Networking

Sunday 18 December 2011

Professional Networking

I am a self confessed technology and gadget junkie but 3 years ago, if you had talked to me about ‘social networking’ I would have laughed in your face and said all the things that people say to me now when they have no experience of using internet networking tools! 

Now I can’t imagine being without them. I use lots of tools these days, but Facebook and Twitter are the main ones and the professional development I have gone through as a result is enormous. I most definitely feel like I belong to the biggest staff room in the world and get to exchange ideas, resources, great links and tools with teachers from all over the world. At least once a day I find myself thinking that it is all a bit too much to handle and reminding myself that I don’t have time to read everything and that nobody expects me to! it now seems extraordinary to me that ignored these possibilities for so long. I know it is not everybody’s thing and am not about to suggest that all teachers must do it, but I do think that all teachers should at least consider it and certainly feel that all teachers entering the profession should be strongly encouraged to take part in different professional exchange networks. That is the basic gist of this blog entry so you could easily stop reading here. If you want to know some more of my thoughts and experiences on this then read on. It is worth noting that I am primarily discussing exchanges between teachers but do go on to talk about students later in the piece.

Which tools and why?

There are so many tools to consider using and each group of people will need to find the one that works best for them, all I can do is share my experiences. The main point I would add here is that the most effective tools seem to be the ones that people are already using. Trying to set up exchange groups and forums etc using tools that are new to people involves first showing people how to use the tools and then encouraging them to check regularly. The clearest example of this is the use of facebook. With so many people (1 in 13 on the planet) now using facebook it seems the most obvious tool to get people to use for professional exchange as well.

Twitter - my twitter account - @teachmaths

I have been using Twitter for nearly two years and this is probably the simplest and easiest to work with. 140 characters or less. I try hard to always include a link in my tweets and restrict my comments to describing the link and what I might do with it as a teacher. There are thousands of maths teachers out there doing the same thing. Some send links to their blogs where they discuss their experiences, ideas and views. Many send links to relevant news articles, resource sites and other great stuff that can often be used in the classroom straight away. 

It can be difficult to get started but a good suggestion is to follow what is called a hashtag. This is a means of filtering tweets. For example, I might include #mathchat in one of my tweets and then if I search twitter for #mathchat I get a list of all the tweets with that hashtag in them which gives me something to follow straight away and some ideas of who is tweeting the sorts of things I might be interested in. A quick google search on ‘getting started with twitter’ will tell you much more.

Twitter is fabulous and is my broad daily source inspiration and ideas. It is worth noting what I call ‘the garage sale’ analogy. If you go to a garage sale (car boot sale, flea market etc) looking for something in particular then you are often disappointed. If you go with some money in your pocket then you will usually find something that you are looking for. Twitter is like this - you have to speculate to acumulate!

Facebook

I was a lot slower getting started with facebook because of the huge amount of negative media there is about ‘fb’. The big leap for me was discovering ‘facebook groups’. These user defined communities of people that can share together in that space only without having to be ‘friends’ in the facebook sense. Also groups can be open or closed so members ghet to decided how public their discussions are.This helps people get over the many privacy fears that there are. It has also allowed me to get students involved (see below). What facebook groups do is allow a little more focus than twitter. Group members will only belong if they want to discuss and share the group themes. An example might be the following group ‘IB Maths Studies Teachers’ which is for teachers of a particular course. We have a bout 50 teachers now from all over the world who are all teaching this course and have many common issues. We ask each other questions and share items relevant to the teaching of the course. Posts can be any length and people can ‘like’ or ‘comment’ on the individual posts and thus enter some debate. Clearly this is a little more sophisticated than twitter.

After an inset with the prolific professional networker and educator @tombarrett (no one has a real name anymore, just an internet persona!) I was inspired to create a facebook group for the teachers at my school - I cant share this one because we elected to keep it closed and focussed on sharing with each other about our school only. We have other forums for publicising what we do. these days, I find that we spend very little time together in the staffroom and what time we do have we usually spend talking about things other than work. As such, this group has become a great source of exchange for us and I think we have all got a huge amount from it.

I have facebook groups with my students as well and this has been a great revelation. I accept all the arguments about the impact social networking has on the changing nature of society, but that does not change the fact that ‘fb’ gives us a fabulous way to communicate with and support each other.

Google + - 

This has been googles response to facebook and twitter and it seems that they have tried to take the best bits of both and add some new features as well. I like google + and have been using it, but it is still a distant third for me at the moment.

Blogging

I had no idea how many people were blogging about their teaching - it really is amazing. Having tried a small amount of blogging my self, I am now convinced the the primary beneficiary of the blog is the author. That is fabulous! The author of a blog piece has to think and reflect carefully on their experiences and views before they express them to the world and this is a really valuable process. The fact that you publish them and some somebody might read them is a really important element that changes it a little from private diary writing. The occasional bit of feedback is really motivating too. So many people write that is impossible to read everybody, but I probably read 2 or 3 blog entries a day from other maths teachers and they usually amke me think, even if I disagree with what they wrote, and the often give me ideas. All in all, this is a fabulous way to exchange as well.

Of course, reading and writing blogs can be a little time consuming and so it is likely to be less popular than other tools.

Issues to consider

The following is a list of things it is worth considering when trying to take part or encouraging others to take part in social networking

The culture

I have already confessed to being an internet junkie and so it seems normal that I have embraced ‘The Social Network’ - although I am very small scale compared to some prolific networkers. So, given that I may have been somewhat predisposed, but still took some persuasion, it is only natural to imagine that many others will take more persuasion to understand this particular culture. In this case, I think it is very important that people are not overwhelmed from the start with all the tools and all of the options. It may be that something small scale is needed in the first instance. 

I have thought, for example, about compiling some of the best things to have come out of our staff Facebook group in some other format to share with a wider audience at school as a demonstration of what has come out of our exchanges.

The confidence

There is a big psychological barrier between sharing over coffee in the staffroom and publishing your thoughts for the whole world to see. Again, even predisposed as I am, I still spend too much time worrying about whether or not I have made the best use of my 140 characters on twitter. A scenario where no one gave a stuff what anyone else thought of their posts would not be good either. It takes time for people to reach a compromise here and a little bit of encouragement goes a long way. For example, positive feedback for a new ‘tweeter’ helps people to be less self conscious I think.

The time

There is no doubt that I spend an awful lot of time playing at professional networking, but 

The focus

.....to be continued
 



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