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Igniting Innovation in Education through Collaboration

Betty Ray

Senior Editor at Large
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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.

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Comments (17) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Andrea Thomas's picture

I enjoyed reading your blog. Years ago teachers would have had a problem with the idea of collaborating. However, 21st century teaching allows us to work in learning communities where we share a common belief and are willing to learn together; from each other. I think pNLCs would give teachers the opportunity to reach outside of their current learning communities and collaborate with educators from across the globe. Great blog!

G Yee's picture

Your blog was very informative. I had no idea about the reaching effects of a pNLC! Collaborating with other teachers around the world is exciting, as it will provide "small sparks," insights, and ideas from different perspectives. I am eager to share information about pNLC's with teachers at my school. It's great that something like Twitter can be used in such an innovative way for professional networking and development!

Beth Sawyer's picture

I enjoyed reading your blog. I, too, agree that teachers must work together to better themselves and their students. I believe that using a pNLC to work with teachers across the world can improve the education for students everywhere. I teach in a small, private school so I do not get to collaborate much with other teachers. I believe I could use a pNLC to work together with other teachers.

Amy Jones's picture

It is so refreshing to know about pNLC's. I teach in a rural area and we do not have many teachers to collaborate with. I am looking forward to using the PNLC and sharing it with my colleagues for new ideas in the classroom. I will definitely try pNLC and hopefully benefit from it. Thanks for the in sight. I'm sure this will benefit my students and hopefully students schoolwide.

Leah Wright's picture

I really enjoyed reading your blog! As a novice teacher, with less than two years of experience, the idea of pNLC's is wonderful. Using a pNLC to collaborate with teachers around the world would be of great benefit to everyone. Teaching is such a revered occupation is many parts of the world, and it would be inspiring to collaborate and learn from them. I know I would learn a lot working with such a diverse group of teachers!

Amy Jones's picture

The effects of pNLC can be exciting in changing the lives of students. It takes collaboration with other teaching professionals to increase your knowledge in the teaching filed and to improve your skills as a teacher. Sometimes we do not have the courage to ask our colleagues, in fear of looking inadequate, so the thought of exchanging ideas and questions anonymously sounds interesting. In the end, it benefits us and our students. I look forward to using pNLC and I know it can only have positive effects in the future to my students.

Karen Francis's picture

What an eye-opening post! I strongly believe in the power of collaboration among other educators. This is my fourth year teaching and I have been very fortunate to work on a team of teachers where What an eye-opening post! I strongly believe in the power of collaboration among other educators. This is my fourth year teaching and I have been very fortunate to work on a team of teachers where sharing and collaboration is always being done. However, we all know that time for collaboration and developing those learning communities is often difficult. I think that the pNLC on the internet is a great tool and resource in that it will help to seek and share ideas across the country (ideas that can of course be brought back to your school) whenever your school allows. Thanks for sharing!

Heather Sawyer's picture
Heather Sawyer
High School Math

This year PLCs began to really take shape in my school. I have found the time to collaborate with other professionals a great resources for me as a teacher. I have expanded my strategies to use with students, and also enjoyed the professional banter between collegues on "hot topics".

I had never heard of #edchat before, but I am blown away by the number for "small sparks" this will allow for. Although, it is extremely nice to have to opputrtunity to meet in PLC's within your school, it limits the view points and opinions you will hear. By expanding your collaboration to a global network of teachers you will be given a broader spectrum of viewpoints. I personally am very excited to explore #edchat!!

Nicole Reed's picture
Nicole Reed
High School English Teacher in Charleston, WV

I think this is such a great idea. My school uses collaboration, and it works well because we are all interested in the subject we teach. To be involved in a group to solve a problem that we are each passionate about it wonderful! What better way to help become an even better teacher. Also, it can help to solve problems schools don't always have the time or resources to dedicate, such as bullying, and character education. Love it!

Katie's picture

I have been recently learning about the importance of Professional Learning Communities. I am astonished that there have been Professional Network Learning Collaboration online, too. From now on in my common planning time with my colleagues, I will make sure we search #EDCHAT for hot topics. This is a great way to get resources from teachers around the world. It is such a disservice to our students to work in isolation and not collaborate on ideas. I agree that collaborating releases some of the stress that teaching brings.

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