I spend, thankfully, countless hours in schools. As part of my job I travel around the country to support teachers in the effective use of digital teaching and learning.

Something caught my eye in the many staff and conferences rooms as I sat in. All over the walls teachers and school leaders hung posters describing local professional learning communities. This got me thinking can Communities be created from the top down?

Then on Twitter I had a wonderful discussion with Jenn Oramous about PLN. She was looking for a book to set up my PLN’s

I could have recommended Du Four’s classic work on the issue. But I think again this reinforces the idea of a top down model of learning community.

If any book supports the ideas of learning communities I would suggest Lave and Wegner’s work (1998) Or Rebecca Black’s work with FanFiction. These book detail real communities of practice. Communities that did not develop because your boss made you. These are communites that grew out of a shared passion. They had varying levels of expertise and low barriers of membership.

When I see PLC’s built in school I see Pretty Long Committee meetings NOT Professional Learning Communities.

DuFour outlines three big goals for Professional Learning Communities (2004):

  1. Ensuring that students learn
  2. A culture of collaboration
  3. A focus on results

I just do not think these goals are enough to sustain and build a community of learners. I really do not believe that community can be dicated or required.

I would add (or even substitute) four additional requirements:

  1. Self choice
  2. Hybrid pedagogy
  3. Network Agnostic
  4. Committed Learners

Self Choice

I think the problem with most “PLCs” in school sis they are outcome driven and the need created by external forces. I could see the conversation going like this, “Our scores are down on standard three! Let’s start a PLC to address this issue.”

That will never create a community. Instead teachers and school leaders should self organize around student learning goals or improvement plans of their own design.

Hybrid Pedagogy

While face to face meetings remain powerful I think effective PLC’s require an online component. In fact I do not really see the point of dividing PLC, professional learning communities, from PLN, professional learning network.

I think effective self choice and self directed PD must utilize hybrid approaches such as blogging, video conferencing, and creating digital artifacts.

Network Agnostic

Given that I believe effective PLCs require a hybrid approach I support an agnostic approach to the digital texts and tools being used. Instead of saying we will all meet on Skype, Google+, Twitter, Facebook, etc members of PLCs should be encouraged to reach out across networks. Sure there will be a digital hub where the PLC meets but there is no one approach.

Committed Learners

In order to avoid  pretty long committee meetings members of a community need a desire to belong. Communities require active citizens. Commitment cannot be forced from the top down. This of course requires us to rethink professional development. I think here in Connecticut we are moving in the right direction. we will no longer issue CEUs for sitting in a seat. teachers are now empowered to take charge of much of their development. Hopefully they will become active members in a learning community.

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It has happened already, and it is only going to get worse.

When it comes to using digital texts and tools for meaningful, purposeful, and connected learning students born whiter and wealthier  are afforded more opportunities than their peers. This disparity will become another reaffirming gap in the quality of education between the have and have nots.

If you read the trends in the Pew Internet and The American Life project you will notice that access barriers have greatly leveled off (with broadband access still an issue). In fact minority students now spend more hours with screen time when compared to their white peers.



So what’s is the problem? 

It is quality screen time not quantity of screen time that will matter most in education.

I already see this problem in full swing in the state of Connecticut. When I walk into high SES schools students are using computers to complete Voicethread projects, discussing literature on blogs or Edmodo doing multimodal compositions in music, creating wikis in social studies. In other words they are using computers to redefine what it means to be literate in today’s digital society.

I wish I could say the same about students in low SES school district. It reminds my of a maxim my advisor was always fond of, “Those who need are help the most will get it the least.”

In many schools in poor urban and rural districts the computers are used for assessment and remediation. Instead of focusing on new comprehension and composition skills students are tethered to a machine doing self-paced reading classes or looking up  a book they read to see if they earned a few meager points for a free pencil. Whoo-hoo.

Once again the rich are getting richer.

A Deficit of Skills is Emerging


The lack of quality of screen time is already reeling its ugly head. In fact in a recent study with conducted by my peers and I at the New Literacies Research Lab found that  even after adjusting for CMT reading scores, there was a significant difference bon the mean scores of a measure of online reading comprehension between students in a high SES schools and students in a low SES ORCA score, F(1,203) =12.763, p = .000; partial eta squared = .052). This simply means even after accounting for the known gap in reading ability the wealthier and the whiter kids are better at locating, evaluating, synthesizing, and communicating information in online spaces. 


The Common Core and SB 458 Could Make this Worse

Assessment is THE major focus of recent reform efforts in Connecticut. Much of this reform will center on the use of technology to provide faster and more responsive computer adaptive questions (computers picks your next question based on how well you do). There is also the potential to rethink assessment sand embed data mining procedures in computerized activities. I applaud these efforts.

Yet I worry about screen time. Quality screen time

There simply are nowhere near enough desktops, laptops, or tablets in Connecticut’s 165 school districts to provide this level of computerized assessment. Even if there were enough machines every Internet accessible device would have to be monopolized for most of the year to ensure a short enough teting time frame for the results to have any chance to mean anything.

This push to test the Common Core online will exacerbate the screen equity. So could recent changes in SB 458. The law requires two week and six week assessments to be completed in every school identified as needing improvement. Chances are the state or schools will purchase some software package. Say goodbye to your last chance of signing out the computer lab.

Fight for Quality Technology Access


It is one of the major education equity issues of our time. How will schools be able to claim students are graduating college and career ready when all they can do on a computing device is select a multiple choice answer? I fear teachers everywhere are going to need to stand their ground. We need to ensure our computers are not relegated to simply tools for analyzing data. We need to ensure digital texts and tools are used to open dreams.

Times are tough for recent graduates of education programs. Given the economic conditions of many school districts the labor pool has swelled with teachers who have many years of experience. These recently released recruits are quickly filling the ranks of the few  full-time positions and almost all of the long term substitute positions.

It is that last point that is most trubelsome to new graduates as that was often their first step into a full time position.

Recent graduates need to do more if they hope to succeed in this job market. One area that students need to pay particular interest to is their digital footprint.

Sure many education students are aware of the pitfalls of facebook. Some have gone on to replace their last names with their middle names or mastered the web of ever changing privacy settings. Yet it isn’t enough.

A negative footprint on the web will stand the time as a fossilized impression of your character. However those seeking employment must put even more effort in building a positive digital footprint.

A positive digital footprint is not a fossil. It is more a step  on the beach that ebbs with the tidal flow  Each day new waves of digital content can simply wash away your efforts.

It is simply not enough to vigilantly guard your online presence against images of high school and college shenanigans.

You can rest assure that multiple members of every hiring committee will Google your name. Yes, no bad news is good news, but why not use the web to your advantage? Why not use the Web to build an online presence that puts forward an image of a talented, caring and knowledgeable educator?

You want the committee to have you stand out in a pool of very talented teachers. Here are a few steps you can take (in no order of importance):

1. Create a Google+ Account

Keep Facebook for friends. I find it advantageous to utilize other social networks for professional development. I would think it is strategic to get involved in Google+ as the popular search engine might just favor their own social network in search algorithims.

Google+ is also a great place to find many wonderful educators. You can develop circles, a collection of people, based on different topics. More importantly you can share relevant education resources to your circles.
 
2.  Participate in Twitter

Twitter has quickly became one of my favorite professional development tools (supplanted now by Google+). Whether you use it to follow leaders in the field of education or to participate in many of the weekly educational chats it is a great place to make connections to other educators.

Twitter results do not show up as high in Google anymore as the two companies did not renew their real time search results agreement but a few retweeted or blogged about tweets can go a long way to solidifying your digital footprint.

3. Join Educational Social Networks

 Another strategy to improving your digital footprint is to join one of the many educational themed social networks. These are a great place to get new resurces and learn how to become a better teacher. The discussions, forums and groups are a wonderful tool for new teachers. As you become more involved some of your posts will begin to show up in Google seach results.

4. Create a Blog

Reflective teaching and learning are at the center of growing as an educator. By creating and posting to a blog you will not only grow as a teacher but you will improve your chances that something beyond local sports results will show up in Google when a hiring committee searches your name.

5. Create your own Website

While I stated earlier that these tips were listed in no order of importance I would stress the importance of creating your own website. Many education programs require students to submit a portfolio. Many students may still put together a binder of their lesson plans and reflections for search committees to ignore.

Instead you should create a website. There you can link to your other online spaces, thus increasing the chances of Google displaying the content you want when a member of a hiring committee enters your name as part of a keyword phrase.

On this website include examples of your lesson plan, a learning philosophy, and  interesting links.

Getting noticed online is tough. Especially if your name is common. If you plan on joining the job market soon I would take steps to ensure your positive digital footprint is not washed away for ever.

Something wonderful happened today. I was speaking at the Connecticut Association of Administrator Mentor program and came to a realization:

For the first time I was able to hear a chorus of “We Must” instead of “We Can’t” when discussion technology and literacy integration. There were no calls of not enough machines or students too far behind grade level to worry about technology. It seems the critical mass of administrators in Connecticut understand the challenges students face in a multimodal world.

This is a monumental shift that I do not take lightly. I usually hear calls of overwhelmed budgets, resistant staff, cyberbullying. Not this time. It was great to work with a group of such committed folks.

After the talk we gathered to discuss some key strategies that administrators could use to implement literacy and technology in their district. I will do my best to summarize the issues, but I am sure I am missing some key issues. If you attended the talk please feel free to leave your ideas below in the comments.

Encourage Teacher/Classroom Websites

It was agreed that building a classroom presence is the first step teachers should take. As one participant commented, “Having a classroom website meets the needs of special education pre-teaching requirements and lets gifted and talented students work at their own pace.” It meets your differentiation needs.”

Building a class website frees education from the time and space constraints of schools, increases accountability, and provides a home-school connection.

We discussed the (minimum) types of elements that should be included: notes and objectives from lessons, homework and assignment calendar, a place to publish student work, and links to outside resources.

Encourage Teachers to build their PLN

Professional Learning Networks have greatly improved what I teach. We agreed that administrators must encourage teachers to seek out their peers on online spaces such as Twitter, Facebook, ISTE, NCTE Connected Community English Companion Ning, SMART and Mimeo networks, etc.

I shared some common hashtags for Twitter such as #edchat, #BlackEdu, #cpchat, and #edtech that teachers could use.

Require Hybrid Lessons

If educators are not teaching some part of their lesson online it is impossible to say school systems are graduating college ready studnets. According to recent Sloan Consortium Reports the majority of students enrolled in K-12 will take an online class in college. How can students be college ready if they did not take an online class in K-12.

We also discussed the benefits hybrid teaching approaches have for empowering students who do not always participate in class.

These learning spaces can range from gDocs to wikispaces to discussion boards. The point is students have an opportunity to build their digital footprints with faculty pointing the way.

Create schoolwide email systems

Much of the discussion focused on technology solutions. It was agreed that schools should adopt a schoolwide email system. There are many options out there such as Google Apps for Educators or epals.

We all shared a laugh about how many times an email we wrote is misconstrued. These discussions highlighted the need to include email writing in the curriculum.

We also discussed how email can help alleviate communication issues with students and parents

Have a published filter/unfilter policy

There is nothing more frustrating to a teacher who works all weekend long on a lesson plan who then comes in to find safe sites they need are blocked by a filter. We discussed how important it is for school systems to have a published filter policy that teachers understand.

The unblocking requests teachers file must also be returned in a timely manner with a clear explanation of why the site was or was not unblocked.

Invest more in PD than technology

We spent some time discussing funding issues and agreed that professional development was more important than capital purchases of equipment. You can have the latest and greatest technology but if your staff does not knwo how to use the tchnology to enhance their pedagogical goal the computers will gather dust or just be used to migrate worksheets into electronic forms.

We agreed that a good bench mark would be 50% of the technology budget should be spent on professional development and 50% shoudl go to purchasing.

One strategy shared by a participant was to give out limited resources to teachers who attend professional development or show promise in integrating technology into their classroom.

Have long term 1-1 computing strategy

Another issue we discussed was the choice between laptops, netbooks, tablets, and smartphones. I do not think the technology matters. What is important, and participants agree, that schools should have a plan and place to reduce the computing to student ratio with a long-term 1-1 goal.

We discussed how publishers may start to underwrite tablets with the purchase of textbooks or allowing to access the Internet using smartphones.

Either way everyone agreed access is key.

Encourage and assess students’ digital footprints

This was the most critical step. I call it the end of milk crate grading. In fact cafetria staff across the country can rest assured that teachers will no longer need to “liberate” milk crates in order to lug binders and notebooks home. By teaching in online environments students can build a history of where they have been an point to where they are going. Teachers can then look for growth in content knowledge and skills not in final products but over time..all the while providing responsive feedback. To me that is the real power of technology.