Nurturing professional development in an online community

Sarah Priestley provides some valuable tips and ideas on how to set up and support an online community of teachers, using 'Edmodo'.

Sarah Priestley provides some valuable tips and ideas on how to set up and support an online community of teachers, using 'Edmodo'.
Do you have some teaching tips or activities you’d like to share with other teachers? Is there an area of teaching you would like to find out more about but don’t know how to go about it? Are you a teacher that lives far from your school and/or other colleagues? Do you have teaching staff that are new to the profession and are looking for professional support?
If you have answered 'YES' to any of the above questions, then the answer may lie in setting up an online teaching community. This article will examine how you can do this and key questions to consider as you do so. The benefits of creating an online teaching community will also be discussed.

Why an online teacher community?

We’re all very familiar with booking holiday flights online, doing our Christmas shopping online and sharing personal news and photos with family and friends online, too. How about teachers developing professionally online too, in a community such as on Edmodo? For those of you who haven’t heard of Edmodo, it’s essentially a free platform where teachers can very easily create and/or join an online group to share and seek teaching support. In your Edmodo group you can upload lesson materials, ask and reply to teaching questions, and write posts about a great lesson you’ve just taught. The potential for it is enormous. In fact, your online group could end up creating a fully-stocked shelf of teaching resources by using the Edmodo library feature and a staffroom of helpful and knowledgeable colleagues, all online of course!  
My own experience of using Edmodo has been with two groups of British university students sponsored by the British Council Italy and working as English Language Assistants in schools across Italy. This year I have also set up an online group for teachers from five Bilingual schools the British Council Italy is working with as part of a Consultancy Service we offer. My first-hand experience, the lessons I’ve learnt and precious advice I’ve had from colleagues have all contributed to this article.

How do I get started?

Like teaching a lesson, you’ll firstly need to plan carefully. This will involve asking yourself questions such as:
  • What is the goal of having this online community?
  • Who exactly am I creating this for?  
  • What do I expect the group members to do?
At a practical level you’ll want to decide how often you, the group creator/manager, will post during the key initial stages and also what you and the group members can post messages about. Being crystal clear about the online group’s goal and your expectations of the members of the online community is critical to its success.

How do I spread the word about my online teacher community?

There are any number of ways you can do this: having a face-to-face meeting to publicise and launch the online group, emailing teachers, putting up posters in staffrooms, encouraging teachers to tell three friends/colleagues about the group, advertising it in a teacher newsletter. All potential group members will need practical instructions on how to log on and it’s worth setting a deadline for joining, too. An email and/or posters that remind to staff to log on work very effectively. Virtual prizes and badges awarded, say, to the first five teachers that join will also entice teachers to get involved.

Any other tips?

In the real world we all know the rules of social etiquette but given the online nature of your community, it’s a good idea to remind/inform your members of what behaviour is acceptable and unacceptable. This can be a simple code of conduct and it will help avoid potential problems such as offending a member through sarcasm, breaking copyright (e.g. by not sourcing teaching materials) or child protection issues (e.g. uploading a photo of a learner and their work without permission from the parent or learner).
Like any new group of students at the start of a course, you may need to dedicate some time to your online group and encourage them to get to know each other, especially if they have not all met each other in real life. A post from you with a simple ice-breaker can work very nicely e.g.
Everybody please write a short introductory post saying who you are, where you are based and your most successful teaching moment so far this term. Then read these posts from the other teachers and ask at least 2 questions! Do this by the end of this week please!  
You can see that the ice-breaker instructions are very specific in what is expected from the members and includes a deadline. This gives the group clear objectives about what to do and by when, just as teachers do in lessons when you are giving instructions to tasks.
As mentioned before, it’s entirely up to you and your online group members to decide what the group will be used for. To encourage online participation in the initial stages I have found that ‘Teachers of the week’ works well, where I nominate two teachers to ask each other three questions about their school/class/teaching resources or whatever they like. It allows us all to get an insight into another person’s professional life and learn from them.  
Finally, don’t forget to get feedback from the teachers on what content they would like to see being posted. Edmodo has a poll function, which allows you to quickly poll the members and give you immediate feedback. It couldn’t be easier!
I hope my article has inspired you to find out more about online teacher communities and perhaps experiment and set one up. I’d very much like to hear about your own experiences so do share with us all here.

About the author

Sarah Priestley works for the British Council Italy and is based in the Milan office. She is a teacher and trainer and is currently Bilingual Project Coordinator. For more information on online teacher communities or her work with Bilingual schools please contact her at  

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