Professional Development: With a Little Help From My Friends

Stages of PLN adoption -

Stages of PLN adoption -

I laughed out loud when I saw this illustration by Jeff Utecht about professional learning networks. I am one of those people who gets carried away with the excitement of new learning. I can lose hours on the computer, following those “rabbit trails,” as my classmate, Shirley, calls them, as I move from one blog post or RSS feed or tweet to the next. I laughed even more when I read that Jeff, like me, has a spouse who reminds him that “PLNs are very powerful, but they are not all there is to life.”

As we discussed professional development in class this week, our discussion leader, Dawn, asked a challenging and important question: “How do we begin to support teachers’ pedagogical change?” We talked a lot about personal learning networks. I like David Kapuler’s description

A Personal Learning Network or PLN is a dedicated learning environment unique to each individual.  . . . this is a place where people create their own environment which helps them to grow/learn. This can be done in many different ways through collaborating, blogging, social networking, etc.  [The] goal is to learn and share knowledge and to find a passion and follow it to the best of your ability.

I began to think about my own change and growth over a 38 year career. How did I follow my passion? To paraphrase Fulghum, All I really need to know I didn’t learn in school. I learned it from colleagues, mentors, and friends. I had a personal learning network long before I ever heard the term, but of course I’ve been involved in many types of professional development.

Judi Harris wrote a  four-article series (all available online here) published in ISTE‘s Learning & Leading with Technology f(February – June/July, 2008.) She writes

Educational technology-related professional development (ETPD) can take many forms. It varies by:

  • general purposes and goals;
  • the specific learning objectives that ETPD sessions and programs address;
  • the curriculum content areas to which they are related;
  • the student grade levels for which the strategies and tools presented are appropriate;
  • the instructional approaches recommended;
  • the professional development models used to structure the ETPD sessions;
  • and the ways in which the professional development is evaluated and/or teacher learning is assessed.

I first encountered Judi Harris through the Telus Learning Connection, or . Her research and guidance helped shape this Alberta endavour, which is ‘organized in a “cascading” or “train-the-trainer” model, in which teacher-leaders participate, then provide ETPD for their peers’ (Harris, 2008). I remember being elated when I was chosen as a teacher-leader, thinking I would be given training in technology implementation. Turns out I was expected to deliver the training. Fortunately the collegial nature of the participants allowed me to learn on the job as I partnered with various mentors.

Another valuable professional development experience was collaborative learning, which Harris describes as “The most desired—but unfortunately, also one of the least frequently practiced—collaborative learning model is one in which teachers engage in classroom visits.” Our district instituted instructional walkthroughs  like these (thanks, Ruth) as a way of looking at teachers’ best practices in the classroom. Instead of bringing in outside experts who preached about the latest and greatest, we utilized the expertise in our own schools.

Teachers volunteered to be observed and a group of teachers, administrators, and central office staff spent a day at a school. They would visit 6-8 classrooms, observe for 10 minutes in each, and then discuss their observations. Next we began using professional development time to do this in our own school. We set up days where teachers and administrators would visit 6-8 classrooms where teachers would share a best practice.

These were incredibly popular pd days. Later teachers were given release time to do more observations. Lots of teachers volunteered  — the message was that every teacher is an expert in something. This practice built our school of 100 teachers into a pln. It also opened our principal’s eyes about some heretofore unacknowledged great teachers, and encouraged teachers to ask administrators into their classrooms.

Another major pd tool for me was the listservHere Peter Milbury describes how the incredible resource LM_NET (short for Library and Media Network), began in 1992, growing from 60 to over 10,000 members worldwide. Through this resource I was introduced to top library/information professionals, including Joyce Valenza, Doug Johnson, Mike Eisenberg, Alice Yucht, Kathy Shrock, and many more. I felt like this tl commenting on VoiceThread, “Instead of feeling like the “only one” in my building, my PLN . . . reminds me that I’m part of a community.”

I learned more about being a tl from LM_NET than from any other single resource. I still subscribe today, and consider the members an essential part of my pln. A bonus is that, as Cathy Nelson describes, now I can follow their blogs via RSS feeds and keep up with the latest news of them on Twitter.

As teacher librarians we are asked to deliver pd to our staff. Harris reminds us that One Size Doesn’t Fit All. Guhlin advises us to Light the Flame, “to move from professional development as a special event  . . to a continuous flow of learning.” Ketterer (June/July 2008) offers “A Professional Development Menu,” with choices ranging from “whetting the appetite” – “Trainings: Focus on how to use a specific . . . application” to “the fuel to keep going,” a “common scheduled lunch focused around a tech teaching tip.”

 In “Coach, Nurture, or Nudge How Do You Learn Technology Best?” Ketterer (May, 2007) reminds us that teachers learners have a preferred style. You’ll recognize these people in your staff room.

  • Coaching Style learner – willing to take risks at integrating technology into their curriculum with support from a colleague they can trust—a “coach.”
  • Nurturing Style Learners want to be nurtured as they learn new technology skills.
  • Nudging Style Learners – often traditional teachers with big success in the “way things are;” skeptical about “where technology is going today.” They need to be gently pushed, prodded, and cajoled into learning how to integrate technology.

As you develop your own personal learning network (see Sue Waters’ wiki for even more tips), and help build and support the one in your school, I recommend to you this video from  Will Richardson, web 2.0 in schools guru. And I do hope you will make me part of your pln — I am @cjpeterso on Twitter. See you online!

References (Non-hyperlinked)

Ketterer, K. (June/July 2008). A Professional Development Menu. Learning & Leading with Technology, p.11.

Ketterer, K. (May 2007). Coach, nurture, or nudge: How do you learn technology best? Learning and Leading with Technology, p. 21.

Mind the Gap: My Parents, #hitsunami, and the Digital Divide

Mom and Dad

Mom and Dad

Last Saturday I experienced my own personal digital divide. At 8:49 am I turned on the computer to work on a blog post and saw this CBC headline on  iGoogle: Chile hit by 8.8 earthquake.

Remembering Haiti, where CNN got its updates from social media, I looked at TweetDeck. Many tweets had #chile as hashtags; I set up a feed for that, and then saw several mentioning a tsunami warning for Hawaii (#hitsunami).

My parents, who are in their eighties, are holidaying in Honolulu. My immediate thought: Indonesia, 2004. While my folks are healthy, I’d just as soon they didn’t have to survive a catastrophe while I was cut off from them –not that my being there would have been much help!  I knew I couldn’t reach them immediately (the phone lines were busy and they were using an Internet cafe to email).

While I waited, I worked on my digital divide post, and tried to apply some of what I had read to what I was doing online.

I began using Twitter in January (up to that point I thought it silly). Now here I was setting up searches for appropriate hashtags, modifying Tweetdeck, sifting genuine tweets from spam, and using Twitter as my source of real-time information. How did I make this leap? All of the requirements I’d read about in this article (thanks, Natasha) were in place:

  • Access (hardware, software, Internet connection, bandwidth) – new laptop, wireless high speed Internet.
  • Skill – I was taught well, had been practicing with Twitter, and learning from those I follow. At one point I read this post – “RT @hawaii: Good information on Twitter. Bad information (35 foot waves not likely) and scammers, too. Retweet wisely… #hitsunami” While most people were being helpful, some of the dregs were setting up scam sites to take advantage.
  • Policy – No filters restrict my access; I was free to work, to learn, to make my own mistakes.
  • Motivation – I really wanted to find out what was happening, especially when I saw this image of the energy that might be hitting Hawaii.
Energy dispersal visualization

Energy dispersal visualization from Chilean earthquake (

 I wasn’t alone; Wes Fryer posted:  “watching #hitsunami TV on ustream along with 75K+ others.” Most worrying, I read: “Next stop #hitsunami . . . 11:35 a.m. Oahu, . . . 9-12 ft. surge estimates.”

As we all know, there was no tsunami. At 5:11 pm Mom emailed to say they were fine — had stayed in their 12th floor room watching the bulletins on TV. While there’s still physical distance between us, the digital gap was bridged.

Time for Educators to “Mind the Gap”

by OwenBlacker CC 2.O

by OwenBlacker CC 2.O

Too often those on the wrong side of the divide watch as others take off into the future. As educators we need to clearly understand what the digital divide is, and its implications for our classrooms and our world.

Wikipedia defines the digital divide as “the gap between people with effective access to digital and information technology and those with very limited or no access at all. It includes the imbalances in physical access to technology as well as the imbalances in resources and skills needed to effectively participate as a digital citizen.”

A number of recent studies have looked at the extent of this divide. Fairlie found that US children with home computers — more whites than Latinos or blacks — are more likely to go to college, and the divide is wider with children than adults.

Digital Divide in Canadian Schools found students from “families with low levels of parental education and those from rural areas are less likely to have a computer in their home. Those from lower SES homes tend to spend less time on the computer and . . . report lower levels of computer competency.”

The report mentions the troubling trend in Alberta to get rid of tls, counsellors, and speech pathologists to free up dollars for technology. As more funding goes to computers, “unequal outcomes may stem from differences between affluent and disadvantaged students in what they do with the technology, once they have access.” 

Peña-López points out something that most tls know: access to computers alone doesn’t tranform students into 21st century learners. Competencies are the real concern: “the digital divide in education . . . is not a matter of physical access but a matter of digital skills and how competent students (and teachers) are at computer and Internet usage.”

While Digital Divide in Canada says that while in some ways the divide in Canada is closing, it is still wide between low/high income groups. Obviously factors other than race, funding, and economics come into play. Inequities in filtering (Nelson), attitudes and assumptions about what constitutes effective use of technology (if everyone I know does this, then it must be universal) (boyd), and disabilities also are part of the digital divide.

Vicente and López (2010) present troubling findings about those with disabilities:

  • 18% of world population has disability
  • Accessibility for people with disabilities neglected by ICT industry
  • Rate of internet access for disabled in US half that of regular population
  • Many barriers: assistive tech doesn’t work with many web sites
  • Assistive tech much more expensive to build and buy
  • 80% of people with disabilities worldwide can’t afford proper food, shelter, rehabilitation.

 The global digital divide is explored in UNESCO’s Annual World Report 2009. “The digital divide amplifies the already existing social inequalities cumulatively” for economic and social reasons (cost, education), cultural (people have no use for it, no role models), and content reasons (not available in their language, lacking local content). The report highlights the role that culture and regional differences play in how governments choose to develop and implement technology, pointing out that what is appropriate in one area won’t necessarily work elewhere, another lesson that educators must heed.

Bridging the Digital Divide in Our Schools


  • Encourage funding to be devoted to people, not just machines.
  • Switch to free or open source applications, such as Google docs.
  • Use the technology students already posses.
  • Thus you free up dollars to provide technology for those students without it at home, or with disabilities.
  • Encourage wi-fi sharing so that all have 24/7 access. Provide useful resources on library web site 24/7.


  • Advocate for release/training time for teachers to learn the new technologies/applications themselves, and learn to teach students how to use them. 
  • Teach students 21st century skills.
  • Establish student and teacher mentors.


  • Investigate what works in other schools/districts/provinces but determine information policy based on what your school needs.
  • Develop effective acceptable use policies that encourage students to take ownership of their learning;
  • Filter effectively.


  • Develop authentic learning experiences based on what students want and need.
  • Do the same for teachers as part of their professional development.

And My Gap?

 My parents will be home in a few days (yes!), and I want to teach my dad to use Twitter.


References (Non-hyperlinked)

 Vicente, M., & López, A. (2010). A Multidimensional Analysis of the Disability Digital Divide: Some Evidence for Internet Use. Information Society, 26(1), 48-64.

Internet Filtering – I’m Hopping Mad!


Scott McLeod - CC Attibution 2.0 Generic

Does this picture remind you of how your administration treats its teachers?

Do you see internet filtering as indiscriminate censorship and a challenge to intellectual freedom?

Yes? Then don’t just vent – understand the issues, get busy, and make change happen.

 Time to Act

When it comes to internet filtering in the district where I taught for 38 years, and where my grandson will attend school, “I’m Mad and I’m Not Gonna Take It Anymore,” to quote Mary Ann Bell. Internet filtering in my local school district does not work as it should. Bell  (2008) provides a clear call to action for those fed up with the problems filtering causes teachers and students. She says, “It is time to move past fear mongering and paranoia as guides to internet access in schools.”

Of course this isn’t just a local problem. Cathy Nelson says, “I think the biggest problem at hand is complacency among educators in general. This IS an issue of intellectual freedom. Rights are being infringed here.”

Buffy Hamilton agrees, “I get so frustrated when people complain about the filter issues but then take no constructive action to educate the decision makers about the resources we want unblocked.”

 Can we eliminate filters?

Finnish schools don’t have any; instead they teach responsible use of the internet. “Over there, thanks to solid teaching, the filters are in the students’ heads. Ultimately, that’s where we need to be too.” (Weinstock, 2008; Villano, 2008)

We are nowhere near that point in Alberta, where teacher librarians are almost extinct, teachers have to push students through curricula to pass provincial exams, and we have no mandated curriculum in internet literacy. We can’t get rid of filtering altogether.

Here I agree with Nancy Willard. “There are certainly some benefits from the use of filtering software — if, and only if, filtering companies are not blocking based on viewpoint discrimination, and if educators have the ability and authority to promptly override the filter to access and review any blocked site and to provide access to students when appropriate.”

What Makes Me Hopping Mad?

How about the deceit that internet filtering promotes or tacitly condones in students and some staff? To illustrate:

  • 2¢ Worth » Filters Work – “when [teachers are] asked about getting around the government-required filters, to conduct  . . . research required to find . . . resources, a frequent response is, “I have no idea.” The next most-common response: I have no idea, but when I need to get to a blocked site, I ask a student for help.”
  • From Patrolling web 2.0: “despite the presence of an internet filtering solution, more than 150,000 attempted visits to MySpace were made.
  • To see just a small slice of the rampant bravado of the avoid-the-filter attitude, go to Google, YouTube, Facebook, or Wikihow and search “bypass internet filter.”

This situation reminds me of what Admiral Mike Mullen said to the senate about the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell American military policy. “No matter how I look at the issue, I cannot escape being troubled by the fact that we have in place a policy which forces young men and women to lie about who they are in order to defend their fellow citizens.”

Shouldn’t our policy makers be troubled by a policy that encourages or tacitly condones our teachers and students to break the rules? Don’t misunderstand me — I am not excusing their behaviour. But I agree with Doug Belshaw: “I want clear policies whereby both staff and students know where they stand when it comes to internet access and filtering. As far as I’m concerned, resources should be available for teaching and learning unless a clear case can be made otherwise.”

We need to find a way to protect students without interfering with our teachers’ right to teach and our students’ right to learn. And I don’t think internet filtering as it now exists is the solution. To echo Will Richardson, there is too much “don’t” and not enough “do” going on, and definitely not enough teaching about responsible internet use.

What’s broken?

I’ve identified issues from my own experience, from my reading, and from my conversation with some of my colleagues. Some of the fixes are self-evident. 

  • Teachers don’t know what the filtering policies are, who is in charge of them, or how to request blocking or unblocking of sites.
  • Students, especially at high school, have no input into internet filtering.
  • Filtering increases the divide between students who have access to computers at home, and those who don’t
  • So many sites have YouTube feeds that it is becoming an essential resource (Ross, email communication, 2010)
  • Poor acceptable use policies don’t support responsible use (Media Awareness Network)
  • No consistency in which sites are blocked in which schools on which day (Filters and other annoyances)
  • Lack of bypass rights (Bell, 2006)
  • Time taken to get sites unblocked (Bell, 2006, Filters and other annoyances)
  • No consistent provincial policy, like Nova Scotia has
  • Teachers don’t have time to teach internet skills (Pam’s comment)
  • Social networking sites are routinely blocked (Any interactive website is poison)
  • Sites are blocked because of their format, not content (Format Bigotry)
  • Sites are blocked due to social/political content, e.g., Gay, lesbian, pro-choice (Bell, 2006)
  • Inconsistent filtering makes teachers look inadequate, ill-informed (Bell, 2008).
  • Filtering gives false sense of security, so monitoring/educating don’t happen (Willard)
  • Need to discuss policies as a staff, review, update them regularly as circumstances change (Carla’s comment)
  • Teens need “bystander strategies” to provide effective peer guidance. (Willard)

So how do we effect change?

I urge you to view Buffy Hamilton’s slideshow below, and to visit Fighting the Filter. She provides some common sense ways for tls (and teachers) to assert our professionalism in filtering issues. After all, Hamilton says, “If our goal is for students to be information fluent learners, we must have access to the tools so that students can ultimately act as their own filter.” As a retired teacher librarian, I’m going to start asking questions, writing letters, and advocating for change.

By the time my grandson starts school I want all the “don’ts” of internet usage gone. I want his teachers (hopefully Pam, Carla, and Greg) to tell him, “Do use our network to collaborate with others to change the world in meaningful, positive ways.” (Richardson) Isn’t that what education is all about?