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From connection to multi-scale collaboration during Connected Educator Month

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This week marks the conclusion of the second annual Connected Educator Month, sponsored by the Office of Educational Technology of the U.S. Department of Education and produced by the American Institutes for Research. Over 300 organizations participated by offering free, online and blended professional learning opportunities for educators, twice the number that did so in 2012. On Twitter, conversations about Connected Educator Month have reached over 12 million people, a threefold increase. Teachers are earning open digital badges to document their learning, getting matched up with others with whom they can learn and collaborate using edConnectr, and sharing their stories and insights through blogs and videos.

At the end of Connected Educator Month 2012, the strongest takeaway for me was that learning through communities and networks needed to count as legitimate professional development, such as through accruing credit toward re-certification. Time and again in discussions last year, we heard that educators not predisposed to the style of learning highlighted during Connected Educator Month and reluctant to invest their personal time needed formal recognition and dedicated time during the school day to realize the potential of connected professional learning. Similarly, for schools and districts to fully realize the benefits of their educators’ self-sponsored connected professional learning, they needed to find ways to intentionally connect it to shared goals for improvement and innovation.

During this year’s Connected Educator Month, we have made first steps towards engaging these challenges. Participants can earn digital badges for every activity in which they participate, as well as for developing their connected learning skills and taking actions that contribute to more fully connected learning environments. Educators can create a digital “transcript” of their participation during Connected Educator Month, annotated with their reflections, which they can use to argue for formal recognition and to plan future learning and action. We also developed a toolkit for districts to help them systemically participate in Connected Educator Month, offering suggestions of strategies for integrating informal and formal professional learning during October and beyond, linking to resources, and providing multimedia examples of districts at various stops along the road to becoming fully connected.

The new theme this year that has resonated most strongly for me is moving from connection to collaboration. Throughout Connected Educator Month, in addition to the myriad testimonies about the value of being connected educators, we’ve heard a chorus of voices asking, “I’ve become connected. Now what?” They remind us that being a connected educator is not an end in itself but rather a means to the end of better supporting learning through changes to our own practice and contributions to the greater profession. Using our connectedness to enable collaboration is one powerful means for advancing this goal. (This is why educators can nominate each other to received digital badges to recognize collaboration.)

The value of collaboration at the school level is clear, even though many schools and districts have been slow to embrace it. For example, a recent National Center for Literacy Education study found that schools where collaboration is routine have much higher levels of trust and more rapid circulation of effective practices, a finding that is supporting by a substantial and growing body of research and professional standards, such as those developed by Learning Forward. When done well, local collaboration contributes to improved student learning.

Connected Educator Month 2013 has showcased and provided opportunities to engage in collaboration on a national and international scale. IDEO’s Creative Confidence Challenge guides educators through a crowd-sourced design-thinking process. An Estuary is engaging teachers in collaborative action research using Sanderling, a mobile application. LearnZillion is working with cohorts of teachers to co-develop standards-aligned curricular resources that can be used in classrooms across the country, in the process building professional knowledge and relationships. eduLeader21 engages superintendents through an online community to collaboratively tackle their toughest leadership challenges, and the Center for Teacher Quality uses its online Collaboratory to work with “teacherpreneuers,” teacher leaders who collaborate to influence educational policy while continuing to teach in the classroom. Through TakingITGlobal and iEARN, teachers engage with students in global collaborations that seek to address real social issues.

Enabling integrated, multi-scale collaboration is the next great challenge connected educators and their supporters should take up. How do we link face-to-face collaboration at the local level with national and global collaborations in virtual spaces? How do we articulate between the highly context-dependent solutions needed to serve specific schools and communities and the depth and diversity of strategies and resources developed with the benefit of much broader networks of expertise? What kinds of processes and platforms support multi-scale collaboration?

We are beginning to see models emerge from the work of Connected Educator Month participating organizations. Powerful Learning Practice works with school-based teams that use social media to advance their local collaborations in concert with regional and national cohorts. The National Writing Project engages teachers regionally face-to-face and online on a national scale through spaces such as Digital Is and through using UnHangout for edCamp-style events. The Literacy and Learning Exchange links cross-subject literacy teams into a national network.

Doing work together that makes a difference may be the key way to engage those educators who don’t yet see the value of connected professional learning. Moving from an emphasis on “learning” to “collaboration” suggests a broadening of focus from just sharing knowledge of best practice to figuring out together how to negotiate challenges of practice for which no established solutions exist. Linking local collaboration with national and global networks will accelerate innovation that amplifies student learning.

Darren Cambridge (@dcambrid) is principal consultant in the Networked Learning Group at the American Institutes for Research in Washington, D.C., where he directs the U.S. Department of Education’s Connected Educators project, which researches and supports online social learning for educators, including through producing Connected Educator Month. He also advises a range of government, university and corporate clients on learning technology and professional learning. Previously, he was a faculty member at George Mason University, a director at the American Association for Higher Education, and a fellow with EDUCAUSE. Cambridge won the 2012 MacArthur Foundation Digital Media and Learning Faculty Writing Prize for Electronic Portfolios for Lifelong Learning and Assessment (Jossey-Bass, 2010).