Leveraging Social Media Tools for Professional Development

By Melissa Shields

The Etowah County School System has a long tradition of high academic standards and is eager to meet the needs of our 21st Century students. To ensure best use of 21st Century technologies, professional development is a priority in our district. Last year, we received over $360,000 through competitive grants to support 21st Century classrooms and accompanying professional development.

In 2008 we implemented the Schoolwires Centricity website and community management platform. Today, it's helping us make professional development accessible and cost effective for our teachers, as well as fostering stronger connections with our community and engaging our students. We use electronic and social media for professional development because it's cost effective, convenient, and gives our teachers a familiarity with the same environment that our students are heavily engaged in.

ENGAGE Initiative
In 2009, I collaborated with Dr. Jon Paul Campbell and Dr. Kim Mintz (both district administrators) to create the "ENGAGE" Initiative (Empowering Next Generation with Authentic Global Experiences), an ongoing, transformative process to better prepare Etowah County students for the workplace. ENGAGE began with all administrators in the Etowah County School System striving to meet performance indicators for administrators in the National Educational Technology Standards for Administrators (NETS-A). Other components of this initiative include sustained professional development for teachers in project-based learning, integrating 21st Century skills using NETS-T (Teachers) into the core curriculum, increasing rigor and relevance of assignments, and ensuring readiness for students to move to the next stage of their lives.

Podcast Challenge
As a prelude to the launch of the ENGAGE initiative, all principals were challenged to create a podcast during the 2009 Summer Administrator Retreat. In small groups, principals were given a small digital video recorder (a Flip camera) and 30 minutes to write a script, create the podcast, and publish it to the entire group of 40 administrators on our Schoolwires district website. Some were skeptical at first. However, within a few minutes, each group was engaged as they created their podcasts entitled "Why Your Child Should Be a Student at Our School." With literally no training, all groups finished their podcasts promptly and eagerly awaited to view them. This project-based activity gave many administrators a bird's-eye view of authentic learning opportunities, as well as the multitude of goals it addressed.

To better support ENGAGE, a Ning and wiki were created to host various online PLNs for our teachers, counselors, media specialists and administrators. Depending on the nature of the PLN activity, we posed questions to teachers and/or administrators on the discussion boards. The responses provided insight for future professional development endeavors. Other resources on the Ning include a message from Secretary of Education Arne Duncan for teachers considering National Board Certification and forums for many groups in our district, such as Library Media Specialists, Technology Coordinators, and School Principals.

The public wiki (http://ecboeworkshops.wikispaces.com/) provides teachers and visitors with many self-help tools to explore innovative project-based strategies and methods of online engagement. Many previous Etowah County 21st ENGAGE workshops and training have been posted on this wiki, as other instructional tools, all designed to help teachers engage their 21st century learners in all content areas.

Social Media for Teachers, Prinicipals, Families
We encouraged our parents and students to participate in NetDay’s SpeakUp Survey, and in doing so, we were able to confirm what we already knew: over half of our parents and students used social media daily. In response, we immediately created a Facebook ("Etowah County Schools") and Twitter account ("ECBOE") to better serve the needs of our students and parents. In order to get our teachers and administrators familiar with this medium, I created a separate Facebook group, "ECBOE", for teachers that focuses on professional development, particularly conversations of best practices. We required every principal to join Facebook or open a Twitter account and participate in ENGAGE discussion questions, such as "Name a technology, lesson, or Web 2.0 tool that you feel has made a significant impact at your school in preparing students with the "‘3 Rs". We aptly renamed the 3 Rs as part of our ENGAGE initiative: Relevance, Readiness, and Rigor.

We also have many resources for professional development readily available within our Schoolwires district website. The platform allows us to integrate a large number of interactive tools into one secure site so that they are easily accessible. For example, our central office has posted many podcasts and vodcasts to keep staff informed on a variety of topics, such as health protocols during the H1N1 epidemic. Many "How-To" videos have been posted to help teachers better utilize the Schoolwires website. Our district website, built on the Schoolwires Centricity platform, makes it very easy for even novice technology users to create and post a variety of items, ranging from text posts to pod- and vodcasts. Some of our schools are 45 minutes apart from each other, so making this information readily available on our website gives us an efficient way to reach all our teachers and staff.

Also on our district website, we feature a Teachers Corner tab. Within the tab, teachers have access to a forum to find or publish great ideas for their classrooms. These include shared files, activities, and projects. Prior to becoming Director of Instructional Technology, I was a language arts teacher for many years. Based on my experience, I am certain that teachers learn best from other innovative teachers. Our Teachers’ Corner tab, Ning, Wiki, and all the other electronic forums provide them with easy and friendly environments to share their questions and knowledge with each other.

Extending Engagement to All District Constituents
Many of our constituents are regular users of social media. To engage them more, we have embedded links to Facebook and Twitter on the home page of our district website. Through Twitter, we provide short, timely messages from ECBOE. We also tweet content from magazines or associations, like CoSN and ISTE, that are relevant to education. For example, we may learn about a new program to help students prepare for the SATs and Advanced Placement tests. This program is of interest to students and their parents, as well as our teachers.

I often tweet about positive activity at the schools. Recently, I tweeted when two teachers won projectors for attending a professional development program. Today, I tweeted about students at Sardis High School who posted an "Anti-Drug" Public Service Announcement (PSA) on the school’s website using a Flip camera. On several occasions, we have tweeted school news and were immediately contacted by the media (local newspapers and state and national television news programs) so they could run stories as well. Tweeting has been an extremely effective way to "get the word out" quickly, which is especially helpful during weather emergencies and school closings.

We have gotten a huge response from our constituents to both mediums, although Facebook is the more active one. Because our principals and teachers have experience with Facebook through our professional development training, they are comfortable participating in these forums. Several of our schools have their own Facebook pages which can be linked to directly from their school websites.

The fact that many of our social media tools, like Facebook and Twitter, are available through our district website increases their use. Parents, students and other visitors can easily find a multitude of resources, including teacher websites, within this familiar environment. Whether it’s for professional development, engaging with our students, or connecting with the community, our Schoolwires website provides us with the tools and easy-access forums to meet these critical objectives.

Melissa Shields is the Etowah County School District Director of Instructional Technology