Online Social Networking and Teacher Professional Development

In this admittedly limited literature review I explore online social networking and how it might relate to teacher professional development.

  • I would very much welcome any feedback you have concerning what I have written.
  • I would equally appreciate additional references to related scholarly writing.
Furthermore, I welcome a review of the literature as it might appear from "non-scholarly" sources (i.e. blogs, wikis, etc.) and feel that in this subject area, the online writers will likely do a better job than the peer-reviewed Academics.


Online Social Networking and Teacher Professional Development

Interesting shifts have been taking place recently in relation to the use of computer-assisted professional development, specifically in the form of online social networking in education. MySpace and Facebook are two popular examples of social networking websites, but unfortunately their early reputation – and ofttimes negative publicity – have created a stigma around social networking that the technology itself doesn't deserve (see Hargadon, 2008). The understandable concerns created by these and similar networks have concealed amazing changes that are taking place in educational environments as the tools provided through social networking are being used by teachers and students alike. Nevertheless, as one reviews the academic literature associated with these new technologies and possibilities afforded through online social networks, a dearth of quality research is discovered – suggesting the need for further research in this open field. For as Pohjonen (1997) suggests: “Networking is an important feature of the new learning environments” (p. 372).

Social Networking In General

To begin with, the literature is replete with discussions centered on social networking in general. Mark Newman (2003), for example, discusses the different types of networks, elaborates on the structures of networks in the real world, and even analyzes the history and makeup of social networks (pp. 174-176). Ronald Breiger (2004), Linton Freeman (2004), and John Scott (2000) have all done significant work related to social network analysis. Moreover, Thomas Valente (1995) has furthered the work of Everett Rogers (2003) in treating diffusion tendencies throughout various network models. Thus, social networking on the whole has received generous treatment in the literature and throughout academia.

Newman’s definition of social networks summarizes the direction of most research related to social networking. Take particular note of the lack of references to any online networking.
A social network is a set of people or groups of people with some pattern of contacts or interactions between them. The patterns of friendships between individuals, business relationships between companies, and intermarriages between families are all examples of networks that have been studied in the past. (2003, p. 174)
In spite of the many angles at which researchers have approached social networking, however, very few have studied online networks until recent years – as online social networks have only recently sprung into existence.

An astoundingly high number of studies centered on the topic of online social networking involve youth and their affinity for such online behavior. Equally surprisingly is the relatively high frequency of related research employing qualitative methods. Using a survey methodology, Lenhart and Madden (2007), for example, report that “more than half (55%) of all of online American youths ages 12-17 use an online social networking sites” (p. 1). To continue, Rex Heer (2007) utilized qualitative methods to examine the use of a virtual community environment ( to assist first year college students’ social and academic transitions to a large university. And similarly, Heer’s 2005 ethnography of the Friendster service followed a 9-month participant-observation and included interviews, qualitative surveys and focus groups with over 200 Friendster early adopters. Each of these studies has added much to our knowledge of online social networking practices while also bringing unique perspective.

Professional Development In General

The topic of professional development, similarly, is an equally oft-studied subject throughout academia. Among oceans of similar literature are studies done by Robert Fortenberry (1985) and Gary Griffin (1983). Fortenberry, for example, identifies components of effective staff development:
An effective staff development program must attend to substantial issues of teaching and learning, adult development, and organizational processes. Primary is a bi-focused commitment to the principle of individual fulfillment, emphasizing self-realization and professional enrichment on the one hand and an improved pedagogy that promotes student actualization on the other. (p. 432)
While in this explanation Fortenberry does not focus on computer-assisted professional development methods – it was hardly developed in 1985 – the components listed can be easily applied to online settings.

Social Networking In Professional Development

As was stated in the beginning, there have been precious few studies conducted that relate to both teacher professional development and online social networking. Nevertheless, there have been many researchers with efforts leading to such a discussion. The work of Lave and Wenger (Lave & Wenger, 1991; Wenger, 1999), for example, provides a good base for studies related to networked learning in their exploration of what they have termed “communities of practice”. The concept of a community of practice refers to the process of social learning that occurs when people who have a common interest in some subject or problem collaborate over an extended period to share ideas, find solutions, and build innovations. It refers as well to the stable group that is formed from such regular interactions. Lave and Wenger conclude that a “community of practice is an intrinsic condition for the existence of knowledge, not least because it provides the interpretive support necessary for making sense of its heritage” (1991, p. 98). Thus, in order for successful professional development to take place, an effective community of practice must be established, whether that be through online or face to face interaction.

In 2005, Steven Downes elaborated further on the idea of communities of practice and how they had translated into online learning communities.
In the world of e-learning, the closest thing to a social network is a community of practice, articulated and promoted by people such as Etienne Wenger in the 1990s… For the most part, though, what constituted "community" in online learning were artificial and often contrived "discussions" supported by learning management systems. These communities were typically limited to a given group of learners, such as a university class, had a fixed start and end-point, and while substantially better than nothing, rarely approached Wenger's theory. (p. 4)
Downes goes on to admit, however, that as students and teachers continue to use wikis, blogs, and other interactive online tools “a network of interactions forms – much like a social network, and much like Wenger's community of practice” (p. 4, see also Sims & Salter, 2006).

To continue, many current researchers have agreed with Downes’ descriptions of both present and future environments of learning. One particular case in point is that of Bernard Cornu (2004). In his discussion of networking among teachers and learners, Cornu suggests that “collective intelligence” should first be developed for teachers and that “the classroom is the first place where collective intelligence should be addressed, developed and improved” (p. 4). Pettenati and Cigognini (2007) likewise continue on Downes’ work stating that learning trends favor the informal approach afforded by online social networking.
The emerging domain of study of informal e-learning is receiving greater attention because of the widespread of social networking practices and technologies… Social networking is emerging as a highly natural practice because it is deeply rooted in our daily behavior; spontaneous relations, interactions and conversations support informal learning practices, contributing to the creation and transmission of knowledge. In informal learning practices the social behavior and the support of technologies converge toward the “network”; a network made by people and resources, a social network, unified by personal needs or common goals, interaction policies, protocol and rules and telematic systems all together favoring the growth of a sense of belonging to the “net” community. (p. 17)
Hence, because of its natural, informal nature, online social networking has tremendous potential for utilization among teachers worldwide in staff development and other efforts.

In conclusion, as further research is centered on the potential possibilities and pitfalls of incorporating online social networks in learning, we will hopefully gain a better understanding of how such technologies can be utilized to enhance pedagogy. Furthermore, such efforts should provide insight and additional answers to a research question that has gained in importance as educational technologies have evolved: How are online social networks best utilized to enhance teacher professional development?


Breiger, R. (2004). The analysis of social networks. In M. Hardy & A. Bryman (Eds.), Handbook of data analysis (pp. 505-526). London: Sage Publications.

Cornu, B. (2004). Networking and collective intelligence for teachers and learners. In A. Brown & N. Davis (Eds.), Digital technology, communities and education (pp. 40-45). London: Routledge Falmer.

Downes, S. (2005). E-learning 2.0. eLearn magazine (2005, 10), 1-8.

Fortenberry, R. (1985). Successful staff development for effective schools. The journal of negro education (54, 3), 431-437.

Freeman, L. (2004). The development of social network analysis. Vancouver: Empirical Press.

Griffin, G. (1983). Implications of research for staff development programs. The elementary school journal (83, 4), 414-425.

Heer, R. (2007). My space in college: Students use of virtual communities to define their fit in higher education. In C. Crawford et al. (Eds.), Proceedings of society for information technology and teacher education international conference 2007 (pp. 2357-2363). Chesapeake, VA: AACE.

Lave, J. & Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning. Legitimate peripheral participation. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press.

Lenhart, A. & Madden, M. (2007). Social networking websites and teens: An overview. Retrieved February 9, 2008, from Pew internet and American life project:

Newman, M. (2003). The structure and function of complex networks. SIAM Review (56), 167-256.

Pettenati and Cigognini (2007). Social networking theories and tools to support connectivist learning activities. Journal of web based learning and teaching technologies, 17.

Pohjonen, J. (1997). New learning environments as a strategic choice. European journal of education (32, 4), 369-377.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovations (5th ed.). New York: Free Press.

Scott, John. (2000). Social network analysis: A handbook, 2nd Ed. Newberry Park, CA: Sage.

Sims, R. & Salter, D. (2006). Blogging for learning: Integrating social networks for staff development., 775-778.

Wenger, E. (1999). Communities of Practice. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Valente, Thomas. (1995). Network models of the diffusion of innovation. Cresskill, NJ: Hampton Press.

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