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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Forging New Connections: Building Online Peer-to-Peer Collaborations

Suzie Boss

Journalist and PBL advocate

Anyone who has spent time in an isolated classroom understands why teacher collaboration makes such good sense. If you don't have time to share ideas or plan projects with colleagues, you miss out on opportunities to grow and learn as a teacher. And your students miss out on something important, too.

Recognizing the benefits of collaborative practice, some schools create regularly scheduled time for teachers to work together in professional learning communities. But many educators tell me that collaboration still happens on the fly -- if it happens at all.

Increasingly, educators are using Web 2.0 tools to open new opportunities for connecting with colleagues. What's exciting is that this feels like true peer-to-peer professional development. No one from above is mandating participation. Members rely on one another as experts. What's more, they can tailor their professional-development experience to meet their personal learning needs, whether it's just-in-time troubleshooting with technology or a more extensive conversation about assessment or learning theories. And in some cases, online communities generate new opportunities for face-to-face collaboration as well.

If you're looking to bring more collaboration into your professional life, here are a few sites worth investigating:

Classroom 2.0, one of the fastest-growing social-networking sites for educators, has expanded to nearly 6,000 members in less than a year. It offers a variety of ways for educators to connect with colleagues, from sharing discussions to uploading videos to recruiting participants for collaborative projects. Now the site is planning to hold regional gatherings to allow virtual Classroom 2.0 friends to meet in person and exchange ideas and best practices for the classroom.

The Global Education Collaborative, an online space for teachers who have an interest in global education, with about 400 members, is the place to go if you're looking for international colleagues to join a global project or to discover what educators are learning about when it comes to best practices in project design.

SigTE 2008 Book Discussion, a book-study group hosted by the International Society for Technology in Education's Special Interest Group for Teacher Educators, generates lively conversations about topics raised in my new book, Reinventing Project-Based Learning: Your Field Guide to Real-World Projects in the Digital Age. Recent discussions have taken up questions such as "Should professional learning communities be mandatory, or voluntary?" and "Can online collaboration fill the need or do teachers need face-to-face time to make the most of shared professional learning experiences?"

All three of the above sites are built on Ning, a social-networking service that is reaching out to the education community. (Read my fellow Edutopia.org blogger Chris O'Neal's post about Ning to learn more.) To find more specialized user groups that focus on everything from learning with laptops to gifted education, check out Ning in Education.

Of course, a wide range of tools can support online collaboration. International teacher Julie Lindsay, cocreator of the collaborative Flat Classroom Project 2007, knows from experience the value of working with like-minded colleagues, sometimes across great distances. Currently, she is helping colleagues at the Qatar Academy, in the Middle Eastern nation of Qatar, shift their practice toward a more twenty-first-century model of education. The Qatar Academy staff just had two days of shared face-to-face time to talk among themselves and with experts about what this means and why it matters. They are keeping the momentum going with the help of online tools.

In a post on her blog, Lindsay describes the collaborative experience this way: "We Twittered, we Ninged, we talked. We openly discussed at a professional level what it means to be teaching and learning in a time when there is so much change in the world."

With so much potential for learning, there's no need to go it alone. What do you think about this type of peer-to-peer collaboration? What online educator communities are you familiar with? Please share your experiences.

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