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Digital ties run deep

4 min read


A new adventure

Through a very unpredictable series of events, I will be living in Toledo, Ohio, for the next 10 months. As I consider myself the consummate “Philly Girl,” I anticipated a relatively rough transition. However, the strength of my digital network has completely astonished and surprised me. In short, I realized that my colleagues can support me regardless of my postal address.

As soon as I unpacked my laptop and router, my thought partners were available. I could debate essential questions with Marybeth Hertz via e-mail, Skype with a former teaching partner to discuss a new guided reading series or blog about all of the drive-thru chili-dog stations in Toledo. In short, I picked up right where I left off.

New relationship dynamics

Although I still miss cheesesteaks and soft pretzels, my first days in Toledo have caused me to evaluate and reflect upon the strength of digital ties. While I know that many of my Twitter followers are a far cry from “true friends,” I do believe that the close digital relationships we cultivate persist beyond temporal changes. Due to the mix of personal and professional interactions that I have shared with some members of my professional learning network, these people have become much more than avatars on a screen. They’ve become friends.

I believe teachers who are engaging in digital professional development are committed, highly responsive educators who crave intellectual stimulation and debate. They aren’t intimidated by change or sharing across long distances.

The student connection

When I consider how my access to people, ideas and conversations has become almost entirely location-independent, it causes me to consider the implications that this holds for our students (a.k.a. the future workforce). Given the power of modern networks, we need to explicitly teach students how to broaden their experiences and influence via social media. We need students to be able to FIND:

  • People with similar questions. Today’s students need to clearly articulate their questions about the world using public spaces. This will help them find people who share their questions, interests and curiosities. For example, I have many questions about the best ways to design online learning environments. By sharing this interest with my social networks, I have met Matthieu Plourde, Ted Borgiovanni and many others who have helped me refine my curiosity in this area. Students need to be able to do the same.
  • A healthy balance of personal and professional sharing. Where is the line between personal friends and professional contacts? Social media and digital networks have only served to further blur this distinction. Students need to know how to cultivate a professional image that isn’t dull or impersonal. For example, a picture of my napping puppy can help my followers feel as if they know me. However, only posting personal information makes you irrelevant and superficial. Students need to be able to navigate this gray area.
  • Confidence that collaboration can happen regardless of location. Since workplaces desire graduates that can flexibly work from anywhere, we need to teach our students that this is possible. Maybe students can work from a coffee shop one day instead of coming to class. Perhaps a study group can be held on a digital hangout. Helping our students to see all places as work spaces will give them the confidence they need to be effective in settings where remote work is required. (This was a skill that I’ve had to teach myself in the last few years. Boy, do I wish I had some previous practice in this area!)

Forging ahead

I am thrilled with the challenges that lie ahead for me over the next ten months, and I am excited about the new people I will meet. However, it’s reassuring to know that my favorite colleagues are a few clicks away. Digital ties run deep.

Kristen Swanson (@kristenswanson) is a learner, leader and teacher. She is a consultant for Authentic Education and an Edcamp organizer. Swanson is also a Google Certified Teacher, a Twitter teacher and an Edublog Award nominee.