Recently, pre-service teachers in two of our classes at the Faculty of Education, University Regina, participated in #saskedchat, a weekly Twitter chat hosted by and for Saskatchewan educators. Although the chat typically runs on Thursday nights, organizers scheduled a “special edition” of the chat on the topic of supporting new teachers. Almost instantly, our students were immersed in a global discussion about education – and what’s more, they were instantly connected to a large network of practicing teachers who were able to provide them with advice and tips for success. But while the Twitter chat was an enriching experience for our students, participation in events like these is only a small piece of the puzzle when it comes to preparing new teachers to learn and flourish in a digital world.
As the field of education changes rapidly, it’s no longer enough for faculties of education to deliver static, technical courses on the methods of teaching. Instead, we need to help pre-service teachers develop the skills and understandings that will allow them to navigate and succeed in today’s global classrooms. And perhaps even more importantly, we need to help future teachers build the personal learning networks that will provide both the support system and continuous professional development opportunities needed to become and remain successful educators.
As instructors tasked to take on these challenges, we have focused on a number of key areas that support students’ successful entry into these new digital spaces. We’ve shared and described a few of these considerations below.
1. BUILD AN UNDERSTANDING OF OUR DIGITAL WORLD
Today’s young people are growing up in a media-rich and connected culture that is fundamentally different than it was even a decade ago. Thanks to the growing trend of posting ultrasound pictures and pregnancy selfies, a staggering 30% of children have a digital footprint before they are even born, and the average digital birth of children is at six months of age. Technology has altered every stage of life: it shapes the way we meet, how we communicate, our intimate relationships, the way we mourn, even our deaths.
If technology has shaped and altered every aspect of society, then learning is no different. Unfortunately, much of what we do in schools hasn’t changed to respond to these shifts in culture – many educators continue to teach the way they were taught and try to keep the digital world out of the classroom. But for today’s students, online and offline life is inseparable. Teachers need to understand the reality of students’ digital lives in order to make education relevant and engaging for today’s young people by bringing the digital into the classroom.
2. MODEL APPROPRIATE INTERACTIONS IN DIGITAL SPACES
If we want teachers to open their classrooms to the world, we need to model effective and appropriate uses of connected spaces: both new and experienced teachers should have opportunities to see how lead learners interact in networks for professional learning. For instructors working with pre-service teachers, this means demonstrating appropriate interactions in spaces such as Twitter (as in our introductory #saskedchat example) or modeling the curation of a professional digital identity through an About.Me page or an academic blog. In the field, principals can model appropriate digital presence through the creation and maintenance of a professional social media presence, like Chris Lehmann’s Twitter account or Tony Sinanis’ weekly video updates.
Even those in the upper levels of educational leadership should be modeling what it looks like to learn and lead online; for example, Chris Kennedy, Superintendent of West Vancouver School District, uses blogging to model transparency, open leadership, and lifelong learning.
Of course, in order to demonstrate high levels of connected learning, instructors (and other lead learners) must be able to leverage their own existing online networks. For example, in order to support our students and practicing teachers, we were able to tap into Alec’s considerable personal learning network to create a collaborative document of writing prompts for pre- and in-service educators. This means that lead learners must actively work to build their own networks so that they can be effective role models and collaborators.
3. DEMONSTRATE THE PEDAGOGICAL VALUE OF NETWORKS AND TOOLS
Just as instructors and other lead learners must demonstrate appropriate online interactions, they must also help new and experienced teachers understand the pedagogical value of networks and tools. In our classes, pre-service teachers research, create resource sites for, and present on various apps and programs, being sure to tie them into the curriculum (for instance, this site that discusses several apps to support language arts and this one that explores the use of iPads for inclusive education). These future teachers also have the chance to experience what it’s like to learn in a connected environment through our own use of various social media platforms and other tools in our post-secondary courses. For instance, we model the use of open learning and connected teaching through course blog hubs and class Twitter hashtags, through the use of Google Plus communities and course sites for communication, and through the incorporation of Google Docs for professional collaboration.
Pre-service teachers must also be provided with rich exemplars from the field, showing practicing teachers’ innovative uses of technology to create connected classrooms that support 21st century learning. For instance, we introduce our students to the Global Read Aloud, Quadblogging, and Mystery Skype. We also discuss the pedagogical possibilities of Twitter and point to hashtags like #comments4kids (where teachers can post student blogs and ask for feedback from their online networks) or teacher-created resources that support the use of technology in the classroom (like this tweet about how to comment on blogs, shared by one of our graduate students).
4. DEVELOP PRE-SERVICE TEACHERS’ DIGITAL LITERACIES AND NETWORKED LITERACIES AND GUIDE THE DEVELOPMENT OF THEIR ONLINE IDENTITIES
Along with these examples of great digital pedagogy and online interaction, we need to prepare pre-service teachers to be great connected leaders themselves by helping them learn and create using different elements of digital literacies and pedagogies. In our classes, students explore what it means to take part in “anytime, anywhere” digital-age education by undertaking a Learning Project where they choose a skill to learn entirely online. They also create summaries of learning that highlight the skills and networked literacies they have learned throughout the semester. Additionally, since we want these new teachers to model appropriate online presence in their future classrooms, we ask our students to build professional e-portfolios in order to take control of their digital identities (some students even choose to buy their own domains) as they work to become digital residents rather than simply digital visitors.
5. UNPACK ISSUES OF POWER AND PRIVILEGE IN ONLINE SPACES
As we encourage pre-service and practicing teachers to bring the digital world into their classrooms, we must be sure to address oppression and inequity as they play out in online spaces. On a technical level, we need to help educators understand the legal aspects of terms of service agreements and the implications of big data when asking students to enter online worlds in their school work. Additionally, pre-service teachers are often hesitant to speak out about “touchy” subjects online, fearing that it might affect their future careers, but this type of silence on the part of educators creates a dangerous hidden curriculum that announces that these topics are unimportant. We need to have frank and open discussions about how gender or racial inequity can be both reinscribed and deconstructed online (for example, interrogating the GamerGate hashtag, discussing the events in Ferguson and the subsequent Black Twitter movements like #BlackLivesMatter, or examining the rise of #IdleNoMore). We also need to provide opportunities for students to reflect on these topics in digital spaces both through course assignments and by providing support for student initiatives (such as the StarsRegina site set up by pre-service teachers to create a hub for information about anti-oppressive education). And as lead learners, we need to model the importance of having these discussions out in the open.
Clearly, there’s a lot of work to be done if we want to prepare both new and existing educators to teach in ways that take up the incredible affordances of our global community and digital spaces. But there are also so many inspiring examples of teachers, principals, and other lead learners doing great things online – we’ve only scratched the surface of what’s already being done around the world. What amazing things have you seen in your own learning community, and how are you helping the next generation of educators to be connected future leaders in our field?