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Igniting Innovation in Education through Collaboration

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia

Our guest blogger this week is Rob Jacobs, an Orange County educator. We came across Rob during this week's #edchat. Rob's inspiration (many commented during the chat that he was "on fire!"), intelligence, and leadership shined during the chat and we're delighted to have his thoughts on this week's #edchat topic: "What actions are needed to move the education reform movement from conversation to action?"

--Betty Ray, Community Manager (@EdutopiaBetty) and Elana Leoni, Social Media Marketing Coordinator (@elanaleoni)

#edchat's "small sparks"

Keith Sawyer, author of the book Group Genius wrote, "All inventions emerge from a long sequence of small sparks...Collaboration brings small sparks together to generate breakthrough innovation."

Educators need no longer be content to passively wait for others to discover the "small sparks" that are needed to solve classroom or school issues. The technology now exists for educators to share their own "small sparks" at the grassroots level together through networks such as Twitter, and on Twitter that means #edchat.

During the 7/6/10 weekly #edchat my final tweet of the discussion was a fictitious news headline: "Twitter group known at #edchat becomes a powerful source of new directions and innovation in education."

What preceded it was a discussion with others about how #edchat could become a recognized source of educational problem solving, ideas, experimentation, and innovation. For those educators who are on Twitter, #edchat has quickly become the go-to place for discussing educational issues, sharing ideas, links to articles, and posting questions. It is not limited to the Tuesday topic-driven chats, but is happening 24/7. #edchat is producing a lot of "small sparks."

Is it possible that the #edchat conversation on Twitter could evolve into a recognized leader in open source educational ideas, innovations, and solutions? I believe it is.

First, educators need to recognize that #edchat is more than just a Personal Learning Network (PLN) or an on-line Professional Learning Community. It is actually a pNLC- professional Networked Learning Collaborative.

Second, the #edchat pNLC needs to put the ideas, innovation, and solutions into action to produce real tangible classroom or school based results and then give #edchat the credit.

Professional Networked Learning Collaborative- pNLC

The #edchat professional Networked Learning Collaborative (pNLC) will allow teachers access to a greater flow of knowledge and information than ever before. Using a network such as Twitter, teachers will be able to form collaboratives that actually implement the ideas shared via the network. It moves ideas from the digital to the physical.

The essence of the pNLC is that the "who" of potential members and collaborators is increased exponentially because of individual members networking through collaborative technology platforms such as Twitter. Thus, more "small sparks." The pNLC allows educators to "crowdsource."


Jeff Howe, author of Crowdsourcing: Why The Power Of The Crowd Is Driving The Future of Business, points out that there are two shared characteristics of a crowdsourced project. First, the participants are not motivated by money, and second, they are donating their free time. "That is, they're contributing their excess capacity, or 'spare cycles,' to indulge in something they love to do." Clay Shirky would say they are using their "Cognitive Surplus."

The #edchat pNLC is able to crowdsource learning solutions, solve problems, generate ideas, and create innovations for the classroom or school.

#edchat works because virtual teams can form up around educational problems or issues easily. #edchatters are free to pursue their own interests and passions, and thus, are highly motivated. #edchatters can contribute regardless of their professional experience or expertise. That means anyone could provide insight or valuable ideas on a topic or issue they are passionate about. This is why the "p" in pNLC is lower case.

If it is true, as Peter Steiner said, "On the Internet, nobody knows you're a dog," then in the crowd, nobody cares if you are a credentialed expert. It assumes that everyone participating in the #edchat has something of value to offer. All that matters is that one is motivated and knowledgeable.

#edchat Evolution

Wikis or Google docs could be used to post specific issues teachers are seeking help with. Designated hashtags could be generated for each issue creating a sort of #edchat task force. For example, technology topics could use the hashtag #edchat-tech. California teachers could use #edchat-CA. These collaboartive teams could then divide the labor, focus the ideas, and channel the energy.

Evolving the #edchat hashtag into more focused or specialized topics would not only help to focus energy and ideas, but also attract other people who have an interest in those topics. Results and evidence of the work can be posted as YouTube videos, magazine articles, blog posts, and the main #edchat Twitter conversation.


The simple definition of serendipity is finding what we didn't know what we were looking for. It is unexpected encounters with people and the knowledge they possess. But what if, instead of accidentally stumbling into a serendipitous encounter, you could attract or draw these people to you--a form of purposeful serendipity?

The #edchat pNLC does just that. Participating in #edchat will allow an individual teacher to form a learning collaborative--to reach beyond the walls of their classroom or school and into the "crowd" and gather up all those "small sparks." All it takes is some imagination to see the possibilities.

Rob Jacobs is an educator with the Fullerton School District in Orange County, California. He has worked as an instructional aide, teacher, and administrator. Rob is the author of the blog Education Innovation, which focuses on the edges and intersection of education with innovation, design thinking, technology, networks, marketing, and creativity. He also authors the blog PLC_Next, which is focused on improving and evolving Professional Learning Communities. You can follow Rob on Twitter at @eduinnovation.

Betty Ray

Director of Programming and Innovation @Edutopia
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Comments (17)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Claudia Nogales's picture

I like the idea of working towards a global PLC in what you call a pNLC. This is an interesting concept that will allow chat members to contribute their own personal experiences and beliefs to a much larger audience than they would find in their own schools. Teacher isolation is one of the largest deterrents of educational reform. No man is an island, but as teachers, in our classrooms, we often feel like we are. I think a pNLC is a great outlet for professionals to share their ideas, interact with other like minded professionals, and work on collaborative projects that could result in great change. Thanks for your interesting post.

Jodi Null's picture

I agree that collaboration between teachers is very important for teachers to grow professionally and to improve student achievement. I like the idea of pNLC on the internet because it will allow teachers to collaborate with other teachers across the country and the world. This is especially good for teachers that come from small districts and are not able to collaborate with other teachers as much as they would want to. This coming school year my school is starting PLC's and I am going to suggest doing pNLC's as well because it can make us better teachers.

tj johnson's picture

I was delighted to read your blog. I cannot wait to share it with my cohort. I just learned about PLC's myself and now pNLC's. They are going to be so impressed! Thanks

Robert's picture

I enjoyed reading your post about the pNLC's. As a technology teacher, I do not have any in-house peers to collaborate with in my specific field. By using the pNLC, I am able to communicate with peers from around the globe. I believe this is a tool that will only increase in popularity as technology continues to become more user friendly and accessible to everyone. I also liked your comment on serendipitous encounters. This is so true. It seems like every time I begin looking for one thing, I inevitably find something else that I sparks my interests. Thanks for the mental stimulation.

Kristyn Gutierrez's picture

Wow! I think pNLCs are a great idea! I did not know about it. I have found that sometimes my professional learning communities leave my questions unanswered. I think that pNLCs would be a great way to interact with other teachers all over the world. I think that they would be a great way to learn new ideas that no one else in your PLC know about or has thought to use. I think pNLCs would be beneficial to my teaching. Thanks for the great information!

Donna B VanSickle's picture

At my high school, all the teachers of the same academic subject(Math, Science, etc.) have a common planning period. We are required to meet a minimum of one time per week. We collaborate on everything, from common assessments to lesson plans to activities. I have taught in a situation where I felt like I was alone. It was very stressful. Collaborating is much less stressful. If teachers in the same department aren't collaborating, their students are the ones who suffer.

Karin West's picture

The National Science Teachers Association has communities and listserves where teachers can share.

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