Online Social Communities and School Improvement

Research clearly demonstrates that the most effective schools focus on learning, not teaching. Everybody learns in these schools from the students to the teachers to the maintenance people. Research also demonstrates that too little authentic learning actually occurs in schools. Many Some of us simply close our doors and teach the same way we have been doing for many years. We are intimidated about opening our practice to the scrutiny of others.

Recently there's been talk in the blogosphere about the purpose of online social communities like this one. If all of the available tools in here are also available on the wider Internet, then why do we need a constrained place like this?

Here's one answer. Many of us in here now, don't need this place. We've become pretty good at meeting other people and sharing substantive ideas on the larger web. But, obviously most educators are not in here. Most educators have probably never experimented with most of the tools of Web 2.0.

I'm guessing that most teachers would not feel very comfortable in this social community. As one blogger wrote, attendance here is a lot like being at a huge conference. Despite the presence of so many people, it is so easy to feel lonely at huge conferences.

But, I'm hoping that many educators would feel comfortable using online social communities at the school building level. Imagine the majority of the teachers in a school discussing ideas, from the mundane to the profound, back and forth on a social community. Might teachers feel less intimidated about asking questions about best practice if it was not in a face to face setting? Teachers could share ideas as to how to work most effectively with particular students. Could these types of social sites truly promote learning amongst faculty members within individual school settings?

Think about content integration that could take place as a result of social sites, like this. The other day I wrote a current events newsletter about an increase in the planting of corn. More farmers are planting corn because it's being used in ethonal gasoline. Students could consider this current event in every subject area. Teachers could support one another in building a comprehensive set of lessons to examine this event. I'm a social studies teacher, but I recognize a good video about the planting of corn from a science perspective when I see it. If I found such a video I could incorporate it into the social community and inform the science teacher about it. He could do the same for me when he found something appropriate for social studies. The science teacher and I work with the same students. We live in the same town. Our kids are in the same baseball league. We could call across the hall to one another. But online communication will aid us in doing our jobs.

Social sites could also benefit the management of logistics. Principals could post memos in the social community and respond to logistical questions publicly. If a student is going to be tardy for his next class because of something that happened in my class I could simply write a quick note to the teacher. The note would not be anywhere near as intrusive a a phone call, since the teacher could check it when he/she had a free minute.

So, here's the point, because I feel like I'm rambling. Social websites like this have the potential to revolutionize educational communication. But revolutions need not encompass the entire world at one time. Instead revolutions can take place school by school. Every school could have its own constrained social site.

Views: 29

Comment by Dave Ehrhart on April 10, 2007 at 3:15am
Andrew. Excellent idea on the in-school community. I am a Career Academy leader of 16 teachers, and I've been thinking of a better way to discuss topics. I think my next venture will be an academy blog to start. Most of our teachers are familiar with the tools but we don't use them regularly in our own work as a group. I'll give it a try and let you know how it goes.
Comment by Jeff VanDrimmelen on April 10, 2007 at 3:56am
Great insights Andrew! Your school social network got me thinking. A 'social network' like this one would be great for a class. The ability to upload video's, photo's, and post blog entries in a way that everyone could see and navigate is much better than a traditional blog... at least it would be easier to set up. :-)

Thanks for the thoughts.
Comment by Carolyn Foote on April 10, 2007 at 5:50am
We have a teacher who is trying Ning with the student leader/student council students as a way for them to work "outside of school."
Comment by ianmallari on April 10, 2007 at 6:47am
Ditto. Excellent idea. But may I ask this question? From my point of view the social network you are describing would serve as a helpful tool on strengthening a physical social network (?) However, do you think the same effect that you are describing could be done in a purely virtual environment?
Comment by Andrew Pass on April 10, 2007 at 7:41am
Ian, I do believe that it could be done in a purely virtual environment. But I'm guessing that far fewer teachers would participate. I'm actually toying with the idea of trying to set up some content networks. Wouldn't it be cool if there was a network for every subject area every grade, perhaps every state (different standards) so that teachers could rigorously collaborate. If I was to pick a first step, however, I think more people would participate in a virtual network built around a physical network than a purely virtual network.

I'm not sure if I'm right. What do you think?
Comment by nlowell on April 10, 2007 at 9:39am
I think a potential pool of 200million is probably larger than the pool of potential participants within a single classroom, or even school district. Ning is an easy website tool, but don't mistake *that* application for anything related to The Duece.

It's true that the tools have *some* value as "virtual whiteboard" but the serious advantage lies in getting over this idea that we need to control based on geography. Think of what a difference it would make to the 300 of us here if Steve had restricted membership to only K-12, or only California, or only US!

I *love* the idea of a subject based international community of scholars made up of teachers and learners. You'd probably need to have some level of specialization there -- primary vs secondary vs post -- just to keep the levels straight.

Personally I'm less sanguine about communities organized around state standards. The pool's too small, the interest is too narrow, and the passion for standards isn't something I share.

Your mileage may vary.

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