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How Instructional Partners Are Connecting for Powerful Professional Learning
October 23, 2014 | Comments
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Since 2011 the Best Practices Center has provided statewide professional learning support to the Alabama Instructional Partners Network, a growing community of school-based instructional coaches whose work is influenced by Jim Knight's partnership approach to school improvement. From its earliest days, members of the IPN have relied on a virtual professional network to share their learning and extend their collaboration.

As part of our celebration of Connected Educators Month 2014, communications consultant John Norton interviewed ABPC's executive vice president Cathy Gassenheimer and education technology consultant Beth Sanders about the value of virtual professional networking and the evolution the IPN Ning-based online community.
Still in her 20's, Beth recently shifted from her role as a high school social studies teacher (and district Teacher of the Year) to the technology integration specialist for Tarrant City Schools. Cathy has been a connected educator for more than a decade and led the organization of one of Alabama's earliest virtual professional learning networks in 2004-07, with support from Microsoft's Partners in Learning program.
John Norton: Cathy, how is the Alabama Best Practices Center using connected learning strategies to further your goals, and why is this important?

Cathy Gassenheimer: We believe strongly that when working with educators, we need to acknowledge and build on the knowledge in the "room," whether it is face-to-face or online. Educators love to learn from each other and they are in a much better position to "challenge" a colleague's thinking than those of us that are not in the classroom, teaching and coaching.
We have learned so much from the educators with whom we work about effective ways to support their learning and growth. While face-to-face learning is critically important, supplementing that with both synchronous and asynchronous learning, can help ensure that educators both understand the concept(s) and use them effectively. 
In addition to our website/blog and Facebook page, we manage a Ning site for our Instructional Partners Network to extend the learning and connect participants in this rapidly growing network to each other across schools, districts, and regions. The private Ning site is the "hub" for learning and instructional partners are constantly connecting with each other to problem solve, share resources, and promote ideas.
John: Beth, you're a Millennial teacher known for involving your own students in social media and connected learning - and now a technology coach for Tarrant City Schools in Birmingham. Tell us something about how you used connected learning with your students  and why you see social media and web tools as equally important in teachers' own professional development. Why is it worth teachers' time?
Beth Sanders: We live in a connected world and as educators it is our job to provide learning spaces and opportunities that not only support the K12 learners of today, but also prepare our students to lead in the world of tomorrow. Because of this it is critical our youth are living and learning in a connected classroom.
Social media is one of the best tools that can be used to connect learners to themselves, each other and the world around them. Tools such as Twitter and blogging can empower and enhance student voice and provide access to resources, perspectives and audiences in ways truly unimaginable without them.
These tools are equally impactful for educators of today if they are committed to being life long learners and active citizens locally, globally, and digitally.
There are many trailblazing educators and students modeling the power of social media daily in multiple spaces online and endless quality resources to support all types of teachers and students interested in getting started with connecting themselves and their classrooms to the world far beyond the traditional schoolhouse walls.

John: Cathy, can you think of some specific examples from your work that demonstrate how the power of connection – through the internet and social media – has advanced teaching and learning in Alabama schools?

Cathy: During the first pilot year of our Instructional Partners Network, many of our participants were struggling with how to share their changing role with school colleagues. This network fully embraces the partnership approach to coaching because we know that educators – like people in any other profession made up of "knowledge workers" – do not like being told what to do.
Many of the new instructional partners were shifting from a previous role where they were considered "experts" who offered professional advice and help in their school.  So, how could they share their new "we're all in this together" partnership approach without "telling?"
One partner found a "menu" online that an instructional coach had created to share the "services" she offered to teachers. The spirit embedded in the menu was one of collaboration and partnership – a great fit for our work. The group loved the idea and over the next several months, each one created their own menu, based on their own personal style and talents. And each menu was shared within our online community. In the true spirit of "connected adult learning," they praised, tweaked, and borrowed from each other.
This early high-energy project grew into a frequent practice of giving and "stealing" good techniques and strategies. This was enormously important and valuable in the context of work that was actually being invented while the airplane was already in flight.

​Four years later, the Instructional Partners Network has grown from five districts to more than 40 school districts in 5 different regions of our state. To retain some of the intimacy of that first year or two, we have a regional learning model, and our Ning virtual community provides the forum for interaction among IPs in different regions.
This year we're creating "interest groups" on the Ning based on nine different areas identified by participants. The interest groups include "Looking at Student Work," formative assessment, professional learning design, developing and distributing teacher leadership, and more.
Participants join an interest group of their choice and receive customized support through the Ning. The beauty of this concept is that the Best Practices Center won't be the only "provider" of services; the participants themselves will be able to share resources, ideas, and best practices with each other. Once again, it's building on the knowledge in the room.
John: Beth, thanks to your technical expertise and support, ABPC has created a virtual community that supports the Instructional Partners Network, using the NING social platform. As co-moderator of that community, what have you learned about engaging busy educators in online professional communities? Are there 3-4 takeaways that might help others strengthen their efforts to promote online collaboration inside a virtual PLC?
The IPN, through its regional groups, continues to have face-to-face meetings and retreats throughout the year. The full embrace of the partnership approach is as alive and well in our online instructional partners community as it is in the face to face learning we do together. Over the past 3 years of moderating our Ning experience, I’ve learned that the factors needed for powerful online learning communities are very similar to those needed offline.
(1) Building trust and lasting relationships matter a lot.
(2) Consistency, appreciative inquiry, and clear expectations are critical to supporting individuals to come back, share, and go deeper in their own learning in the virtual space.
(3) Engaging with active members and providing opportunities and challenges to maintain their engagement and keep them coming back as models of active participation and partnering produces some "gravitational pull" on more hesitant members. That helps balance and enrich the community with diverse voices and shared resources.
(4) Listening to your members and providing the space to share their wants/needs is important. Take surveys, reflect on what’s working and why, make changes as needed to ensure your community feels like their voices are being heard and they feel at home when they visit and learn in the space.
Time is truly precious to teachers – they have to see real value before they will agree to invest that time. I think successful online professional communities are constantly focused on making sure the value is there.

JOHN: Here's a question for both Cathy and Beth. What else can you share during Connected Educators Month that might help expand the possibilities of online PD and virtual collaboration? What do hesitant teachers and principals need to hear? Where do you imagine these possibilities going in the future?
CATHY: I do think that online professional learning experiences are improved when there are at least occasional opportunities for face-to-face encounters. When educators meet each other and share ideas face-to-face, they are more willing to continue that connection online. It deepens relationships and trust and enables them to better craft personalized learning for themselves.​
BETH: The technology learning curve and the need to get comfortable within the online space are really the biggest challenges. I often use Google Hangouts and screencast "how to" videos to support the beginners and more apprehensive members. When we take the time to build relationships, we're in a good place to help people over the initial technology hurdles.
One way to engage people is to find out more about their motivations. Encouraging everyone to introduce themselves and promoting early discussions about professional interests is very helpful. I also make sure I reply quickly and “like” their profiles or photos. When a new member joins us, I send frequent messages their first month and help bridge connections between them and other members with whom they are likely to have common interests.
This style of moderation lets participants know the learning environment and the processes are not generic but are supported by involved people who want to interact and who really care about their work. As a coach who has recently shifted roles from my own classroom, I understand the reality of the work they are doing.
I try to initiate or continue the momentum of our virtual community by sending messages behind the scenes to suggest that people join conversations, or I’ll share important document bookmarks and videos related to topics of interest. Participants soon learn that technology can actually provide a secure environment to redefine what professional learning looks like in education.
Even the best F2F professional learning experience requires us to sit in a room for long stretches and then return to our fairly isolated professional lives. In this connected professional world, we can engage according to our own schedules and at our own pace -- in a way that's simply not possible without an interactive, online space. And our relationships expand as our own networks within the virtual community grow.
Over the last three years, I’ve noticed that the more people share, the more others will share – even those who are apprehensive about the value of what they have to say (or who might be listening). For moderators, it is important to be specific and genuine in answering questions because it helps participants be more willing to share their wants, needs, successes and failures. It makes a big difference in the how much the community begins to support and grow with each other. 

The best feedback I often hear is from people who love to reflect. They are pumped up after leaving a physical meeting, on a learning "high," and then they have immediate access to our Ning and all the resources, people, and spaces where they can address questions and continue their learning. The technology really takes learning to a higher level by building the capacity to continue scratching our itch to understand more.
If I look out beyond our IPN Ning community to the large global network of connected learners today, I see both educators and students really starting to harness social media to create communities online, connect with people on personal levels, expand warm and helpful professional relationships around learning, and share those relationships with others in ways that are literally not possible without becoming connected. And the more connected an educator is the more able she or he is to empower and support students to be connected learners and citizens.
A final thought: As we build these networks, the emphasis has to be put on the learning first and foremost. Know-how is necessary but we don't want the conversation to get stuck in the technology. Articles about the “10 best apps” or the latest digital tools can quickly turn into gadget chats if we don't keep bringing ourselves back to how these things help the users learn more and better.
Sir Ken Robinson said that the secret to using technology successfully is to watch what great educators do with it. When you apply that to a learning community, it means the secret is to empower the learners, shifting the mindset from being happy about a new tool to being excited and interested in how the new technology can support the learning, promote the collaboration and partnership of professionals, and revolutionize the traditional classroom. 
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