Where is the conversation taking place?

Look to the horizonMy evidence is taken from the professional context of secondary geography teaching in England. It is related, in part, to Continuing Professional Development. However, with social media there is now a less-clear distinction between formal training and seek-it-yourself support and guidance.

Local networks

Early in my teaching career I had two colleagues in the department with whom I talked about the subject and learning. We attended three Saturday events each year under the auspices of a Geographical Association branch. Residential and one-day INSET courses where readily available and we attended exam board moderation sessions. The large local authority was involved in a range of national curriculum development projects. Two sixth-form conference GA branches existed, and still exist, in the county. There was a considerable knowledge of other teachers and their schools in the region.

Forums / SLN

When the education world went online it was no surprise that an inspirational advisory team in Staffordshire was generating web-based projects. It also produced what became the de facto online discussion forum for geography teachers across the whole country and beyond. It was a phenomena not repeated by other subjects or on other platforms. There was intense activity with discussion and resource-sharing. For a few years it was the singular go-to place online.

A glance at the first three pages of SLN will show that these days most topics get between 0 and 4 replies and up to 40 views. The many alternatives have taken a toll on the quality and frequency of posting. And the web is not about definitive sources.

TES

The TES Forums remind me of what I found in the early days of local forum lists which had the same lack of sophistication as Citizen Band radio. Trolling is the current name but their predecessors spent their time abusing other people using the technology of the time. Resources uploaded by teachers to TES belong to the TES but they exercise no quality control. There is some extraordinary rubbish on the site which gets thousands of views and hundreds of downloads. It is a lowest-common-denominator of teacher-produced worksheets and digital presentations.

Wise oaksBlogs

The ease of website self-publishing led to a number of teacher sites of geographical content and there have been varied attempts at monetizing them. Many of these digital authors emerged from the activists on the SLN geography forum. Alan Parkinson’s GeoBlogs site morphed into Living Geography and a family of sites with specific interests. Other key players were Ollie Bray, David Rayner, Noel Jenkins, Tony Cassidy, Richard Allaway and John Murray with his photographs. In addition to the geographers, Doug Belshaw, a history teacher at the time, was a big influence in blog creation and curation.

More recently the teacher-blog has a stronger element of professional reflection. Many have reported that it helps to clarify one’s thinking. Another strand is those directed at their pupil audience mainly, but not exclusively, for A Level.

At the same time as most of these took a turn to Web 2.0 or social media it is interesting to note that publishers have tried to introduce interaction to customers. As an example, Hodder-Geography invited the busy and the self-promoters to have their say with four posts over a month. The Geographical Association and the Global Dimension sites also refocused their sites towards social media. Not one of these has generated much in the way of an online community or replies to the pages and postings.

NING

NINGs started as a free platform for a blend of discussion forum and fixed website pages. The Geographical Association has a suite of groups under its own NING but they do not sustain significant use. A big draw to NINGs has been the series set up for each of the GCSE examination specifications. Some have received over 2,000 registrations and they are far more active than the awarding bodies own sites. Their sharply focussed purpose seems to have enabled a transition into NINGs pay-structure and the exam imperative keeps them active.

Twitter

Overlapping blog and NINGs, along came micro-blogging on which Twitter dominates. The immediacy and brevity seemed to strike a chord. This facilitates the interaction lacking on blog posts. At first there was also a sense of Twitter being a refuge from the SLN forum: a reconfirmation of a hard-core. Significantly, the early adopters knew each other and met at GA meetings and conferences.

The use of hashtags is a fairly limited way of generating sub-communities. Lists used with a decent twitter-client would enable groups to operate in this way. However, that seems to require too much effort in a setting that mostly imitates a large disorganised bar. I fear that the #UKEdChat time-slot has become declaratory and rumbumptious. When need for some gentle oversight was evident, the approach from TES was briskly resisted.

A brave attempt has been made to start #GeoEdChat with a prior think-piece and, significantly, a different time-slot each week to accommodate a global audience. http://geoedchat.com/ It will be interesting to see this progress.

Google Wave was destined to bring together all the elements of email, forums and twitter-style messaging. But it didn’t happen. Google Groups could help overcome some of the drawbacks but there is now a perceived barrier against single proprietary solutions. There also remains a question-mark over Twitter’s long-term viability.

Online courses and webinars

The GA has a range of online CPD courses of the read-and-reflect type. Although structured to draw readers through a sequence, they do not involve expensive moderation or accreditation. Over ten years ago WWF led the way as an NGO with moderated online courses for pupils within their special area of interest. Various products such as MOODLE provide the opportunity for structures using a mixture of discussion forums, wiki-style pages, polls and assignments. Such a course is being run by SEEd on the sustainability curriculum.

Using another ‘free’ platform, PBworks, Tony Cassidy inspired a small group of geographers to video-conference. It worked well with an agreed agenda and short presentations. Some of the key participants knew each other and new friendships were made. The storage and playback facility is a useful feature making it accessible to more people.

Webinar presentations, usually with more limited video input from participants, have become quite common-place options for one-off and serial CPD. For interaction to be effective, it is still necessary for people to be available at their computer for, say, an hour. In fact, webinars tend to be used to convey information or a point of view rather than encourage dialogue. The category might be termed video-lecture rather like TED or TEDx videos.

Pathway to learningEngland and Global

One aspect of non-locational professional conversation is the need to step outside the limited perspective of your own jurisdiction. Some people may feel they haven’t the time to take into account other exam systems when that focus is their real need. It is also necessary to work through the global domination of the large online population of the USA. However, on balance working online brings the world to your desktop or smartphone and, for a geographer, that has to be a good feature.

TeachMeets and conferences

Twitter led to a relatively new series of events connected only by an emphasis on using technology in learning. TeachMeets also has a buy-in to the business speed-networking methods of micro- and nano-presentations. It is hardly surprising that the world of 140 characters welcomes short, snappy stand-ups. They also thrive on the ‘by teachers, for teachers’ mantra although, with some, there is an under-current of product placement.

There are not as many formal CPD sessions taking place as local authorities, and others, have struggled to find an economic model that works. There has been more focus on school-based CPD for budgetary and philosophical reasons. By cause and consequence this has reduced the amount of subject specific CPD. Also, it might be regarded as old-fashioned to gather groups together in one place. The GA Annual Conference is appreciated by the 700 who attend but it represents a small proportion of those who teach geography and of geography teachers.

Caveat

With the exception of the #GeoEDChat item, I have deliberately not web-linked this post. I have given only a few examples avoiding any attempt to provide a comprehensive survey. Besides, it demands an obsession to ensure they are up-to-date. The GA publishes a long list of teacher websites and blogs and many are inactive or defunct.

I have omitted university courses and schemes like the Geography Quality Marks. I have addressed conversation between individuals and not touched upon leadership.

I have not attempted to quantify the participant rates or the value by cost (or other factors).

We still need to ask…

Where is the conversation taking place?