image courtesy of Craig Taylor

This past spring, our school’s digital learning team completed a year of professional development through Powerful Learning Practice (PLP). As a final activity, we were asked to design an action research project. Our project goal: Use 21st century tools to increase collaboration among our faculty. Here’s how it all played out.

Our school is independent, Pre-K to 12, and our three divisions (lower school, middle school, and upper school) are physically separated. Traditionally, that physical space has be very isolating — so much so that we often joked about working together without ever seeing each other.

At some point I and my digital team colleagues expect to  engage the faculty in collaborations with other educators across the globe — whether through Twitter, blogs, social networking, or other means. However, it made no sense to take that giant leap before we showed them the ease and benefits of collaborating within our own walls.

The tool we’ve chosen to do that is Ning. At you can create your own social network. Our Ning is password protected, and only faculty members may join. We knew this would be a safe place for us to connect and learn.

Our project had two main components:

  1. Our faculty would collaborate by using our private Ning space; and
  2. Our faculty would collaborate by sharing resources on Diigo (dee-goh), a social bookmarking site.

The faculty was required to join Diigo and the Ning. They had to bookmark a site in Diigo and follow the bookmarking of a member of our digital learning team. They also had to reply to a discussion on the Ning, and post a discussion of their own.

The Ning was the thing!

We had no idea how successful the Ning would be for our faculty. Here are some of the many benefits we have experienced:

  • The main page of the Ning is a great place to post announcements, a connection to the school calendar, and links to blogs. These currently include class blogs, a book review blog by our librarian, and a blog produced this summer by our 8th grade graduates as they toured Europe.
  • The main page also features images and videos uploaded by the faculty. Here we have shared photos of class field trips, ideas for room set-up, and inspiring videos by Ken Robinson, Daniel Pink, and more. The page also features an RSS feed, where we can keep up with blogs such as Free Technology for Teachers and the many educator-writers who blog at Edutopia.
  • Discussion posts – Anyone can post a discussion in the Forum to share items of interest to all faculty members. Here are few examples of the discussions we had in the first few months (this was also a great way to reduce our email inbox clutter):
    • Recommendations or requests about articles or books
    • Requests for readers in our kindergarten classes
    • Debates about block scheduling
    • Advantages of eBooks over textbooks
    • Advice in finding a doctor or hairdresser
    • Suggested places for after-work recreation
  • Groups – For items that may only interest some faculty members, or where there may be many related discussion posts, Ning makes it easy to create topical subgroups. Here are some subgroups that have sprung up in our Ning space:
    • Netbook Reflections – teachers sharing lesson plans and reflections regarding our 1:1 netbook initiative
    • Crisis in Japan – a group for people that were interested in planning and supporting a fundraising effort after the earthquake and tsunami
    • HRALists – our own version of Craigslist, for people who have items to buy or sell
    • Book Talks – discussions about books we have read as a faculty, such as NurtureShock
    • Healthy Cooking – a group sharing recipes for healthy eating
Our Ning community is now part of school life

The Ning has connected our faculty in ways we never imagined. We wanted our teachers to connect and share, and share they did! As we got to know each other better, we began to feel a greater sense of community and common purpose.

Our faculty can now easily collaborate on lesson plans and community service projects across divisions. They readily share ideas and resources. We now have a virtual community that parallels our physical community, and its powerful anytime-from-anywhere communications capabilities make us feel closer together than ever. It’s well worth the $25 a month Ning subscription.

Now that our teachers see the benefits of working together and learning from one another, we will spend this year showing them how to use tools to connect them to educators around the world so that they experience all the benefits of being truly connected learners. Before we know it, they will be connecting the world to their classrooms, and leading their students to become connected learners as well.

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Patti Grayson

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