I believe professional development can foster connection, learning, and significant work to create improvement in our schools on behalf of the students we serve. And I believe online professional development can take us even farther, beyond the constraints of time and place.
I’ve tried to progressively act on this belief. In the summer of 2011, I started The Principal Center in order to foster connections among school leaders. In 2012, I made The Principal Center my full-time job, providing online workshops to foster the learning of school leaders, teachers, and other educators. Over time, our emphasis shifted from connection to learning, as we emphasized workshops, and as it became clear that connecting online was much more feasible on Twitter.
What has eluded me is the third aspect of professional development: how to meaningfully support principals in their actual, day-to-day work. And as much as I value the learning we’re able to foster, I wish it was characterized by more connection.
Our workshops provide what I consider high-leverage, high-potential information – or as we put it, “the best in professional practice for school leaders.” Put to use, I believe the ideas we teach can transform practice and improve learning.
But since our participants are different for each workshop, we don’t have a long-term learning community that fosters the connectedness and deep work that characterizes the best professional development, and people usually don’t report back on how their practice is changing as a result of their learning.
Don’t get me wrong: This is fine. If you take a workshop in order to learn something specific, and you learn it, we should all count that a success.
But I believe we can do more.
First, I believe we can connect better – at a deeper level, and over the long-term. That connection among school leaders is incredibly valuable:
- It helps good ideas spread
- It helps us squash problems quickly by asking for advice
- It provides a sense of community in a job that can be tough and kind of lonely (while being intensely interpersonal in nature).
I’ve been inspired by the connections among educators that form on Twitter. They’ve developed into friendships, hashtag chats, edcamps, and even t-shirts (I’m looking at you, Wisconsin tweeps!). This is a tremendous force for good.
But Twitter, like standalone workshops, has a major limitation: It’s not very helpful with the…work aspect of our work. It’s hard to have substantive, in-depth conversations. It’s tough to collaborate on documents and plans. It’s tough to do real work on Twitter, as great as it may be for forming relationships and sharing ideas.
And it’s tough to do real work during a workshop packed with ideas and information. (Somehow, “I’ll give you 20 minutes to work on that” doesn’t go over very well online.)
But we aren’t limited by what we can do in workshops and on Twitter. I believe we can engage in the work more effectively, collectively, connectedly.
I believe very firmly that “professional development” doesn’t professionally develop you unless you do some work. “Sit ‘n’ Git” is problematic in PD, because when we’re passive, and don’t bring our real on-the-job challenges to the table, our practice doesn’t change. This is true in online workshops, and it’s true on Twitter. And changing practice is what professional development is all about.
I love Twitter. I love the friends I’ve made there, and if anything, my use of Twitter will probably continue to grow. Twitter chats are a terrific innovation.
But I have to ask: Is there something better? Something more suited to deep professional connections? To in-depth learning? To work?
I think there is, and I think the platform for it has been around for a while: Google Plus.
I wasted more than a year on G+ following just a few friends and “What’s Hot” posts in my stream, and grew tired of the “Apple vs. Android” flame wars, photos of amazing travel destinations, and typical Facebook-ish memes. Not exactly the stuff of deep professional learning.
But just recently, I’ve started to find other educators on G+, and my professional use of the network is growing.
Not too long ago, Google added a feature called Communities, which essentially create private (or open) groups to focus on specific interests. Combine this with full Google Docs/Drive and YouTube integration, toss in Hangouts, and you’ve got a full-fledged professional development platform.
We’re using Communities to host our Curriculum Study Groups, which we just launched this week, and I’m extremely excited about the potential to connect people with common professional interests.
What about school leaders? How can we connect, learn, and do the work together online? How can G+ help?
I have something up my sleeve. Stay tuned.