Passionately Curious: Jeff Carpenter on how teachers connect and collaborate through technology

Jeff Carpenter, associate professor of education and director of the Teaching Fellows program, was one of eight Elon faculty members featured this year in "Passionately Curious," the annual Elon University President's Report. 

Each year, Elon University points a spotlight on its truly exceptional faculty and their dedication to excellent teaching, scholarly accomplishment and transformative mentoring in the President’s Report. In this year’s report, “Elon University Faculty: Passionately Curious,” featured educators were asked to write about their intellectual passion and how they share that passion with their students inside and outside the classroom. 

Associate Professor of Education Jeff Carpenter talking with students in the classroom.

quickly learned two things at the beginning of my teaching career: teaching was really hard, and I was very isolated. While isolation has long plagued teachers in the United States, I was experiencing an extreme version of it: I was teaching in rural Japan and knew woefully little about the language, culture and education system. I was able to learn some on my own through trial and error, and by conjuring the spirits of the teacher role models from my own schooling. But I soon had a sense that I was unlikely to ever become a particularly great teacher if I continued to toil away on my own.

Fortunately, as I gradually learned to navigate the Japanese language, culture and schools, I gained access to Lesson Study, a rich, teacher-driven, collaborative professional development process. In Lesson Study, teams of teachers design, teach and analyze lessons that are meant to explore thorny aspects of teaching. My exposure to Lesson Study provided new ideas about how to improve as an educator, and more importantly gave me a sense of the potential of professional development (PD).

Unfortunately, in the ensuing years I spent as a high school teacher in several U.S. states, I experienced just as much bad PD as good PD. Some PD dealt with content I perceived as relevant, treated me as a professional and allowed me to collaborate with colleagues. But on too many occasions PD was one-size-fits-all, seemed irrelevant to the particular context of my classroom and students, and didn’t actually leave me feeling like I was being treated as a professional. The fact that so many of my fellow teachers and I were quite hungry to improve in our teaching added to our frustration when subjected to such ineffective and often condescending PD. We were ourselves in charge of organizing teaching and learning experiences for the benefit of others, but rarely benefitted from our own rich professional learning opportunities.

When I returned to graduate school, I was therefore interested in better understanding teacher learning and professional development. I discovered that some places in the U.S. were using the same PD model I experienced in Japan and I ended up focusing my dissertation on U.S. humanities teachers’ experiences with Lesson Study. However, when I came to Elon, there were no existing Lesson Study groups in the area for me to easily continue that line of research. I began looking around for new opportunities to study other collaborative, teacher-driven PD approaches.

Serendipitously, a 2012 conversation with a K-12 colleague piqued my interest in how teachers were using Twitter for professional purposes. Although in its early years Twitter was often characterized by banal status updates, some educators realized its potential for other uses. The open nature and short format of Twitter offers teachers opportunities to connect and collaborate beyond their districts, states and even nations. Instead of being limited to learning with only a few peers in their school, teachers could tap into a larger professional community via Twitter, and do so whenever and from wherever.

Twitter also connected me with Dan Krutka, a fellow education researcher. Our first project produced an article, “How and Why Educators Use Twitter: A Survey of the Field,” that is one of the most widely read and cited articles in the history of the Journal of Research on Technology in Education. The more than 750 educators who responded indicated they valued Twitter’s personalized, immediate nature, and the positive and collaborative community it facilitated. Many reported that Twitter served as an antidote to professional isolation and described their Twitter activities as superior to traditional PD offerings.

This initial Twitter research led to a further six journal articles on educators’ Twitter experiences. I have also expanded into examining other new forms of teacher professional activity such as the use of Pinterest, Reddit and Voxer, a private messaging app. The common thread among most of these studies has been voluntary collaboration driven by teachers – not mandated by principals or districts – and how technology empowers educators to accomplish this.

My research has benefited my teaching at Elon, perhaps most significantly in the Teaching in the 21st Century Classroom course. Social media keeps me up-to-date on the K-12 buzz, and my students use Twitter to begin building their professional networks. Assistant Professor of Education Scott Morrison and I have also developed the #ElonEd Twitter hashtag, which is now widely used by students, faculty, staff and alumni across our teacher education program. When our graduates face the inevitable challenges of teaching, they don’t do so in isolation. They have online colleagues and communities they can go to for help.