Message in a Virtual Bottle

A year has passed since I wrote my note                                            But I should have known this right from the start                            Only hope can keep me together                                                                     The Police

Although I’ve been writing my blog now for over 3 years, this month marks the one-year anniversary of my first tweet.  I initially started tweeting as a way to share my thoughts via my blog with a wider audience (what some would call branding).

I had no idea of the journey I was embarking upon: that tweeting and sharing my blog would help me develop an extensive Personal Learning Network and provide me with the best real-time professional development I have experienced as an educator.

Now, I’ve read many “anniversary” posts in the past few months, most of which highlight the best of:  the 5 most influential, powerful, memorable, enlightening posts of the year. This is not one of those “list type” reflections.  Instead, it’s a look at how social media (and in particular, twitter) fits within the paradigm of educational change.

Tom Grant, Superintendent of Coquitlam Schools, recently wrote about once again “being forced to think more critically and deeply about educational change”:

[Michael Fullan] clearly articulates that there are many elements of change and that at times all have influence on large-scale change. However he cautions us that if used alone or as central drivers, they may get us to a better place systemically but not as far as we think we need to go.

His thesis is that there are certain drivers that will get better results than others. He suggests we should focus on four systemically related big drivers that work.

1. The learning-instruction-assessment nexus
2. Social capital to build the profession
3. Pedagogy matches technology
4. Systemic synergy

Pedagogy and technology, building social capital: huge drivers. At the same time that I was reflecting on all of this, I was planning for an upcoming District Area Meeting that was being held in our Learning Commons. I thought, “Here is an opportunity to show how good pedagogy can be enhanced through the use of sound social media.” And so, I created a twitter hashtag for the meeting.  After one year of learning with my PLN on twitter, I wanted to quietly celebrate by sharing with my colleagues (as I have successfully with my school staff) how in bypassing traditional structures of learning and through backroom chat, that disruptive innovation, we could together make new meaning with all those around us and beyond.

I tweet and in doing so I appreciate the significance and the untapped possibilities of social media within education. What I wanted to do was show my colleagues how in interacting within a hashtag, we could “do” in terms of re-conceptualizing our learning environment. The vehicle of the hashtag not as a “lead driver” but as one mode of transportation that “binds the effective drivers – values, norms, skills, practices, relationships – together”; a reliable vehicle that in promoting dialogue could work directly on changing the culture of our organization.

The result of my efforts were not overly successful:

 @gmbondi Gino Bondi

If a guy tweets by himself in a backchat, does he still make a sound? Or is he a lone tree? #sd39area


in reply to @MrWejrChris Wejr

I am virtually with you, buddy #sd39area


The first support came from Chris Wejr, who does not work in Vancouver and who, at the time, was at least 50 km away.  Fittingly, Chris was one of the first educators I followed on twitter and his efforts to push the learning envelope forward continue to inspire me.

Now, instead of being stuck on the tepid reception my initial effort received, I stepped back and viewed the initiative within the culture of educational change. What I realized was that change can lead to loneliness, frustration and isolation if it is not a collaborative venture that is embedded in the culture of a school. Change has to “situate the energy of educators and students as the central driving force.”  Engaging on twitter and backchat, like system change, was and is a cultural phenomenon, not a procedural one.

Continuing to make my point by borrowing from Fullan, twitter can be used as one of the drivers to build social capital because its power resides in the relationships among its users. Its validity is “measured in terms of the frequency and focus of conversations with peers that center on instruction, and [are] based on feelings of trust and closeness between teachers.” Pedagogy as the focus moved forward by the appropriate tech tool.  And, as with embedded formative assessment, as Dylan Williams writes, twitter can also strengthen both achievement and instruction by establishing active users (learners) as instructional resources for each other and developing these same users as the owners of their own learning.

As I drove home following the Area Meeting, “Message in a Bottle” was playing on my iPod: time for even more reflection (for me, it’s not the cell phone but rather extended self-analysis that represents a distraction while driving!).  The Police song, many will tell you, is about loneliness.  True, but the impact of the song becomes even greater if you contextualize it. The year is 1979. Margaret Thatcher is Prime Minister. England is suffering a precipitous national decline and to borrow from The Sex Pistols, “there is no future in England’s dreaming.” The song, the times, the sentiments all seem to resonate in these days of job action, new ways of learning and shifting educational directions.  Is there a future in our BC Education plan?  Do we share a common dream?  Can we learn without boundaries? Can we extend our own learning and that of our respective communities through the use of social media?

A dream, a plan, a belief in the transformative power of education is all contingent upon ongoing, deep, “system-wide” dialogue:  twitter is one way (not the only way) to facilitate this. In engaging within this virtual forum, we have the opportunity to build upon our own “human capital” and continue to co-construct the “social capital” that is paramount for any lasting system reform.

I will continue to blog, tweet and contribute to #39area.  My experience over this past
year has taught me that, like Sting and his band mates, “I’m not alone at being alone” and that every day, by engaging with my PLN, I wake up to see “a hundred billion bottles, washed up on the shore.”  The difference for us? We get to log in, uncork the bottles, read the messages, initiate conversations and continue to learn.  Just seems like a “right driver” to me.