"When connections are weak...not more research, but better connections are needed," according to George Siemens. I teach a variety of ICT courses to preservice teachers at The College of William and Mary. One of the common projects I have included in each course I have taught for the last three years is an electronic mentorship. The motivation behind this assignment is to help beginning and preservice teachers to build their networks.
Terry Anderson at the recent Connectivism conference, spoke about design-based research theory and methodology. I walked away from his presentation thinking of what I do through the electronic mentorships as a form of intervention. I had never made that connection before.
MENTORING AS A NON-TRAINING INTERVENTION has grown rapidly in the last twenty years. From teacher education to aerospace, from financial firms to community foundations, mentoring relationships are increasing in popularity, and have a variety of designs and outcomes. But thinking of mentoring in terms of a networking strategy needs more exploration.
Research has shown mentoring can promote teacher effectiveness. Successful mentoring experiences can lead to beginning teachers’ increased contentment with and proficiency in teaching, and, as a result, the professional development of mentored novices is more noticeable than their non-mentored counterparts (Spuhler & Zetler, 1994, cited in Thomsen & Gustafson, 1997). Mentoring programs that promote teacher effectiveness recognize that early-career teachers must arrive at a place in their professional growth where practical experience and professional wisdom provide a secure foundation upon which to draw as they make their ongoing pedagogical decisions (Berliner, 1986; Ralph, 1998; Shulman, 1987).
One of the strongest attributes of William and Mary's teacher preparation program is that they pair preservice teachers with the same cooperating teachers throughout their field experiences right up to their student teaching. It provides consistency and an opportunity for a seasoned teacher to know their novices needs, strengths, and weaknesses. However, this relationship can prove to be a challenge in that it doesnt give the students access to a diverse support network: diverse in ideology, pedagogy, and global perspectives.
By requiring preservice teachers to participate in an online mentorship experience with highly accomplished teachers from around the world they are able to get the diverse perspective they need. In the past, the mentors involved in my project, while top educators in the field, didnt necessarily use technology in instruction. My justification was that the purpose of this experience transends any particular web-based tool. I also wanted students to use electronic communication tools as a way of networking with highly accomplished educators that could offer "just in time" advice that wouldnt seem evaluative in nature.
Each of the technology experiences are embedded into content students need to learn to be effective in the classroom. This semester, I decided to take a different twist by choosing mentors that are both highly accomplished teachers from around the world but who also understand the importance of using Web 2.0 tools and other technologies in their teaching. My thinking was that the focus would be on both technology and best practice through a global lens, that would also help prepare these students for the changing demographic they will find in their classrooms, while at the same time showing them the value online networks can have on their growth and developing practice.
Mentor Roles and Outcomes
The role of mentors is to to weigh in on the discussion by commenting, clarifying, and asking probing questions of the mentees to stimulate their thinking. They post when they are asked a specific question or something posted by someone else resonates with them. However, many feel free to post much more than that.
In the beginning, the mentors see the opportunity as a way to "give back" to the profession and collaborate with other mentors in improving the profession a few teachers at a time. However, it becomes clear early on that the mentorship experience is as much about moving seasoned teachers along a developmental continuum toward improving teacher leadership, as it is about a one-way communication strategies to impart mentor to novice knowledge. The collaborations fast grow into a learning ecology with as many mentors professionally communicating with other mentors as novices communicating professionally with other novices -in addition to traditional mentor to novice communications.
This semester, a few days into the networking experience, several first time mentors with my project shared how the experience was impacting their ability to reflect upon their own practice.
These two comments occurred in Skype conversations with mentors who teach on the other-side of the world from me.
[2/5/2007 7:00:28 AM] P says: Hi Sheryl - how are you ?? The
conversations going on in the Tapped In room are very interesting - greatly
enjoying contributing - thanks for inviting us to join.
[2/5/2007 7:03:50 AM] Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says: I am so appreciative of
your time and effort
[2/5/2007 7:04:52 AM] Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says: It will be awesome for all
of us I think-- to see how things are done in different places in the world.
[2/5/2007 7:05:03 AM] P says: It's quite good to get time for
us to reflect on practice as well - as you don't get much time when you are
actually doing it!!!
[2/5/2007 7:05:25 AM] Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says: That is what many mentors
[2/5/2007 7:05:34 AM] P says: I think the collaborative
aspects of web 2.0 are quite awe inspiring
[2/5/2007 7:06:12 AM] P says: I am off for lunch now following
my morning maths class - take care
[2/9/2007 3:29:41 PM] A says: Hey Sheryl- Just a note to say I am loving the debate in Tapped In. One of the first things I do when I get home is check the conversations- as you say- it is helping me think more clearly about things by sorting out what I think about the debate in my own mind. Thanks for the invite- it's great.
[2/9/2007 3:30:12 PM] Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says: I am so appreciative of the time you are putting in
[2/9/2007 3:30:17 PM] Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach says: You are quite awesome.
[2/9/2007 3:30:36 PM] A says: It's good for me!
This note came in an email from another mentor not living in the US.
just letting you know that I have already learnt heaps from participating in
this. The student questions have given me time to reflect on my own
practices, so thanks to the students. Then reading responses from other
teachers around the world and knowing exactly where they are coming from is
heartening. Too often, staff have looked at me as if I had rocks in my head
when I made suggestions about using technology, but reading other teachers
uses of mp3 players in Kindegartens is what I have had in mind for quite
There are many gems here and I look forward to participating as best I can.
The networking of preservice teachers with accomplished teachers who not only understand good pedagogy, but who are comfortable collaborating in a virtual learning community has positive outcomes for everyone. The learning is universal; each member builds upon the ideas of the other and the ideas grow and change within the community. The amazing thing is that participants are at very different stages in their development and yet everyone is learning something.
Generally, the mentors are encouraged to give reasoned advice that could be applied globally. Obviously, there is much US terminology thrown about as most of these students will be teaching in US schools. However, I think it is important for the students to understand just how flat the world really is in terms of learning and how by making global connections we all grow.
I use Tapped In rather than blogs and wikis (although they do create and use these tools as well for other objectives in the course) so that these students can be candid and not fear anything they say will be used in an evaluative way. Tapped In is a "walled garden" in that what is said in our group is not broadcasted to the search engines. It has been my experience that this aspect creates a feeling of community and trust in our groups.
The Networks Tend to Merge
The most interesting aspect of using online networks is how they feed and inform each other. For example, out of my preservice group mentoring grew ENDAPT, a mentoring project done with William and Mary first year teaching alumni and the Teacher Leaders Network (TLN). TLN is an online group of teacher leaders from around the US and Canada that have been communicating and collaborating for the last four years via a web page and listserv. Amazing things have grown out of that group. So it was a natural for me to include them as mentors both with my preservice teachers and the ENDAPT project.
In helping to lead the ABPC 21st Century teaching and learning project in Alabama, I connected with some excellent teachers who were growing in their ability to use Web 2.0 tools to collaborate online. It was natural for me to invite them to be involved as mentors in my projects. As one of the conveners for the K12Online Conference, my network grew to include educators from around the world who were beginning to heavily influence my thinking in educational reform. Again, I invited them to join the learning communities in Tapped In and modeled for my students the importance of building on collaborations. Other mentors came from my network connections made from reading blogs and comments.
Now it is clear to me that as my network has grown a viral effect has been at work. My networks have merged pulling participants from one group to another and back again. A true learning ecology.
Is it not exciting to live in a time such as this?
Photo credit: http://www.ladiesinred.org/images/dec04/connections%20006%20(2).jpg