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Forging New Connections: Building Online Peer-to-Peer Collaborations

| Suzie Boss

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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Comments (9)

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Dan (not verified)

Interesting

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Hello,
I heard about the site Edutopia on NPR. I decided to check it out. Pretty interesting.

I must say one thing that by creating http://Twitter.com/TXTNLRN, it has aided in displaying my sites when one does a search for TXTNLRN taking care of SEO. However, I still have not figured out how can I use Twitter in my teaching style / model. Currently, I think Twittering is more like a table of contents. I am still using it though and plan to do one class by posting on Twitter. The neat thing is I can post in other languages too.

I am a software engineer with a total of 22 years of professional experience and a passion to teach.

I started to think of how to teach with a different approach. That is when I created a website and a mobile website http://www.TXTNLRN.com and http://M.TXTNLRN.com

I decided to use distant learning, SMS messaging and VOIP technologies. This would be a great advantage so that people can learn at their pace, do not need to come to a
classroom an still be able to learn. I would send short messages every couple of days.
This area I called EDUC8TRS. There is another area I created called APPSQED where I would test software applications and send the use test cases and results as messages. I am working on adding my sound to my courses.

Thank you,

Suzie (not verified)

Finding help online

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Hi Kathleen,
I'm sure you will find some friendly (and helpful) voices online! For rural teachers, and anyone else feeling isolated, these sites can be a wonderful place to find support and ideas. And as you get better acquainted with your building colleagues, chances are you'll find opportunities to work with them to support your students with technology-rich learning. Good luck on your journey!
--Suzie

Suzie (not verified)

Finding colleagues willing to collaborate

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Shawanna,
Happy to hear that you are finding colleagues who are open and willing to collaborate. How are you working together? Any joint project planning? Shared professional learning? Eager to hear what's most needed, especially among new teachers.
Thanks,
Suzie

Carol B. (not verified)

Just another assignment

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Shari,
Wonderful posting! I too am in a class where the assignment was to explore "blogging". What started out
as an assignment has really proved to be much more than that. I see that on-line collaboration opens the
doors to other ideas. I am from the old-school where if you can help others, you do it because it is the
right thing to do. When I was teaching with 10 other teachers and we were all in the same grade level, I
felt like if I had a good idea everyone made me feel like I was trying to "out-do" everyone else and they
did not like all of my ideas. I was just teaching the way I knew how and wanted to. The on-line ideas that
I have learned have been very helpful and will be time-savers (something that all teachers value). Thank you
again and good luck with collaboration. Carol B.

Kathleen (not verified)

Online collaborations

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I, too, have been given the assignment to explore educational blogs for my Master's program. I'm glad I found this posting, as I am only in my 2nd year of teaching and could really use suggestions and insights from more experienced teachers. While my building colleagues are more than willing to help me on general issues, I could use more ideas and strategies for my particular position, which is teaching computers to elementary (K-5) students. I work in a small, rural school district, so peer collaboration is limited regarding technology. I'm going to explore the sites you suggested and see what happens. Who knows, maybe I'll even be able to offer my own unique takes on some subjects!

Shawanna (not verified)

Collaborating with peers

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Hi Suzie,

This blog is my second for tonight. I have found this new world of collaboration. I did not even no these types of sites existed. I have to participate in blogs for my class. I totally agree that teachers need to collaborate with their peers. This collaboration is imperative to success in education. For first year teachers, I think it is very, very important to know you have a network of support behind you that wants to see you succed.

During my first year of teaching, I expected so much. My expectations were very high, and I was very nervous. I thought I would have this great collaboration system going on but I was totally wrong. It was hard trying to collaborate on my grade level because everyone wanted to do their own things. This concept was very hard for me to grasp at first but then I just started collaborating with my other colleagues in the building.

This tool can be very crucial to education. A school that has all their teachers collaborating is probably a great place. I am still in search of that type of atmosphere. I think no matter how many years you teach collaboration with your colleagues is very important. Thanks!

I am very glad to see that you provided other opportunities to collaborate with fellow colleagues in education. If you cannot necessarily get it where you are, one can get from using their computer. The use of this tool allows other arenas to make this happen easier in teachers' lives.

S (not verified)

Online peer-to-peer collaborations

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Suzie,

Thanks so much for your response. It is greatly appreciated. I know some of my classmates are not receiving responses back to their blog postings and that is a little frustrating to them. I also appreciate your kind words and encouragement in this new professional endeavor! I look forward to the opportunities it will provide for myself and the people I work with everyday!

Professional sincerity,
Shari

Suzie (not verified)

Online communities

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Hi Shari,
Welcome to the blogosphere! It's a great place for teachers who want to continue their own learning so that they can better support their students. Your professional network will grow the more you engage. In the online communities I mentioned, you can tap the wisdom of the group by posting a forum question. You can help your colleagues by sharing an approach that has worked well for you. You may even find like-minded teachers who will become your collaborators on future projects. I think you'll find many around the globe who share your belief in collaboration as a strategy worth pursuing.

Re: Your last question, you certainly aren't alone in missing the "human" side of the equation. Many educators who build their network online look forward to opportunities to connect in person. They might use tools like Skype or videoconferencing to expand conversations that start online, and they take advantage of educational conferences to "meet" the people they already know well.

Good luck building your professional network!
--Suzie

Shari Kuehl (not verified)

Collaboration

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Suzie,

My name is Shari Kuehl and I am a fourth grade teacher in Lena, IL. I came upon your blog via my professor at Olivet Nazarene University. I am at the beginning stages of my master's program there. This site was a choice given as an option for learning about a blog page and its benefits for educators.

First, I have never been on a blog page or posted a blog reply. I wasn't even really sure what the word blog means. Complete novice! Upon reading your posting, I was immediately struck by your comments and questions.

I taught in a school in Iowa for 14 years, and collaboration was a must. At the time, I did not realize how amazing our principal was at directing our staff to just this type of teaching. Six years ago, my husband earned a new job in Illinois and my teaching career shifted. I went from collaboration, at so many levels, to complete isolation, on my own. It has been a long six years, and I am grateful that we are in the beginning stages of starting some team teaching. I know I am not the best teacher I can be in isolation. I am interested in how networking, via the internet, is going to change that. I am also wondering, at the undergraduate level, or education programs helping new teachers to access and enhance their ideas and practices in this way? I also think the concept of global sharing of ideas can lead to amazing bonds across borders, cultures, religions, and so much more. Are you seeing inherit common threads among teachers, no matter where they are? Are there patterns of similar frustrations? I am curious if teachers feel the same way I do? It goes back to that old say: TEAM together each accomplishes more.

My last question is the success of on-line collaboration. I am in a cohort, and everything is done on-line. The advantages are I can say what I need to say, and be able to polish them before anyone reads them. I can go at my own pace to fit my busy schedule. I also like that I can complete my sentences without being cut off. I will be honest, I am old-fashion and like and miss the human contact. I still think that is an important component of growth.

Finally, I like your idea that these connections are happening based on a need of the teacher(s) and not because it is a mandate. This alone to me, validates the genuine need and want for a connection of educators; no matter where we live. You can not make people collaborate, they have to want to. At least this would be a way to have those opportunities if your school did not see the value in collaboration.

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