Carpenter offers look at social media as a tool for teachers in Distinguished Scholar Award lecture

Associate Professor of Education Jeffrey Carpenter, who heads the Teaching Fellows program, delivered the 2019-20 Distinguished Scholar Award lecture on Monday, Oct. 14. He offered an overview of his research into how teachers use social media as a professional development tool and to build connections with colleagues around the globe.

As a young teacher in rural Japan in the late 1990s, nothing underscored Jeffrey Carpenter’s sense of isolation more clearly than to show up to school to find no one there. Carpenter had missed the message that his fellow teachers would spend the day observing teaching and learning in the classrooms of an elementary school down the road.

But that feeling of isolation that day would give way to an epiphany about the value of collaboration, as he joined his colleagues in observing how a fellow teacher led class, and how students reacted to being taught. “We’re all in one room, watching what was happening,” Carpenter said Monday as he delivered the 2019-20 Distinguished Scholar Award lecture in LaRose Digital Theatre. “I could tell there was this learning process going on there. They were studying teaching and learning in this deep and powerful way, but I didn’t fully understand it.”

It was a first step for Carpenter toward a fuller understanding of how teachers collaborate to advance their professional development. More specifically, Carpenter has become a leader in the examination of how teachers use social media to build professional connections, share best practices, and explore innovative approaches to teaching and learning.

Carpenter was presented this spring with the Distinguished Scholar Award in recognition of his prolific research in the area and the contributions he has made to better understand the role of collaboration and collaborative technologies in teaching and learning. An associate professor of education and the director of Elon’s Teaching Fellows Program, Carpenter joined the faculty in the School of Education in 2010 as an assistant professor and was promoted to associate professor in 2016. The past nine years have been marked by high levels of scholarly productivity, with his work widely read and cited and other researchers actively seeking out collaborations with him.

Carpenter was presented with the Distinguished Scholar Award in the spring.

Since coming to Elon, Carpenter has given more than 110 research presentations, many of which were delivered at top-tier national and international conferences such as the American Educational Research Association Annual Meeting, the American Association of Colleges of Teacher Education Annual Conference, and the International Society for Technology in Education Annual Conference. Since 2010, he has published 40 articles, including 26 during the past three calendar years, along with three book chapters and 14 papers in conference proceedings.

Carpenter explained Monday night that his interest in collaboration was born in part out of those feelings of isolation he had in Japan. It was not just language or cultural differences that led him to feel cut off, but the nature of the teaching profession. “You’re surrounded by people all the time, but you’re also very isolated because you get so little time with other adults,” Carpenter said. “You don’t get to talk through how difficult teaching is and how to get better at it.”

Those feelings can be even more acute for beginning teachers who may not have access to resources to help them progress as professionals and develop as teachers, Carpenter noted. “A lot of time, I didn’t know how to get better on my own,” Carpenter said. “You can learn a lot from practice on your own, but there’s a ceiling. That’s why a lot of teachers plateau in their growth after a couple of years. They learn on their own how to get better for a short period of time, and they hit a ceiling, and unless they push beyond and collaborate with other people, they don’t tend to get a lot better over the years.”

While in graduate school, Carpenter said he finally learned the formal name for that collaborative exercise he experienced in Japan — lesson study — and he focused his dissertation on teacher professional learning that was teacher-directed and collaborative. It would be years later that he was clued in to how teachers were using social media, Twitter in particular, to pursue professional learning outside the conferences and workshops that were typical platforms for professional development and continuing education.

Planning for his Teaching in the 21st Century Classroom course at Elon during summer 2012, Carpenter realized that he needed to get up to speed on a relatively new concept called flipped classrooms. But the idea was so new, there were no books written about it and no academic articles based on a scholarly examination of its effectiveness. He turned to Twitter.

“I see all these teachers on there sharing about their experiences as sort of the pioneers of flipped learning,” Carpenter told the audience.

These teachers had turned to social media to find what Carpenter called “co-conspirators” because none of the colleagues in their schools or districts were exploring these concepts. In Twitter, they found a way to connect with “someone on the other side of the United States who was producing flipped content for an 11th grade English class,” Carpenter said.

“This wasn’t a natural jump for me,” he said, “but I saw the same stuff I had seen with lesson study in Japan and the U.S. going on in social media.”

Carpenter began employing social media in his education classes so that his students could better connect with practicing teachers and more fully understand how the concepts they learned about in class translated into the classroom. “They are trying on this teacher identity, which is new to them, by interacting with more practicing teachers,” Carpenter said.

Carpenter’s interest in the topic and connections he made via social media would expand into an area of focus for his research, as he connected with a colleague at the University of North Texas, Assistant Professor of Social Studies Education Daniel Krutka, to produce the first large-scale study of how K-12 teachers use Twitter. Not surprisingly, Carpenter first connected with Krutka via a direct message on Twitter.

“I found all these people, and I was fascinated by all the ideas social media was exposing me to as well,” Carpenter said.

There are certainly drawbacks to social media, Carpenter said. These platforms create just enough distance between people that they can become avenues to say things or act in ways that no one would if they were face-to-face with a person, he said. There is also the danger of creating echo chambers that are filled with homogenous ideas, he said.

“For educators who I study, the educator corner of social media is a fairly pleasant corner of social media,” Carpenter said. “For educators, this idea of access to more people and more ideas, it generally turns out well.”

Carpenter and his Elon colleagues developed the #ElonEd hashtag to have regular online discussions among education students and educators that can expand upon what students are learning in the classroom and expose students to new ideas, he said. “We’re pushing them out of the nest a little bit, but we have to have that safer space where we know they’re not going to be treated rudely,”  he said. “We have to help them build networks so that they are exposed to diverse ideas.”

Carpenter is continuing to extend his research into how educators use social media, with a study now underway with Associate Professor Scott Morrison and Elon students Madeline Craft and Michalene Lee that explores how and why educators are using the platform Instagram.

Carpenter is the 20th recipient of the Distinguished Scholar Award, which recognizes a faculty member whose research has earned peer commendation and respect, and who has made significant contributions to his or her field of study.