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Curriculum & Leadership Journal
An electronic journal for leaders in education
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Social media and schools as professional learning communities

Kay Cantwell
Education Officer: Digital Learning, ResourceLink Brisbane Catholic Education

Social media is burgeoning, and is not going to go away. According to the Nielsen 3rd quarter report on the State of the Media, nearly four out of five active internet users now frequent social media sites. While there is a great deal of negative media surrounding the social media, they can in fact be harnessed to create myriad possibilities for schools as learning communities.

Social media are web-based and mobile technologies that enable digital communication via a number of different modes. Well- known examples of Social Media include social networking site Facebook, microblogging tool Twitter, social bookmarking sites such as Delicious and Diigo, and common blogging platforms such as Wordpress and Blogger. Each of these provides a different way of connecting and communicating with others via status updates, short comments, sharing of photos, useful web links or more extensive articles.

This article considers the ways in which social networking tools may be used to overcome some of the obstacles schools face when attempting to develop a professional learning culture. It then examines a key social media service, Twitter, and the ways in which it may help educators to building a personal learning network, and before looking briefly at some other useful tools.

Social media and professional learning communities

A school which is a professional learning community focuses upon removing the walls between classrooms (metaphorically in all cases, physically in some!), encouraging collaboration, dialogue, ready access to colleagues and an openness to challenge understandings and currently accepted knowledge. Time is provided not only for professional development in the traditional sense of in-service days, but also for collegial discussion and reflection. Teachers feel free to engage in co-teaching, team teaching, mentoring, and peer observation.

If learning communities are to develop, teachers need time to collaborate, leadership support, and access to useful information, but research suggests that schools face major obstacles in offering these resources. (Roberts and Pruitt 2009 p3) Social Media can help to meet these needs.

Social media providing ways to collaborate

It is almost impossible for teachers to coordinate meeting times with the variety of competing demands they face throughout the working day. However, by embracing the asynchronous nature of social media, collaboration can occur at a time that suits each individual. Social media can also be used for collaboration across geographical locations: teachers are just a few keystrokes away from colleagues locally and globally. Social media can be used to gather instant feedback, mentor colleagues and attend online conferences (Ferriter et al 2011).

Social media providing leadership support

There is usually only one principal in a school. However, the ratio of leaders to staff does not have to determine the amount of support a leadership team can provide if social media is used as a way to supplement face-to-face communication. Meetings that a leadership representative cannot physically attend can be shared online, or the input collected and considered by leadership at a later date. Members of a leadership team can 'check in' with staff by posting a tweet, posting a discussion starter or asking for input using a variety of channels.

Social media providing information

This is a key role of social media when used in a professional context. Questions can be posted online for response from colleagues and/or experts. Social bookmarking services, another form of social media, are brilliant for discovering new websites and sources of information.

Using Twitter

Twitter is a form of social media known as microblogging, through which members share information in succinct posts, or 'tweets', of 140 characters or less. Tweets are shared with other Twitter users, known as 'followers', who have chosen to keep track of that person's messages. Following the tweets of educational experts is a way to obtain tips about useful websites, upcoming educational trends and links to quality digital resources. Often seen as the domain of B-Grade celebrities and those who wish to share the endless minutiae of their lives, Twitter is in fact a powerful communication tool and vast source of information for educators.

Here are the introductory steps in using the Twitter service.

Step 1: Sign up for a Twitter account

Log on to www.Twitter.com and join. Twitter provides excellent assistance if you experience any difficulty. Consider using your real name for your Twitter handle. Although privacy online is always important, if you are using Twitter purely as a professional learning network, it is easier for others to find and follow you if you use your real name, and building your network is one of the key purposes for using Twitter in this way.

Step 2: Find people to follow

There is no pressure to begin 'tweeting' immediately. Ease into Twitter slowly by following some key educationalists, and become familiar with how they frame their posts, and the type of information they share. Once you have followed one or two people, you can expand your network by viewing who they follow. It is likely they follow people with similar interests. If you don't know where to begin, have a look at sites such as http://wefollow.com/ or http://listorious.com/ or http://www.twellow.com/. These sites are digital directories or yellow pages of Twitter users.

Step 3: Learn some hash tags

Twitter uses the hash symbol (#) to identify key words used in Tweets. When a user is tweeting about a particular topic, the use of a hash tag means it will be easier to search for this post at a later date. Many educational conferences now have a conference hash tag, so that users can follow the tweets made by participants attending – an example is #iste12 – the hash tag for the upcoming ISTE Conference in San Diego in 2012. Already people are posting ideas for their conference presentations.

Other great hash tags for educators getting started with Twitter include:

  • #Edtech – tweets to do with technology in the classroom
  • #education – tweets to do with education
  • #edchat – a weekly discussion about all things education (discussions on Twitter that occur at an appointed time are often called 'TweetMeets')
  • #teachmeet – connecting teachers all over the world
  • #ozteachers – Australian teacher chat

Step 4: Manage your posts

The number of tweets may seem overwhelming at first. A useful way of managing Twitter is to download an application such as Tweetdeck which interfaces with Twitter, and allows you to organise your searches so that they are easily viewable.

Other useful social media tools

Twitter is not the only tool that educators can use to broaden their personal learning network.

Linked In is growing in prominence as a networking tool for professionals. While it began as a place for business people to share a virtual summary of career highlights with potential employees, it now also provides online discussion spaces for groups of like-minded educators, on topics such as 21st Century Education, Educational Leadership, Teacher Training and Curriculum Development. A search reveals 4,779 groups to choose from, and membership is drawn from around the world.

Diigo is a social bookmarking tool, a place to organise, store and share web links. It is also a very active online learning community for educators. Diigo provides spaces for collaboration, groups and the opportunity to discover new web links via email digests of the most recently saved websites.

Blogs are another source of up-to-date educational information (see, for example, the award winning blogs listed by the hosting service Edublogs). However, accessing each blog is time-consuming, and may be inefficient, since blog authors post at irregular intervals. Time-poor teachers may be better off subscribing to a selection of blogs using an RSS feedreader such as Google Reader. Using RSS, new posts from all the blogs you subscribe to may be read at one location. For more information see, for example, the article by Mo Moumenine on the IncreaseRSS website. 


Education in the form that we have today was developed when knowledge was scarce, and communication channels limited. When learning could only occur in the presence of an individual who held all knowledge, it made sense to create institutions where a fixed curriculum could be delivered to age-grouped classes, and to measure 'mastery' via tests of content knowledge. Today, knowledge is not scarce, and individuals have access to multiple communication channels. This has significant implications for education. Not only does it mean that the role of teachers must change, it also means that for schools to be considered professional learning communities, they must increasingly orient themselves within the wider world beyond the classroom walls. Social media provides the channels for this open communication to occur. It is through adopting new modes of accessing, sharing and creating information that teachers and students will be able to work together to transform education for the 21st century.

For further information from Kay Cantwell follow the ResourceLink blog at http://resourcelinkbce.wordpress.com/ and Kay's own Twitter account at http://twitter.com/#!/KayC28
ResourceLink is Brisbane Catholic Education's Information and Resourcing Centre.

For further discussion of the social media within Curriculum Leadership, see the introductory article by Dennis Masseni, and the article by Bridget McGuiness on the uses of the social media in the classroom and the school community. See also Curriculum Leadership's Twitter account.


2009 Horizon Report. Retrieved October 23, 2011, from http://wp.nmc.org/horizon2009/

Ferriter, W.M., Ramsden, J. T. & Sheninger, E.C. (2011). Communicating and connecting with social media. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

Richardson, W. & Mancabelli, R. (2011). Personal learning networks: using the power of connections to transform education. Bloomington: Solution Tree Press.

Roberts, S.M. & Pruitt, E.Z. (2003). Schools as professional learning communities: collaborative activities and strategies for professional development. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin Press.

Sparvell, M. (n.d.). This is your principal tweeting. Education Review, October 29, 2011.


Subject Headings

Social media
Teaching profession
Professional development