The Emerging World of Online Professional Development

Mike Lawson • Technology • September 12, 2012

Professional development is evolving rapidly. Gone are the days when teachers needed to wait for a conference or the next journal for help and happenings – it is now available whenever and wherever via the Internet. Collaborative technologies such as social networking and interactive websites have brought professional development into the digital, virtual world. Consultation, coaching, community discussion, collaborative engagement, individual study, and mentoring all appeal to various learning styles and address individual needs and concerns.

In the music related fields, perhaps the most exciting professional development conversations are revolving around the practitioners’ abilities to congregate and have discussions utilizing well-adopted social networking sites such as Google+, Facebook, and Twitter. A number of very large online social groups have begun to emerge, focused around established entities such as the National Association for Music Education (NafME), as well as ad-hoc groups such as the Facebook “Band Directors Group” ( and the Facebook “Music Teachers Group” ( In every case, the discussions that are happening within these robust environments are engaging and leading to the furthering of each member’s knowledge.

One of the acronyms of today’s online educationally-related world is “PLN,” which is short for “Personal Learning Network” or, in the case of a group-centered organization, a “Professional Learning Network.” While the concept of a personal learning network is not new, the development of seemingly universally-adopted integrated social media networks such as Facebook have increased the “personal” part from being limited to those living in a close-proximity of each other to now include anyone with access to the Internet. Even the language barriers have become greatly reduced due to the increased accuracy of integrated auto-translation services such as Google Translate.

For many people, the notion of professional development still creates the picture of attending a conference or attending a lecture given by an expert in the field. While these are still viable ways to develop professionally, to more fully take advantage of the incredible resources available in professional development using online venues, one must expand the definition to include concepts such as creative exploration, collaboration, peer-discussion, and self-guidance. Once these concepts are embraced, the true value of online professional development can be realized; still, in some cases, the personal human element can appear to be lessened.

Instrumental composer and band director Travis J. Weller notes, “Social media platforms have increased access to on-line professional development. Online professional development is now a viable option with a much broader scope and yet has increased in quality. My only criticism is that it does take away true human interaction from the process. Still, with so many knowledgeable educators contributing, music teachers and directors need to take advantage of these opportunities to broaden and enrich their contacts and knowledge base.”

Because a PLN is tailor-made to each individual’s needs, many people believe that starting their own PLN is difficult; in actuality, the process is quite simple. A person’s learning network can start with the very social networks sites that he or she is already using simply by searching for topics of interest and “joining-in” on the conversations found or by asking their peers what online resources they are using and then exploring them.

Dr. Charles R. Jackson, Jr., band director and noted MusicForAll clinician (, when discussing PLNs, describes some of the strengths and needs for these online opportunities: “One of the many apparent strengths of online professional development for music educators is the ability to focus with pinpoint accuracy on the topics most important and relevant to their needs and interests.” He also points out there are advantages to sitting at home and searching through the many online forums for answers to questions that, for one reason or another, a teacher might be hesitant to bring up in a public meeting involving their colleagues and peers. Better still is to become engaged in a two-way communication through an online resource and have an in depth discussion on very specific topics. Online professional development has the potential to become, if it has not already become so, the life-line that will save many novice music teachers from falling victim to the staggering statistics which reflect the intolerably high number of talented individuals who leave the profession.

As might be expected, music related industries are increasing their discussions and interactions with music teachers and musicians through social media and by doing so they are helping to better understand each others needs and how their cross-purposes can be better met. Marina Terteryan, marketing manager and String/Jazz product line manager at Alfred Music Publishing, has been keen on cultivating this relationship.  She says, “The music education community, which includes teachers as well as businesses, is so powerful because of its common goal to bring music to the world. Any time that cross-collaboration happens, everybody benefits because we can better serve each other as well as the students. That is why it’s so important for us to constantly communicate with the teachers and musicians that we serve. We not only listen and take everything into consideration, but we seek this information out because of how much we value it. Social media is one of the wonderful tools that allows us to do all this in real time.”

The “Big Four” of the social networks being used for professional development are Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, and Twitter. Each one of them is being used in a different manner, and all of them are being used to disseminate useful information pertinent to the fields of music and music education. In the May 2011 edition of SBO, an article titled “Technology: Interactive Blogging & Social Networking” highlighted some of the many resources being created by music teachers and directors who are blogging about music. The blogs, people, and resources mentioned in that article are a part of the larger community discussions that are happening on these the “Big Four” social networking platforms.

How the “Big Four” are being used as PLNs:

  • Facebook ( – Groups such as the Music Teachers and Band Directors Groups have been created specifically to share and collaborate information among their members. Also, organizations and product developers are now frequently using their Facebook pages to discuss topics and products in an online forum.
  • Google+ ( – “Circles” of friends and like-minded professionals are being utilized to create groups and share information. In addition, “Hangouts” (video conferencing) are being used to create small groups on the fly, as well as seminars around a “topic of the day.”
  • LinkedIn ( – Music teachers and music professionals are listing potential jobs and posting their resumes. In addition, LinkedIn offers group forums and large-scale professional career networking opportunities.
  • Twitter ( – Perhaps the fastest way to find the latest, most succinct, information about a particular topic is to utilize Twitter and Twitter hashtags.

Not unlike colleges and universities that have moved a portion of their offerings online, a number of organizations are now offering professional development opportunities through online “webinars” (web seminars). SoundTree ( offered the first-of-a-kind, day long, professional development conference in 2010 aptly named the “Music Education Technology Online Summit.” In 2011, this “summit” became the SoundTree Institute and it now offers a variety of on-going classes and webinars. Also, long established groups such as TI:ME (Technology Institute for Music Educators) are increasingly offering a number of their courses through online channels as well.

Ad-hoc, large-scale, professional development opportunities have also developed as an outgrowth of the members of the PLNs themselves. A complete professional development day that utilized all of the major social networks was put together by long-time music professional learning networker and music teacher, Catie Dwinal. Called “Music Ed. Motivational Day,” this event consisted of a number of free webinars given by well-known and tech-fluent music educators, focused around a myriad of music education topics. The webinars were transmitted and delivered by Google+ Hangouts and available live to anyone who wished to watch or participate. In addition, the webinar topics were also simultaneously discussed via Facebook and Twitter. This type of communicating easily demonstrates the long reach and power of an active social-media-based PLN.

There are endless professional development opportunities similar to those listed in this article. Most of them are available at any time of the day and may be custom-selected to provide for almost any type of developmental need. Regardless of all of the day-to-day demands that all music teachers and directors face, taking the time to develop an online PLN is becoming both a necessary and enjoyable step for everyone. Everyone is an “expert” at something. Active membership in a PLN allows everyone to share their expertise and their experiences with each other.

Staying on top of your Social Media Presence

Managing multiple social media platforms can take time and require time-management skills. One time-saver for busy music educators is a social media manager, or “dashboard,” such as Alternion (, Hootsuite (, or Seesmic (

The benefit of a social media dashboard is the ability to easily view all the activity connected to your social media accounts in one location, eliminating the need to visit each of the sites individually. They also allow the scheduling of updates and the posting of photos to the various accounts with an easy-to-use interface complete with cross-account-posting capabilities. Utilizing a social media manager provides increased productivity and time-saving benefits which, naturally, should be the goal of all technology-related endeavors!

Closing Comments

Smartphones and tablets are fast becoming the norm, with less need to be connected to a laptop or desktop to have an acceptable Internet experience. This bodes well for professional development and the ability to communicate and collaborate seamlessly with colleagues in unprecedented ways. This open-ended and often self-directed architecture offers almost limitless opportunities for learning and instructing. A good first step to participating in online professional development is simply to get on a social-media platform that is comfortable for you. There are already plenty of people using PLNs and all of them are ready to help. The benefits are epic; and time, for once, plays nice with our schedules.

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