Professional Development | In Print

Connecting With Education Leaders Easier Than Ever

An active tweeter, Steven Anderson regularly exchanges ideas on how to enhance K-12 classroom instruction with educators from all over the country--including some of the best-known thought leaders in the field.

Last November, Anderson, district instructional technologist at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools in Winston-Salem, NC, mingled with many of those experts at Authorspeak, a three-day conference in Indianapolis that brought together 99 of the nation's top authors and experts in education for presentations, panels, and networking sessions. In addition to attending sessions, Anderson spoke informally with leading thinkers like Will Richardson and Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach--both of whom he already was interacting with regularly on Twitter.

"To be able to sit down and chat with the author of a book that has great meaning to you is huge," Anderson says. "They were so accessible, and the fact that I had relationships with so many of them through social media made those face-to-face meetings much easier and more meaningful. We already knew where each other was coming from, so we could just dive right into those deeper discussions." 

In a not-so-long-ago era--before the proliferation of social media, Skype, and high-speed internet technology that made multimedia presentations and real-time, travel-free communications seamless and inexpensive--a typical educator looking for ideas from some of the nation's leading thinkers on education was mostly limited to their published works. That has changed dramatically. Through informal social media channels as well as more formal formats like online courses and webinars, today many of the best-known authors and speakers in the field are easily accessible, even when they are geographically remote.

"Before, we just had books and articles," says Robert J. Marzano, a leading education researcher whose more than 30 books and 150 articles cover everything from instruction, assessment, writing, and standards implementation to cognition, effective leadership, and school intervention. "Now we have a number of gradations in how much depth we go into, ranging from a 140-character tweet to the in-depth treatment of a book."

Along with the more traditional mediums, Marzano has Twitter, Facebook, and e-mail to communicate with educators. He leads online courses and webinars, and he participates in live conferences such as Authorspeak, where his readers are quite comfortable approaching him, often because they have been in touch with him through these other means so often. "Social media has added to the flow of information," Marzano says. "It's much more of an ongoing dialogue now."

Nicholas Provenzano, an English teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School in Grosse Pointe Farms, MI, says, "Ten years ago when I started teaching, if you wanted information from a leading author you had to read the book and then write a letter or, if you could find an e-mail address, send an e-mail that you might or might not get a response to."

At Authorspeak, Provenzano conversed with many of his favorite educational thought leaders, people he knew about not only through their books but through their tweets. Barely a month earlier, Provenzano and a student met with US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan. After Provenzano tweeted a link to a post on his blog in which he opined that the Department of Education was coming up short in its use of social media, he was contacted by Duncan's office, sparking an ongoing conversation that led to a meeting with the education secretary when he was in nearby Detroit.

Meg Ormiston is an author and former classroom teacher who is actively involved in professional development and focused on changing instructional practice in the classroom, with a particular emphasis on technology. She says, "I'm always looking for ways to continue professional development beyond the face-to-face session."

A self-described "Twitter freak," Ormiston regularly tweeted her observations at Authorspeak as a way of interacting with followers who weren't there. Even when not at a conference, she watches to see who mentions her and responds to inquiries. She tunes in to education-related threads, often participating and getting input for her next writing project.

Ormiston is one of many authors who offer online courses and webinars through Knowledge Delivery Systems, a professional development provider for educators. She is creating an online professional development library with modules aligned with her book Digital Storytelling With PowerPoint, housed within a social media community called SchoolTown. "People need access to information 24 hours a day, seven days a week," Ormiston says. "I'm putting my library into a social media environment where there can be discussions and ways to chat with me. Things change so quickly with technology that you have to constantly communicate and update to keep things fresh."

This new era of eager learners with considerable access to their mentors couldn't have come at a better time. With so many districts working with constrained budgets, there is little or no money for professional development. For educators in these districts, travel-free access to thought leaders and peers through webinars, social media, and other outlets is a major benefit. "In so many schools, there are one or two teachers at a grade level, and you need a bigger pond to get your ideas from," Ormiston says.

"It's great that authors are making it a point to be available online," says Kyle Pace, an instructional technology specialist for the Lee's Summit School District in a suburb of Kansas City, MO. "They realize what an impact social media and social networking are having for teachers, and they're putting themselves out there to answer questions and make observations beyond the pages of their book." Like many other educators, Pace follows and sometimes participates in regular conversations on Twitter based on hashtags such as #edleader and #edchat. He also "attends" webinars and online conferences.

All of these developments are expanding the reach and potential influence of people like Carol Ann Tomlinson, an author and expert on differentiated instruction who is now the William Clay Parrish Jr. professor and chair of educational leadership, foundations, and policy at the University of Virginia (UVa). "I'm sure I'm reaching a lot more people now, although it's less evident than seeing the number of people sitting in a crowd in front of you," Tomlinson says. "It is certainly the case that more people have access to me through e-mail." Typical was an e-mail Tomlinson had received that day from a man who had come across her name in a blog that quoted one of her articles, found her e-mail address, and posed a question.

In addition to traditional communication methods such as writing books and presenting at conferences, Tomlinson regularly uses Skype to hold professional-development webinars with individuals or small groups of teachers and district administrators. Her online courses are offered through Knowledge Delivery Systems and ASCD. With colleagues at UVa's Institutes on Academic Diversity, Tomlinson developed a website that provides ideas and resources on differentiated instruction.

The vastly increased interaction with her audience is beneficial in two major ways, Tomlinson says. "When people write you and share their stories, it reminds you that you're not just putting words on a page but affecting lives, and that's great encouragement to keep at it," she says.

The feedback also helps Tomlinson hone her message. "When readers provide their thoughts or criticisms, particularly those that come from an experience that is different from the one I've been writing about, it leads me to try to address a broader world the next time," she says.

For in-demand authors and popular educational thought leaders, there is a potential downside to the increased accessibility. Tomlinson says she often receives more solicitations for her input than she has time for, ranging from students writing papers with long lists of broad questions they'd like answered to parents embroiled in school controversies and seeking advice.

"I have the great fortune of being able to participate in conversations on education and to share ideas with people, and I don't take that lightly," she says. "So when somebody makes an inquiry, I feel the need to answer it. But I would need more hours in the day to be able to handle all of the requests."

And Tomlinson hasn't even ventured into social media yet. Marzano has, and while he sees plenty of benefit to the increased contact, it also creates expectations that he is often unable to fulfill. "I could not answer every question I get asked, or I would have no time to do anything else," he says.

Not that Marzano is yearning for a return to the days when authors worked in relative anonymity, sometimes going weeks or months without interacting with their audiences. "It's much more dynamic today," he says. "There is a lot more to think about and, by definition, when information is more frequent and free-flowing, you have more ideas."

Get More Out of Twitter

Start following the education thought leaders mentioned in this article.

Steven Anderson, district instructional technologist at Winston-Salem/Forsyth County Schools - @web20classroom

Robert J. Marzano, education researcher and author - @RobertJMarzano

Meg Ormiston, author and professional development advocate - @MegOrmi

T.H.E. Journal - @The_Journal