook and Twitter will help me feel their pain. There will be new technologies coming down the line every time we think we have ‘learned it all’. Despite my personal misgivings, I know I will be a better teacher for having the mediums and for all I – and therefore, my students – will learn.

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