Review of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) Conference 2012

 

This post contains my reflections on the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) Conference 2012 which took place from September 12-15 in Munster, Germany.

From 2004-2008, I attended three ECHA Conferences in succession – Pamplona (2004), Lahti (2006) and Prague (2008) – but missed the next event in Paris (2010). I hadn’t intended to be in Munster either, until Javier Touron suggested I might chair a Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education.

There is a commentary on that session below, but I begin with a review of the wider Conference. I have also included some observations drawn from my experience of live tweeting the event.

All these comments are set in the wider context of what I said about gifted education conferences in the post I wrote for the Symposium.

My argument is that face-to-face academic conferences of this kind are fundamentally inefficient, whether as a vehicle for professional development or the wider dissemination of research.

Careful use of social media offers one way to improve efficiency by ensuring that:

  • more people derive more benefits and
  • there is a better, closer fit between the flow of benefits to each individual and their particular needs.

My earlier post added, with some acerbity:

‘Conference keynotes are invariably dominated by the pantheon. They tour the circuit dispensing the ideas on which they built their reputations, while more junior researchers and other stakeholders compete for tiny audiences much further down the bill. Conference audiences are complicit in this since they are drawn to attend conferences by the big names, apparently regardless of whether they have something new to say. Consequently, old ideas are slow to be challenged and replaced, different models are regarded as mutually exclusive and the gifted education community makes no real effort to achieve broad consensus.’

I was interested to discover whether the Munster Conference would change that perception.

I conclude this post by offering some  suggestions for improvement and reform ahead of the next ECHA Conference in Slovenia in 2014.

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The Conference Location

There was upside and downside to Munster as a location.

On the downside, it wasn’t the easiest location to reach. The conference website  referred potential delegates to ‘the International Airport Münster-Osnabrück’, but the airport’s website reveals that travellers from London must first fly to Munich! (Ironically, a direct connection to London City Airport is being introduced next month.) The easiest and fastest way I could find to get to Munster was to fly to Dusseldorf and take a two hour train journey.

On the upside, Munster is an attractive, small and relatively compact city with some 270,000 inhabitants. It is pleasant to walk around the city centre, provided one successfully avoids the superabundance of bicycles – there are said to be almost two for every resident. I would very happily revisit as a tourist.

Three of the University of Munster’s buildings were used to host the Conference, which ran alongside a parallel German-speaking ICBF NationalConference. The organisers were supported by a core team and an ever-helpful host of student volunteers who helped us to navigate between and inside the venues.

Where we held the Symposium (courtesy of Javier Touron)

It was announced that over 1,000 delegates attended the Conference from 43 countries, though the first figure must account for both conferences rather than ECHA’s alone. I estimate the number registered for the ECHA event at between 200 and 300.

A quick review of the ECHA Conference programme suggests that there were speakers from 38 countries, including 26 in Europe, so slightly over half of all European countries were represented in this fashion.

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Content

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Keynotes

Eight keynote speeches were included in the programme, but two sets of two were originally scheduled simultaneously. In the event, one of the European keynoters did not appear and was substituted by one of the previously parallel events. This gave a total of seven keynotes, although with one pair still scheduled simultaneously.

The majority – four of the seven – were given by American speakers (Colangelo, Feldman, Renzulli and Subotnik). Even allowing for the absence of one European speaker, it struck me as questionable policy to draw half of the keynotes for a European conference organised by a European organisation from a single country located outside Europe. Can you imagine that scenario ever happening in reverse?

But no doubt the organisers had gone for members of  the pantheon to attract more delegates. The majority of the pantheon is located in the United States.

I attended five of the seven surviving keynotes, missing Feldman and Tirri (the latter being scheduled against Subotnik).

Of the American contingent, Colangelo and Renzulli turned in their usual polished performances – a variety of edutainment – but neither had anything terrifically new to communicate.

I thought Subotnik did a very good job of conveying lucidly the main thrust of the lengthy and complex papershe recently produced with Olszewski-Kubilius and Worrall.

The European keynotes were provided by Peter Csermely and Heidrun Stoeger. Peter covered the same ground he visited at the 2011 EU Talent Day Conference in Budapestand in his TEDx talk. Heidrun Stoeger discussed her work on self-regulated learning.

All five keynotes I attended were pitched to those in the audience who had never heard these ideas before, including many who do not have English as their native language. It follows that they were not quite so satisfactory for delegates who did not meet this description.

Of course I recognise the difficulties, but I would have been impressed by a more strenuous effort on the part of the speakers to differentiate their material – to offer greater stretch and challenge to those amongst their audience who would benefit from it. There was a certain irony in this shortcoming given the topic we had all assembled to consider!

Some of the keynoters were offering additional ‘in-depth workshops’ and may have deliberately whetted our appetites, reluctant to impart too much and so duplicate the content of those sessions. But this is not of itself a strong enough justification for the relatively low pitch of their keynotes.

I was reminded of references made by Joan Freeman during our Symposium to the relative superficiality of social media compared with other forms of interaction. I do think that this criticism may be justifiable – see for example my comments below about our Symposium – but it can also be levelled at the typical academic conference keynote.

My contention is that, by combining traditional forms and social media – and by planning for a continuum of interaction between expert and audience – one can more easily provide the differentiation that is otherwise lacking.

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Other Presentations

There is a rigid hierarchy to ECHA conferences. I attended three of the nine sessions by invited speakers – basically second division keynotes – but found them rather disappointing. Maybe I was unlucky, but they seemed rather thin. Each could have been accommodated comfortably in one of the 20 minute slots allotted to the standard third division presentations. (I never found the posters that made up the fourth division.)

The third division had been divided into triads – so three presentations taken together in a one hour session – on the basis of a logic that often escaped me. Sometimes I could spot different groupings that would have made more sense but, on other occasions, one could see that the organisers had no option but to force at least one square peg into a round hole.

A more flexible structure – perhaps permitting presentations to be grouped in twos, threes and fours – might have been preferable. I do not underestimate the timetabling difficulties caused by several presenters offering multiple presentations, although those could be reduced if some sessions were used to accommodate two or more contributions from a single presenter (ie the organising principle becomes the presenter rather than the theme).

Invariably there is a single presentation one wants to hear and a supporting cast comprising two rather less valuable offerings. And of course several sessions of this kind are blocked against each other, which causes one to miss many interesting presentations, especially if one is unwilling to be impolite and disruptive by flitting constantly between sessions.

In one case, two of the three presenters did not turn up, leaving a solitary speaker to fill up the hour available. One had scratched before the conference began but the other had reportedly ‘gone home’. The optimal choice would have been to leave and join the next best session, but how could we treat the last surviving presenter so brutally?

Some such timetabling arrangement is clearly necessary if the organisers are to fit the proceedings into the limited period available, but this perfectly illustrates the point I made in my blog post about the fundamental inefficiency of conferences organised in such a fashion.

The quality of these presentations was also highly variable. It seems unfair and unreasonable of a native English speaker to complain, but a few of the presenters did not have the requisite standard of spoken English to undertake the task.

Perhaps there is already some simultaneous translation software good enough to tackle this problem. Perhaps the answer lies in posting a multimedia online presentation instead (as opposed to the ‘fourth division’ poster, which has surely had its day).

Some of those with a much stronger command of English also had relatively little of significance to convey, and the very worst examples exemplified both of these shortcomings simultaneously.

Several of the better presentations I attended were largely descriptive of particular localised interventions. Yet this information could also have been conveyed much more clearly and efficiently online. We could not get beyond the description to consider in detail the strengths and weaknesses of the models being described.

There was very little indeed that dealt with gifted education at a strategic level and spoke to the (ex-) policy-maker.

I live tweeted from most of the sessions I attended and, in several cases, found the source material available on websites that I could have consulted from the comfort of my home, incurring much less expense in the process.

I don’t want to give the impression that all the presentations were unremittingly poor. Some were very good. Something akin to the Pareto Principle was in operation, in that I derived 80% of my learning benefit from 20% of the presentations I attended. Unfortunately that was a relatively small return on the outlay of time and money I had expended.

I am not for one moment suggesting that the content of this Conference was any worse than others I have attended. In many respects it was significantly better. But I believe that, as 21st Century conference-goers, we should actively question whether we get real value for money from events that cling to a 20th Century format and, if not, we should begin to request more substantive fare.

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An Aside About Networking

Faced with recognition that a conference does not quite live up to their expectations, many conference-goers will rationalise their disappointment by observing that the formal proceedings are far less significant than the peer-to-peer networking that takes place in the margins of the event.

I could not undertake much of that on this occasion owing to ill-health. I had no energy left to spare after a full day of conference sessions and retired to my hotel room to rest. I don’t know how I would feel about it if I had been healthy. (For the introverted amongst us, the peer-to-peer element can be by far the most difficult and tiring to undertake, even when we are fighting fit.)

From a purely mercenary perspective I find that face-to-face networking at conferences is rather over-rated. Pleasant though it is to spend some time socially with people one has not seen since the last event – and I really enjoyed renewing my acquaintance with several delegates that I already knew – the professional and business benefits that one realises by establishing brand new contacts are rarely worth the effort invested.

I understand the importance of making connections to establish a bigger, stronger network. After all, my blog post on the benefits of social media is based on that very principle. I recognise that face-to-face conferences offer significant potential to build such connections, but too often those interactions prove fleeting and transitory.

It requires sustained follow-up to translate them into something more lasting and meaningful – and that is where social media comes into its own. New contacts made face-to-face can be developed and sustained via Twitter and Facebook, but only if both parties are active users. Social media is the glue that can extend and build those initial relationships into something more substantive and valuable.

Which is a neat transition to…

 

Our Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education

I did not have high expectations of the Symposium. Past experience has confirmed that such events suffer typically from three shortcomings:

  • If the session is reliant on technology, something is bound to go wrong.
  • There is too little time to accommodate all the speakers and, partly as a consequence of that, plenary discussion is desultory at best.
  • Rarely if ever is there substantive agreement about the outcome of the discussion or the immediate next steps that should be taken. The leap from the theoretical to the practical and immediate is somehow too daunting to contemplate.

On this occasion the speakers surprised me by their collective willingness to fit their contributions into a ten-minute slot. It may have helped that all presentations were already in the public domain and that all the presenters were highly-experienced. Despite an exceedingly tight timetable we started on time and even finished slightly earlier than planned

However, the technology let us down. We could not get the projector to give sufficient magnification to the Twitterwall, so it was far too small for the room and only a few of the participants could follow the Twitter conversation by that means. The wall did not scroll automatically either, so our willing helper had to move it on manually throughout the session.

The plenary discussion inside the room did not exactly catch fire, though some interesting and valuable statements were contributed.

Although we had uploaded all presentations ahead of the session, so that everyone could internalise the key messages and frame questions in the light of them, there was negligible interaction of that kind from the Twitter audience. It seemed that they were satisfied with the capacity to ‘listen in’ and were much less inclined towards vigorous discussion.

There wasn’t too much in the way of high quality interaction between those tweeting from inside the Symposium and those following online. The number of people overtly involved via Twitter was also lower than I would have liked (but we have no way of knowing how many were lurking).

A handful of us managed to provide the lion’s share of live tweeting from inside the Symposium. (I am very grateful to @SilverDay and @Kariekol in particular for their help.)  A few other audience members were also active, but not too many.

Participants took photographs of all the speakers in action, which really helped to convey a better sense of the proceedings to those following on Twitter. I particularly liked this close-up of one of the graffiti-covered desks.

Overall I felt we successfully demonstrated how Twitter can be used as a simple tool to open up conference sessions to a much wider audience, but we were markedly less successful in generating active discussion and developing a way forward. Because of that, our session did not always manage to pull itself out of the superficiality that is associated with negative perceptions of social media.

So we exceeded my expectations but fell somewhat short of the fully interactive ideal. I’d grade us at B- or thereabouts.

Perhaps I am being over-critical. Our experienced moderator – @gtchatmod, aka Lisa Conrad, from #gtchat – was much more positive about the event from her Twitter perspective.

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Lisa has very kindly uploaded a full transcript of proceedings so you can judge for yourselves.

I have also published a somewhat shorter version with most of the repetitious retweets removed. Both are on Storify, so include the pictures that were taken at the event.

It remains to be seen what if anything will change as a consequence of the Symposium. I would like to see the open development of a Europe-wide social media strategy for gifted education which takes in ECHA and the European Talent Centre in Budapest, but is not owned or dominated by either of those entities.

The strategy should be consulted on widely, and revised in the light of that consultation, with every effort made to secure buy-in and commitment from all parties.

The guiding principle must be to build connections for the mutual benefit of every European engaged in supporting gifted education – the individuals as well as the local, regional, national and international organisations – rather than creating an exclusive membership-based network which benefits some at the expense of others.

And if the strategy is devised with the understanding that gifted education is on the verge of becoming globalised (as I argued in my previous post), it follows that it cannot relate solely to Europe but must adopt a worldwide perspective.

 

Live Tweeting from the Conference

There was a good deal of live tweeting from the Conference, with substantial contributions in Dutch, English, German and Spanish. Unfortunately, there are relatively few reliable free options for archiving the full record. Some I tried did not work particularly well.

You will find what I believe is a full record of the #echa12 feed at Twubs.

As ‘belt and braces’, there is also an Excel file containing all of the tweets found by SearchHash.

The latter is less visually attractive but perhaps more permanent, given the relatively short shelf-life of some Twitter-related services.

This was the first conference I have live tweeted. I would have been far too slow on the tiny keyboard of a mobile phone, so I decided to take my full-sized laptop for the purpose. I had to make use of the sockets in the smaller rooms used for normal presentations so I had enough battery juice to make it through the keynotes.

I ran out of battery only once – towards the end of the Subotnik keynote – and had to resort to notebook and pen. I converted these notes into Tweets later that evening.

Live Tweeting became my replacement for personal note-taking (since I could not do both simultaneously). So my record of proceedings is permanent but it is also public. I have published a Tweetdoc which captures my personal contribution for posterity! (The PDF file is here in case Tweetdoc also disappears.)

I had in mind Twitter followers who wanted to know the substance of what had been said during any given presentation, but also people attending the Conference who were following the Twitter feed too.

It struck me that the latter in particular would benefit from quick access to supporting material rather than near-verbatim summaries of the arguments being advanced by the speaker. So, during the presentations, I researched the background of speakers, their websites and publications. This enabled me to post a number of links to useful attachments

I have no idea whether anyone actually used the service I was providing in the manner I intended. I couldn’t help feeling that the provision of such a potentially valuable service ought not to depend entirely on the voluntary services of Twitter users providing an unofficial conference backchannel. There is a case for an ‘official’ Twitter feed to provide at least some of this material.

 

What are the Learning Points for ECHA 2014?

 

Principles

The next ECHA Conference takes place in two years’ time, in Ljubljana, Slovenia. What lessons could the organisers learn from the Munster experience and how can they best utilise social media to make their conference successful?

I would urge them to start from the principle that their face-to-face event in September 2014 is part of a continuum of provision spanning the period between the event just finished in Munster and the conference that will follow them in 2016.

  • How can they maintain contact with the delegates who attended in Munster, sustaining and building that network through social media in the run-up to 2014?
  • How can they design a conference in 2014 that serves as a key-staging post in this continuum, adding significant value for those who attend as well as those who participate from a distance?
  • How can they support the next organising committee in the parallel transition to their face-to-face event in 2016?

They might plan with the specific objective of providing the best possible online access to those who cannot attend the Conference in person.

Rather than supply this service through social media tools and an aggregation of stand-alone services, they should explore delivery through a single learning platform. They should contemplate developing a fee structure that will enable them to recoup the cost of providing the service.

As far as content is concerned, the conference should be designed explicitly to fill gaps in our collective knowledge of gifted education and/or tackle collective problems we face in the design and delivery of gifted education programmes. In other words, there should be a significant, positive, tangible outcome for the gifted education community as a whole.

The conference should also be differentiated throughout, to ensure that participants from different stakeholder groups and with different levels of experience are well provided for. That should apply as much to world-leading experts as to novices in the field. Every participant should have a means of contributing significant value to the conference and of receiving commensurate benefit in return.

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Practice

At the same time, the organisers should take practical steps to harness the power of social media to deliver an improved conference experience for all participants, whether they come to Ljubljana or access the event online.

  • It is good that the 2014 Conference organisers have already established a Twitter Feed as well as an embryonic website. This might usefully be complemented by a Facebook page and possibly a blog too. A steady flow of information about developing plans for the Conference will help to engage prospective delegates, especially if there are opportunities for them to contribute to the conference design.
  • Once the conference programme starts to take shape, social media could be deployed to build discussion around the key themes that emerge. Potential presenters could develop their contributions to address the issues that surface from such discussions, or to illustrate how their policies and practice might be adapted to inform provision elsewhere in the world.

This would help us to move away from conference sessions that are mere reportage – whether of programmes underway or research undertaken – and so to concentrate on identifying gaps in our knowledge and understanding and how best to fill them. There would be much more discussion and much less presenting.

  • A week or so before the conference, all presentations could be uploaded on to the conference website, so that delegates and others could read them and reflect on points to raise in discussion. Wherever possible presentations would carry hyperlinks to all the documents and materials they reference.
  • Instead of preparing a fat and heavy conference brochure, including the programme, abstracts and biographical detail, all this information could be supplied online, in the form of a searchable database. Such a database should also be made available as a mobile app. Delegates could download it before they attend, or – if they preferred – receive it on a flash drive. (They would no longer need a conference bag, so the savings on bags and folders could be redirected to pay for the flash drives, or a sponsor might supply a batch as support in kind.)
  • There should be a multimedia conference blog to supply news, report on highlights and generally capture the spirit of the event. Short snippets of film could be prepared and edited for this purpose as an alternative to the conference film that was shot at Munster, which was said to have required excessive work to complete.
  • The organisers should arrange an official conference Twitter feed, linked to the blog, to carry news and highlights of the main sessions. Other Twitter users should use the stream as a back-channel to pose questions and points to be addressed during discussion. This would enable those not physically present to engage directly in the debate. There should be a prominent Twitterwall in each session and in the main meeting areas where conference delegates assemble.
  • Rather than publish a set of ‘proceedings, whether as a hard copy or a DVD, the Conference website should preserve the database of presentations and supporting material, with authors given the option of uploading further material relevant to the issue at any point after the Conference. Responsibility for maintaining this database would either be handed over to the next conference team at an appropriate point or passed back to ECHA. Either way it should be free for everyone to access.

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Conclusion

Ljubljana Dragon courtesy of Arbo Moosberg

It cost me about £750 all told (about 936 Euros currently) to attend the Munster Conference and I am really not sure whether that investment was justified by the benefits I have derived from doing so. It is probably too early to judge.

Were the reforms I have suggested to be introduced, participants would have available a cheaper means of access to much of the conference proceedings. They would be able to exercise choice over how to interact with the event, with cost as one factor influencing their decision.

Effort would be invested in ensuring that the flow of benefits from the event is personalised to meet the very different needs of participants – and that the collective benefit to the gifted education community is significant and tangible.

We would have made a valiant effort to shift an outdated and inefficient format into the 21st Century. We wouldn’t get everything right first time, but we would learn from our evaluations and continue to refine our strategies, taking full advantage of new and more sophisticated technologies as they emerge.

Or else we could gloss over the shortcomings of the current model and persuade people to attend such conferences as we have always done – by holding them in attractive places that people want to visit. The closing ceremony at ECHA 2012 offered us filmed advertisements for the glories of Antalya, Auckland and Ljubljana respectively.

They all looked very pleasant, but that’s not really the point, is it?

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GP

September 2012

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Can Social Media Help Overcome The Problems We Face In Gifted Education?: Part Two

 

Part One of this post was my best effort to explain the context for the arguments I will now advance, supporting the hypothesis that social media can help us to address some of the major problems we face in gifted education.

Part Two is organised around the five aspects of gifted education I identified: advocacy, learning, policy-making, professional development and research.

It is my personal assessment of how social media is already helping us to tackle some of the issues and problems that we face – and how the global gifted education community might deploy social media to make further progress in each area over the next few years.

Each section of the commentary that follows expands on the broad nature of the challenges we face in relation to the relevant dimension of gifted education, considers briefly and in general terms how social media is being used now to respond to those challenges, and offers constructive suggestions for how we might build on those foundations.

It concludes with a brief analysis of the some of the weaknesses in a social media-driven approach, some of the obstacles to progress that we face and to what extent these are surmountable in the short to medium term.

The five dimensions are again introduced in alphabetical order – no assumptions should be derived about their relative importance.

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Advocacy

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges We Face

Advocacy is heavily dependent on the capacity to build links with other people who have similar concerns and priorities, joining forces to influence more effectively the decisions and behaviour of third parties. It depends so heavily on making connections that the synergy between it and social networking is self-evident.

Advocacy typically originates in separate, personal interaction between the parent of a potentially gifted learner and his or her teacher.

Because gifted learners are relatively scarce (however the term is defined), the parent is unlikely to have contact with others who are experiencing the same issues. The teacher may also be unused to addressing the needs of gifted learners, and gifted education is unlikely to be a top priority for the school, so a degree of persuasion may be required.

The parent typically engages with a teacher – and often subsequently with the headteacher – to achieve shared understanding of the learner’s educational needs and how those needs can best be met within the resources available.

Even though parents are the customers that schools serve, whether in the public (state) or private (independent) sectors, they may feel at something of a disadvantage, especially if they find themselves questioning school practice, challenging teachers’ professional expertise or even seeking alternative provision that better meets the learner’s needs.

Before navigating these waters, a wise parent will want to access reliable sources of information, advice and support. They can strengthen their position as an advocate for their own child through interaction with other parents of gifted learners, and with educators and other professionals who have expertise in giftedness and gifted education but are not connected with the learner’s current educational setting.

They typically secure this interaction by forming a personal support network, very similar in concept to the personal learning network explored in Part One, though the interaction may not necessarily take place online.

The intersection of many different personal support networks creates a social support network which enables support to flow through its members in different directions. The parent who sought support may be able to offer advice and support to others, at least for the period during which he or she still needs to receive it.

Critically, the social support network should also generate wider benefits, achieved through collective advocacy at local, regional or national level. This is typically co-ordinated through an organisation.

Historically, such organisations have often sought to restrict the benefits they offer to a defined membership who pay for the privilege, with the income generated used to support the continued operation of the organisation. The benefits of belonging to the organisation are not accessible to those who, for whatever reason, do not meet the membership criteria, or who cannot afford the cost.

To function effectively on the national stage, an advocacy-driven organisation must itself have national reach. Regional or local networks may succeed better in effecting localised change, but it is otherwise inefficient to rely on many smaller, fragmented networks with relatively limited access to information, advice, support and expertise.

Resources are scarce so duplication is wasteful. Small organisations struggle to survive, especially if they operate on a voluntary basis. Small networks suffer disproportionately from the departure of individuals with experience and expertise.

It seems that gifted advocacy often fails. Networks are insufficiently strong or too patchy in their coverage. Too few volunteers have too little time. Organisations are unable to secure consistently the baseline funding they need to thrive. Personal differences arise and cannot be overcome (and it may even be possible to attribute this to the malign influence of so-called ‘gifted intensities’).

Given a globalised environment and globalised gifted education, the logically optimal solution is a global network, openly accessible to everyone who needs its services, which depends principally on a large number of volunteers each making their own small contribution and receiving commensurate benefits through the free flow of information, advice and support.

But while that might serve the needs of those requiring such support, it does not address the lobbying function, ie it does not provide the leverage that advocates require to persuade key opinion formers to change their policies and/or allocate scarce resources to gifted education.

If we are realistic, we should accept that advocates for gifted education have been rather unsuccessful in this respect in many (perhaps most?) countries around the world. To be fair, advocates have often achieved small local victories but rarely have they swayed state or federal governments. If they had been successful on the bigger stage, effective gifted education would be much more prevalent than it is today.

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Current Response via Social Media

Gifted advocacy has developed a significant online presence. Originally this was used to share information and advice primarily on a top-down basis, but more interactive communication began with the introduction of online discussion forums, several of which continue to this day.

In recent years, advocacy groups have begun to make use of social networking tools. Some host their own blogs. Several have established social network pages and/or post frequently on pages established specifically to facilitate international networking, such as International Gifted Education and Mary’s Gifted Contacts, both on Facebook. A few host their own webinars or podcasts.

Twitter is particularly active with hundreds of gifted education advocates posting regularly under the #gifted, #gtchat, #gtie, #gtvoice, #2ekids, #hoogbegaafd (in Dutch) and #nagc hashtags. The vast majority of posts include shortened links to resources and news stories elsewhere on the Internet, including material made available via other platforms.

Of the hashtags mentioned above, #gtchat, #gtie and #nagc run chats – real time discussions with regular timeslots and pre-announced topics enabling Twitter users worldwide to engage with each other and to share resources.

Many advocates, especially parents, say that they rely heavily on Twitter – especially on weekly chats – to establish and maintain contact with others in a similar situation, wherever they may be located.

Connections can be made globally, so advocates can support each other regardless of nationality or geographical distance (though the time of day can be a problem). Translation tools enable one to understand Tweets in a foreign language, but are not yet good enough to support direct communication.

I use my @GiftedPhoenix Twitter account to publish analysis and commentary on English education policy and global gifted education using hashtags to differentiate the two streams. It is part of my personal advocacy effort to expose my education policy followers as well as ‘lurkers’ (those who read posts but do not post or follow others) to information about gifted education, including more detailed pieces posted on this Blog.

Some of those followers – and probably some ‘lurkers’ – are key education opinion formers and leaders in the field. I think I can detect limited positive influence through these efforts but the impact is impossible to quantify.

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How Can Social Media Improve Advocacy Further?

Social media can play a major role in developing and sustaining the personal support networks that provide the foundations of the gifted advocacy movement. Moreover, to the extent that time and language differences allow, they can have a genuinely global reach. Many social media users derive considerable personal benefit from their engagement.

But this benefit is currently confined to the small minority of parents, educators and other stakeholders who are actively involved with the relevant social media and have come to understand its value as an advocacy tool.

There is capacity to expand this activity significantly, building national and international networks to accommodate all those able and willing to communicate in this manner. Numbers are increasing and some well-known names are actively engaged, but critical mass has not yet been achieved.

Most of the leading membership organisations and centres of gifted education continue to rely principally on traditional methods of communication, notably face-to-face conferences, subscription journals and newsletters. They may host their own discussion forums but are only occasionally active on social media. The majority seem to prefer such interaction to be controlled and undertaken by their own members in a closed environment.

They typically use open social media to announce news and events rather than to interact with other participants. They can seem unduly defensive, reticent about exposing themselves to external scrutiny and reluctant to engage with any form of challenge or criticism. This serves to reinforce a silo mentality which is not helpful to the gifted education movement.

So there is currently huge untapped potential to develop this kind of advocacy through social media. The reach and quality could be significantly increased if organisations like ECHA were to place it at the core of their business rather than dabbling at the margins. They might consider switching the focus of their communications away from the traditional formats, so as to free up resource for the purpose of building their social media presence.

Were the number of users to increase substantially, these social media tools might also be utilised more systematically for advocacy directed at external players, designed to improve the funding, provision for and general status of gifted education.

With the full commitment of all the major organisations in the field, it would be possible in future to plan and run vigorous awareness-raising or lobbying campaigns but, for the time being, this is a bridge too far.

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Flower courtesy of GP Junior

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Learning

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges We Face

Gifted learners need personalised education to meet their needs. Because gifted learners are more likely than most others to require customised provision, they are also more likely to receive education in more than one setting. The greater the number of settings involved, the greater the risk of fragmentation.

It is essential that the different elements are drawn together into a coherent programme, ideally comprising a judicious blend of acceleration, enrichment and extension – and that progress is monitored carefully. When there is an accelerative dimension, there must be a long term plan with a clear end point, including opportunities for learners to step off the fast track without loss of esteem

Because gifted learners (however that term is defined) are relatively scarce, it is often difficult to bring enough of them physically together – whether in a class, a school or a local area – to make separate provision economically justifiable.

It may be organisationally difficult for a school to maintain appropriate accelerative options, whether they involve maintaining a faster pace in specific subject areas, full transfer into an older year group, or early entry into a different educational setting.

Moreover, effective provision can place significant demands on teachers’ pedagogical skills and subject knowledge. In primary settings where the teacher is likely a generalist, they may not have the necessary subject knowledge to provide sufficient stretch and challenge.

And gifted learners are not exempt from wider problems associated with the traditional model of face-to-face schooling, especially when they live in rural settings or in urban settings where the supply of suitable school places is insufficient to meet demand.

So the education of gifted learners can be a complex matter, requiring close collaboration between parents and providers over an extended period and especially at key transition points in the host educational system. Some are fortunate to find the right learning environment which adjusts with them as they develop; others may experience periods in which there is a significant mismatch between their educational experience and their needs.

But many gifted learners are also highly active independent and online learners, relying extensively on the material they can access – and on a variety of peer-to-expert and peer-to-peer interaction – to supplement their formal learning activities.

Because social media can address so many of the problems faced by gifted learners, while also capitalising on their familiarity with the online environment, it is tempting to regard the relationship between gifted education (in this narrow sense) and social media as ‘a marriage made in heaven’.

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Current Response via Social Media

The emergence of online and distance learning has provided new options for gifted learners which can be applied in any of the contexts outlined above.

By linking learners regardless of geographical location, at least some of the organisational difficulties potentially inherent in gifted education can be overcome. Younger gifted learners can more easily access learning opportunities designed primarily for older students, including higher education courses.

Complexity of provision can be organised, managed and monitored through e-portfolios and similar online tools.

A crude taxonomy of online provision for gifted learners would comprise:

  • virtual schools specifically for gifted learners – though Hoagies currently lists just five providers, all of them USA-based
  • virtual schools that take gifted learners as part of a wider service
  • online extended learning opportunities provided explicitly for gifted learners by specialists. Several of the leading providers have invested in online services to complement their face-to-face provision. Perhaps the first to enter the field was Stanford’s Education Program for Gifted Youth which ran its first course for gifted students in 1992. Several providers are active in Europe. Those based in the UK include IGGY and OLP.
  • generic online courses, including many higher education courses which accept younger students
  • an ever-increasing range of generic learning platforms, some of them social learning environments, some of them MOOCs (these two subsets are not mutually exclusive)
  • a vast array of independent learning opportunities inherent in materials freely available online. These may be entirely self-standing, or pre-organised into a sequence or package, or accessed through an imposed framework of some kind. They may be curated and indexed, or they may be found through a search process instigated by the user.
  • the organisational and record-keeping tools mentioned above, which are sometimes stand-alone and sometimes integrated within one of the forms of provision above.

Although the concept of a PLN is typically applied to adult learners, it can equally apply to those of school age. Hence gifted learners may also be learning informally through everyday engagement with peers through generic social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

And it is not difficult to find specialist social networks that focus on particular topics where gifted learners can engage with others who share that interest. If there is no extant social network, it is straightforward to use one of the generic platforms to start a new one.

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How Can Social Media Further Improve Learning?

The supply side of the market has developed many competing online learning platforms and services, some espousing social learning principles, others adopting a more traditional didactic teacher-student learning model.

A few niche providers are catering solely for gifted learners but, rather surprisingly, I can find no evidence that any of the big players has overtly identified gifted learners as a significant sub-population amongst their users.

There is also very little signposting of the different services available from a gifted education perspective (although there are several directories of varying quality providing details of online resources for home schooling).

Although it would be a major task, an organised effort to establish and update a database of formal online learning options suitable for gifted learners would have significant value.

Such a resource could be designed for global use, cataloguing formal learning opportunities by type, subject area, language, pitch and age appropriateness. The database could be crowdsourced, so compiled from details submitted by gifted learners, parents and educators. An Amazon-style rating and review system would provide a basic quality assurance mechanism.

A search engine would allow users to find learning opportunities that match their needs, and maybe even suggest possible progression routes to related subject matter or the same subject at a more advanced level. A visual representation, similar to Khan Academy’s Knowledge Map, would allow learners to navigate easily between topics and levels.

A database of this kind could be further enhanced by recording ‘learning pathways’ taken by gifted learners through the resources it contains, enabling other learners to trace the same routes. Such pathways could even incorporate stand-alone learning resources found online.

There would be significant potential in encouraging gifted learners to act as curators developing their own ‘learning pathways’ to share with others. Mentormob is one platform supporting learning-based curation of this nature.

It might even be possible to accredit some of these learning packages as a contribution to formal education by mapping them against any set of curriculum requirements and adding appropriate assessment tools. (Online learning could be combined with computer adaptive testing for this purpose.)

Further stimulus could be given to peer-to-peer learning between gifted learners, perhaps through partnership between gifted education providers and one of the existing social learning platforms. It would be relatively straightforward to build multimedia online learning communities around any of the resources in the database.

The nearest equivalent I can find to this currently is Cogito, established and supported by CTY at JHU. But that is confined to maths and science only and members must be aged over 13. There are also similarities with Renzulli Learning Systems though that is a commercial operation with access sold through schools rather than to individual users.

Both are US-based and seem to stock English language resources only. A multi-lingual approach would have wider global reach. It would enable gifted learners to develop foreign language skills by learning other topics through the target language. Learners with first languages other than English could also form learning communities with others in countries where those languages are spoken.

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Harbour View courtesy of GP Junior

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Policy-making

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges We Face

The global gifted education community has probably made least progress in this area, in terms of recognising and responding to the particular needs of gifted education policy-makers, whether they operate at local/district, regional/state or national/federal level.

The leading international organisations have not developed a critical mass of members who have policy making functions, nor do they offer services designed to meet policy makers’ needs.

This may be chicken-and-egg in that gifted education policy-makers have shown no great propensity to organise themselves as a coherent subset within the gifted education community, or indeed within the wider education community.

There is consequently little communication between policy-makers, or between policy-makers and the other key stakeholder groups, despite the fact that such communication would be mutually beneficial.

To undertake their functions effectively, policy-makers need access to high-quality research to provide a comprehensive evidence base. They also need access to reliable information about the way in which other districts, states or countries have tackled the problems inherent in the delivery of gifted education, plus any evaluations of the effectiveness of such programmes.

An evidence base of this kind helps guard against the worst excesses of ‘policy tourism’ and the selective use of evidence to justify contentious political decisions. It also means that policy makers do not waste time and effort in ‘reinventing the wheel’, or in replicating failed initiatives that have been tried already and found wanting in other jurisdictions.

Policy making can also be undertaken collaboratively, across local, regional and national borders where that makes sense, for example where a policy impacts on two or more jurisdictions. Those engaged in policy-making need a location, physical, online or a mixture of both, in which they can undertake this activity.

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Current Response via Social Media

Barely any gifted education policy makers are active within social media and any who are will most likely have a parallel role that aligns them with the professional development and/or research fields. (It is not unusual for the policy-making function to overlap with others in this fashion.)

Twitter provides the nearest equivalent to an education policy forum in which gifted education-related issues can be aired and discussed but, because so few policy makers are active, such discussion tends to be with other stakeholder interests.

As far as I am aware, this is the only blog that addresses gifted education issues from the national policy perspective, so providing an information source of direct use to policy makers. Some other blogs make occasional forays into the policy-making sphere, but not from a policy-maker’s perspective.

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How Can Social Media Further Improve Policy-Making?

An online Gifted Education Observatory, serving as a repository of information, research and data about gifted education worldwide would be of direct use to policy-makers and to all other stakeholder groups within gifted education.

For example, gifted learners engaged in peer-to-peer learning could understand more about the systems in which their peers are educated, parents could research provision prior to relocation or emigration and researchers could access material to inform comparative studies.

If the Observatory were designed on social media principles, policy-makers and other stakeholders could engage collaboratively with such materials, so supporting the policy-making process.

It could host collaborative effort to develop international gifted education policy, such as the roles and responsibilities of the European Talent Support and Resource Centre, now being established.

It could support all five areas of gifted education by engaging all stakeholder groups in the development of International Quality Standards for gifted education, as well as providing a forum for the development, comparison and revision of National Quality Standards.

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Flower courtesy of GP Junior

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Professional Development

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges we face

Within any particular country, the incidence of gifted education-specific initial training and professional development will depend in part on the relative priority given to gifted education in that jurisdiction. Since the priority generally attached to gifted education is relatively low, this means that high quality development opportunities are likely to be comparatively scarce.

With initial training there is the additional problem that too many topics are vying for attention within a very limited training period. If it features at all, gifted education may be addressed with extreme brevity.

That may be no bad thing, since it is arguable that relatively more experienced teachers with a larger range of classroom experience may be better able to grasp the complexities of differentiation at the extremes of the ability range. But, if coverage is delayed until later in a teachers’ career, participation is more likely to be voluntary, meaning that a significant proportion of the teacher force may never develop the knowledge and skills they should desirably possess.

Top-down national or state training programmes are increasingly rare, because the cost is prohibitive and there is often an ideological preference for bottom-up solutions driven by schools through inter-school collaboration. It is argued that training by teachers for teachers is more likely to be relevant and satisfy identified development needs.

That may be true, but there is a concomitant risk that professional development will reflect known practice rather than best practice, and may be overly focused on what works in the classroom. By failing to provide a proper understanding of the theoretical underpinnings of effective practice, such professional development may not secure reflective gifted education practitioners.

Moreover, bottom-up strategies depend on a comprehensive and effective network comprising all schools, with sufficient expertise distributed within the network to enable every single school to benefit. There is a significant risk that some schools will not do so, especially if the network is not centrally co-ordinated. Limited investment in quality assurance can mean that some providers within the network are of questionable quality.

It is likely that most countries that have invested in professional development packages have done so without reference to existing materials already produced elsewhere. Since the issues associated with gifted education are broadly common, there is likely to be significant duplication and unnecessary expenditure. There are also relatively few examples of collaborative effort to produce jointly useful materials.

The default model for providing professional development remains face-to-face interaction between a trainer and a group of trainees, though online or blended provision is now increasingly common.

Postgraduate courses in gifted education are provided by many higher education institutions worldwide, but are much more prevalent in some countries than others. Face-to-face and blended courses are typically offered as full-time or part-time options requiring attendance at a specific location which may be geographically distant from the participant.

Face-to-face conferences provide opportunities to access valuable professional development but are fundamentally inefficient, since the number of participants is limited by the accommodation and the number of topics by the range of presenters available.

Informal learning opportunities are similarly restricted by the number of colleagues one comes into contact with so, unless there are frequent chances to move outside the normal working environment, the individual will encounter relatively few colleagues, most of whom will work in that same environment. Hence the personal learning network is limited.

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Current Response via Social Media

There are several online postgraduate courses in gifted education, most of them based at American universities. Hoagies lists about twenty providers, including five or so offering online and/or blended options, but other online postgraduate course listings seem to include some provision not covered by Hoagies.

This offering from the University of Connecticut is typical of such online provision. There is some interaction:

‘You will explore the material you are reading through sychronous and asynchronous online discussions. Some [classes] may use streaming video/audio and simulations.’

But this is not at the cutting edge of learning driven by social media.

In Europe, ICEP Europe offers an online Certificate in Teaching Gifted and Talented Students which is much the same. As far as I can establish, the ECHA Diploma and Certificate courses are not offered in online or blended format.

IPEGE, the International Panel of Experts for Gifted Education, drawn from Germany, Switzerland and Austria published in 2009 a document Professional Promotion of the Gifted and Talented that proposes common content standards for Masters level and more basic professional development courses. It does not mention mode of delivery, so should be assumed to apply to all modes, online provision included.

Gifted educators are amongst those benefiting from social media to expand their PLNs. Some educators believe that social networks have the capacity to replace old-style professional development but others are more wary.

This post compares Twitter to Marmite – because educators either love it or hate it.

This paper by the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning sets out a more reasoned case for social media’s contribution to professional development, including several case studies.

It concludes:

‘The people and organisations profiled in this report have all found that using social media has brought rich rewards. Through blogging, tweeting and participating in online forums they have been able to access the thoughts and ideas of education professionals across the world. They have been able to reflect on their own practice, and to use that reflection to shape their teaching. They have found new ways to engage with their pupils, parents and the wider community, and to use the insights they have gained to improve the learning in their school.

Social media will not provide a silver bullet. Engaging with colleagues in this way can be frustrating, time-consuming and demanding. Challenging yourself, or being challenged by others, on the way you approach teaching and learning is not for the faint-hearted. But if school leaders and policymakers are serious about raising teaching standards, the potential of social media to engage, support and inspire teachers should not be ignored.’

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How can Social Media Further Improve Professional Development?

As long as the use of social media continues to increase, one might reasonably expect more stakeholders in gifted education to become active and persuaded of the value for their own professional development and that of colleagues too.

It is incumbent on advocates for the power of social media to make the case – and hopefully this Symposium will play some small part – but it would help if organisations like ECHA were to commit themselves fully to this cause, and preferably not by establishing closed communities available only to ECHA members, but in an open and inclusive fashion.

Perhaps the ECHA diploma and certificate should be available online – and perhaps candidates should be actively encouraged to use social media for interactive support. (The ECHA diploma network already operates its own Facebook page, though this operates largely as a news broadcaster for members of the network, which is closed.)

The idea of an observatory, discussed above, would have major benefits for professional development worldwide, first and foremost by spreading knowledge and understanding about practice in other countries. If this were linked directly with a social curation and learning platform, there would be substantial two-way benefits.

Users would be invited to submit materials relevant to professional development that are freely available online. Those materials could be catalogued according to country of origin, date of publication, language, media (eg written, video, multimedia) and topics covered. Research could be included. Users could be invited to review and rate resources, again using the Amazon model.

Users could also be invited to draw these resources together into professional development ‘learning pathways’ which could be incorporated into larger professional development programmes, or initial training, or even be accredited and used as stand-alone courses. Groups of gifted educators worldwide could learn together by interacting with these materials and with each other. Specialist tutors could be trained to lead such activity.

If this rich online professional environment was coupled with the equally rich gifted education environment outlined above, the synergy thus created would directly benefit both endeavours.

The professional development benefits could also be extended to school improvement if learning resources were linked directly to quality standards and school improvement plans derived from them. It would not be impossible to develop a whole school improvement programme driven by gifted education with built-in formative and summative evaluation.

There would also be potential to accredit formally the learning undertaken by gifted educators through other social networks. For example, a Twitter user might submit a log of his Tweets, including engagement through relevant #chats, as evidence of learning, understanding and thought leadership in the field.

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Flower courtesy of GP Junior

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Research

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The Nature of the Problem – Challenges we face

From my (admittedly biased) perspective there are several problems with the current research environment for gifted education:

  • Useful research is inaccessible because there is no single dedicated online repository of the kind described above. Much of it is located in academic journals which, although they now permit online access, typically levy an exorbitant charge for reading even a single article. Sometimes the research may be accessible after a timelag, but not always, and often the timelag is far too long so the research is outdated once it can be accessed free of charge. (There are, of course, some honourable exceptions.)
  • The other principal form of research dissemination is the academic conference, which is inefficient for the reasons I have already cited, expensive to attend and rarely provides delegates with a full record of all the keynotes and presentations given (or does so only at a price). It is pleasant to meet colleagues face-to-face once in a while – and some real value can be derived from personal networking – but these benefits are rarely lasting. Conferences are like occasional feasts, with far too much consumption packed into a tiny window, when they should ideally be staging points in a much richer continuum of engagement.
  • From an outsider’s perspective, gifted education researchers often seem to work in relative isolation from each other. It may be a caricature, but I suspect the ‘pantheon of gods’ rarely if ever convenes as a pantheon, whether physically or virtually, since that would compromise their status. Academics with seniority and big reputations may allow a coterie of younger researchers to sit at their feet, but there seems to be little systematic interaction of this kind within the research community between experienced and younger researchers.
  • Conference keynotes are invariably dominated by the pantheon. They tour the circuit dispensing the ideas on which they built their reputations, while more junior researchers and other stakeholders compete for tiny audiences much further down the bill. Conference audiences are complicit in this since they are drawn to attend conferences by the big names, apparently regardless of whether they have something new to say. Consequently, old ideas are slow to be challenged and replaced, different models are regarded as mutually exclusive and the gifted education community makes no real effort to achieve broad consensus.

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Current response via Social Media

Gifted education researchers are slowly being tempted to engage with social media, but not always for the right reasons. There is still a school of thought that advocates the use of blogs and Twitter as secondary tools for ‘marketing’ research – no doubt a means to drive an audience towards the journals and conferences where serious ideas are presented and discussed.

Several US-based centres are active on Facebook and Twitter, but this role is typically undertaken by the communications lead rather than by the academics who lead the centres. Rather than using social media to convey and discuss new ideas, they deploy it to sell places on their summer schools, or books written by their academics.

A few habitués are dedicated to sharing and discussing gifted education research, principally via Facebook and Twitter, but most of us are not academics in the strict sense. We confine ourselves largely to open access materials, since authors and publishers can do their own marketing – we are not in the business of generating profit for them. (I nearly always avoid priced resources, unless I have written them myself, and I do not follow people or retweet messages that seem exclusively focused on self-publicity or income generation.)

Several useful research-related social media tools and networks are now available, including Academia, Mendeley and ResearchGate. But few gifted education researchers use them.

At the time of writing, Academia lists 154 people with a research interest in ‘gifted education’ (though there are smaller groups associated with slightly different terms) and 39 people with a research interest in ‘giftedness’. They are almost exclusively graduate students, young academics and those already involved with other forms of social media. Not one of the ‘pantheon’ is active.

Academic conferences in gifted education remain resolutely traditional in format. I tried to introduce a different mindset when part of the Organising Committee for the 2007 World Conference in Warwick. I have made similar overtures to the 2013 organising committee, so far with no perceptible success (though they have set up a conference blog, which is a small step in the right direction).

A few of us are offering live Tweets from ECHA 2012, but there are too few to provide any meaningful coverage of the event. As far as I am aware, this Symposium is the only session offering any specific connection with social media, whether as a subject or a medium of communication.

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How can Social Media Further Improve Research?

In December 2010 I wrote a post ‘An International Online Network for Gifted Education Researchers?’ setting out the case for such an entity. Having explored the options, I suggested that it made sense to use ResearchGate as the platform, proposed further consultation and concluded with a suggestion that fell on deaf ears:

‘One option that emerges naturally from a social networking approach is to devolve, distribute and democratise the task, by inviting the gifted education research community to undertake the process voluntarily through researchgate.’

No-one took up the suggestion; nothing happened.

But if an observatory cum repository cum social learning environment could be developed, it should certainly incorporate research. It could give priority to effective dissemination of high quality research, the professional development of young researchers, and collaboration between researchers and with the other stakeholder groups in gifted education. It could provide the basis for an international think tank dedicated to solving the problems that we face in contemporary gifted education.

In the short term, we could make excellent progress if every delegate at this Conference were to commit to using Facebook and Twitter to share their presentations and papers. By such means we might entice a cross-section of delegates to experiment with social media as a means of engagement – with each other and with the wider gifted education community – between now and the next Conference in 2014.

For the concept of a PLN surely has just as much to offer the researcher as it does the educator, does it not?

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Windows courtesy of GP Junior

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The weaknesses of a social media approach and obstacles to progress

It would be quite wrong to portray social media as a panacea. It will not solve entirely the problems I have identified in this post and it may pose new problems that we do not face in our current transitional scenario.

For I am making an assumption, on the basis of the evidence cited above, that the influence and reach of social media will increase dramatically over the remainder of this decade and beyond.

It is unlikely that education – even comparative backwaters like gifted education – will be left behind, especially since huge organisations like Newscorp and Pearson have identified online education as an investment priority.

But it will be incumbent upon the gifted education community to ensure through advocacy that gifted education is at the forefront of such developments, rather than an afterthought.

There are significant problems to rectify and issues to address if progress is to be made. They include:

  • Resources: Although very significant progress can be made by relying on free software and services, the opportunities for customisation are relatively limited unless fruitful partnership can be established with companies willing to invest to capture the gifted education market. Moreover, those who run free services will often plan towards a subscription model to achieve longer-term sustainability – free services do not always remain so.
  • The pace of change: Social media is evolving with great rapidity, especially in the education market. It would be very easy to adopt an approach or a partnership agreement that led up a blind alley, so any development strategy needs to be flexible enough to permit horses to be changed midstream.
  • Fragmentation: The nature of social media is such that a huge choice of opportunities exists. Unsuccessful enterprises go quickly to the wall while exciting new services appear at the same rate. A wise social media strategy will embrace a few different providers anyway, because no single service covers every element required and users have different preferences that need to be satisfied. But that raises the difficulty of how to bind and hold the different elements of a strategy together – a difficulty that is compounded if there are too many elements in play.
  • Linguistic diversity: Although quality has improved dramatically in recent years, we have not yet reached the position where a written document can be  translated instantly and perfectly into any other language, or where two learners without a common language can communicate sufficiently to learn together (except maybe in areas like maths and music).
  • Safety: Sadly, the internet is not a fully safe environment, especially for children. While it is imperative that they are protected from harm – whether from predatory adults or from their peers, via cyberbullying – this acts as a brake on innovation, requiring safeguards to be installed that may run counter to the optimal conditions for learning. This trade-off is unfortunately inescapable and must be planned for from the outset.
  • Resistance: It is certain that participants in this Symposium are a highly biased sample. While one would like to think that everyone in the gifted education community is open to persuasion, there will be those who oppose the use of social media, or who argue that the benefits are over-rated. This doesn’t entirely correlate with age, but older people generally seem more resistant. Those who remember a largely computer-free world may be less likely to espouse social media than later generations who have grown up with it.

It is common for critics to argue that they haven’t the time to engage properly with social media, that they are too busy already. But that is often because they regard social media as a bolt-on extra, an extravagance that they must fit in alongside all other demands, rather than something they can integrate fully into their lifestyle, in work and at leisure, and so improve significantly their productivity. Engagement with social media demands a time investment, but the investment yields added value, as well as scope to save time elsewhere. The social media enthusiast gives – and receives commensurately in return.

 

Last words

What then are we to conclude about the contribution that social media can make towards resolving the problems we face in gifted education? For me, the learning points are these:

  • The problems I have identified are longstanding and significant, but not insurmountable.
  • Gifted education needs to adapt if it is to thrive in a globalised environment with an increasingly significant online dimension.
  • Social media form part of that environment and also offer one promising means to address these problems.
  • Social media will not eradicate the problems but could support progress by virtue of their unrivalled capacity to ‘only connect’.
  • Gifted education is potentially well-placed to pioneer new developments in social media but is not properly aware of this opportunity, or the benefits it could bring.
  • We have not yet effected the transition from ‘early adoption’ to mainstream practice, but we need to begin to accelerate that process very soon, otherwise we will be left behind.

In the UK we are striving to establish an online social media hub for GT Voice, intended to form part of a global network representing all key stakeholder groups in gifted education.

Progress has been painfully slow as we struggle with very limited human and financial resource, the not inconsiderable fissures within the gifted education community, sheer apathy and an enduring desire to be spoonfed by others rather than networking together to effect real change and improvement.

We will continue that struggle, but would be aided considerably by joining a bigger movement to bring greater coherence to gifted education throughout Europe. The European Talent Support and Resource Centre is an excellent opportunity to make such a connection.

But, if it is to be successful, the Centre must devote itself to a distributed model, building capacity by developing nodes in every country and relying extensively on social media to establish connections between them. It will not succeed if it is – or if it is perceived to be – a mechanism for centralising power and influence in Budapest.

The Centre could supplement its own budget through a co-ordinated bid for network funding under the EU’s Lifelong Learning Programme, but the deadline is fast approaching and this opportunity will soon have passed.

I have a nagging fear that, somewhere in Hungary, plans for the Centre are already formulated and signed off by the bodies that are providing the initial funding – whereas the better approach would be to open up the planning process at the earliest possible stage, so that we can secure collective buy-in and ownership across the Continent.

As part of that planning process, I propose a multinational working group to develop a pan-European social media strategy for gifted education, drawing on some of the ideas suggested in this Symposium, for incorporation into the business of the Centre and the international network surrounding it.

For I firmly believe that effective use of social media is a necessary condition for the success of that network.

Moreover, social media can make a substantial and lasting contribution to the scope, value and quality of gifted education, to the benefit of all stakeholders, but ultimately for the collective good of gifted learners.

No, ‘can’ is too cautious, non-assertive, unambitious. Let’s go for WILL instead!

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GP

September 2012

Can Social Media Help Overcome the Problems We Face In Gifted Education?: Part One

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This post:

  • reviews some of the key problems we face in securing effective gifted education
  • examines how – in the context of increasingly globalised gifted education – social media are helping to address those problems
  • proposes ways in which social media’s contribution might be enhanced and strengthened and
  • considers whether and to what extent social media might contribute towards the resolution of those problems.

The post is divided into two parts, with Part One providing a foundation for the arguments advanced in Part Two

It sets out my broad approach to this issue, explains the key concepts relating to gifted education, social media and globalisation respectively and provides background information and data about social media usage, especially in a European and educational context.

While I have tried to maintain a consistent and logical argument, you may find this somewhat more discursive and opinionated than my usual posts. I want to be provocative to promote discussion, but there is nothing here that I do not personally believe. I may be guilty of want of tact, in which case I plead guilty as charged.

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Background

Until now this blog has devoted little attention to the current and potential contribution of social media to gifted education, despite comprising one very small element of the social media revolution that is already impacting upon it.

The organisation of a Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education – part of  the imminent 13th International Conference of the European Council for High Ability (ECHA) in Germany – provides the perfect opportunity to rectify this omission.

I outlined our plans for the Symposium in my last post, introducing the participants and the abstracts of our presentations.

We intend that it will explore:

  • The extent to which social media have been applied to gifted education;
  • The benefits and the risks that social media can bring, whether for learners, parents, educators or policy-makers; and
  • How this field is likely to develop over the next few years.

We will discuss what further collaborative action might be undertaken by the gifted education community in Europe and beyond, to capitalise on the potential for social media to build and maintain valuable connections between them, for the benefit of all involved.

Our treatment will be located within the wider context of research on gifted education and social media respectively, but we will be focused primarily on the development and support of effective practice.

I have invited all presenters to publish their contributions a little way ahead of the event, to allow the other participants to familiarise themselves with the arguments they advance, and so come better prepared to take the discussion forward (but I recognise that this may not be possible for everyone given that the Conference takes place immediately after the holiday season).

I will upload materials and presentations and/or post links from this Blog so that everything that is published before the Symposium can be easily found.

There will be a Twitter Wall inside the Symposium, so that – technology and reliable free wi-fi permitting – some of the power of social media can be harnessed to support the event. We will invite those physically present to live Tweet highlights of the presentations as well as their own contributions.

We have also arranged a special edition of Global #gtchat powered by TAGT (the Texas Association for the Gifted and Talented) to coincide with the Symposium, so that those among the worldwide gifted education community who are active on Twitter can follow proceedings and hopefully take an active part in the live discussion.

For my part, I have decided to set out my contribution to proceedings as a fairly typical Gifted Phoenix blog post. This will provide the basis for a much briefer 10 minute presentation during the Symposium itself. But industrious delegates will have been able to familiarise themselves with the full, unadulterated version – and so be able to discuss that more substantive text if they wish.

Birds courtesy of GP Junior

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My Abstract, Biases and Hypothesis

 

Abstract

For ease of reference, here again is the abstract that summarises my contribution:

‘Within education as a whole we are only beginning to utilise the huge untapped potential of social media to revolutionise learning, professional development, advocacy, research and policy-making.

The global gifted community is starting to realise that social media can provide part of the solution to many of the issues that it has been wrestling with for decades.

But the number of enthusiastic ‘early adopters’ is still relatively small, the majority are not yet fully engaged or persuaded and a few feel excluded or even directly threatened.

This presentation analyses the problems and priorities faced by the global gifted community, as seen through a European lens. It examines how social media might be harnessed to address these and reviews the progress made to date.

It identifies concrete action that could be taken to secure further and faster progress. It also isolates some of the key risks associated with a social-media driven approach and considers how those might be mediated or circumvented.

Participants will be strongly encouraged to share their own perspectives and experience, regardless of whether they are experts, beginners or somewhere in between.’

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Biases

I bring my own fair share of subjectivity and personal bias to this treatment, and it is important that I make a clean breast of that at the outset.

This analysis of the issues faced by the global gifted community will inevitably be Eurocentric, given my geographical location, though my perspective is fundamentally the globalised view of gifted education that serves as the leitmotif of this Blog.

It will also be influenced by my background as a policy-maker: one who understood part of that function to involve promoting engagement within and across the gifted education community, drawing in all the key stakeholder groups, as well as networking with and learning from the experience of those with similar responsibilities throughout the world.

Although I approach these issues from a broadly academic perspective, I am relatively more sceptical about the contribution of ‘proper’ academics than any other group within this community. That may be because – with honourable exceptions, some involved in this Symposium – I perceive them to be rather more concerned with their personal academic theories and reputations (and sometimes the reputations of their institutions) than they are with working collaboratively to resolve the common problems that we face.

Sometimes it feels as though the gifted education community is over-dominated by a pantheon of academic gods, each demanding that we worship at his or her shrine. Of course it may be a fault in the worshippers, rather than the worshipped, that this situation has come about.

I also start from the contestable premiss that our collective efforts to secure effective transnational collaboration in gifted education to date have been sadly deficient, especially in recent years.

Hence I am rather critical of ECHA’s track record, and that of the World Council, which places me in a somewhat difficult position relative to those organisations and others like them, especially when I am utilising their conferences to advance my views!

This may be cause to label me an outsider, even a maverick. But, paradoxically, my core message is an inclusive one, for part of the problem I see with these organisations is that they rely too heavily on a traditional closed membership model, which seems to me rather outmoded and out of kilter with the more inclusive, open-access, networking principles embodied in social media (at least up to the point where they collide with an imperative to generate subscription-based income).

These organisations also appear to be over-dominated by the academic contingent, somewhat to the detriment of the other stakeholder groups within the wider gifted education community, which weakens their overall impact.

I should also warn of possible bias when it comes to the social media I espouse and those I hold in somewhat lower regard. As will be apparent from my own digital ‘footprint’ I see great value in blogging, microblogging (via Twitter), learning platforms and collaborative platforms or online ‘hubs’ (such as the low-budget option we are developing for GT Voice).

I am somewhat less convinced of the value of Facebook, Linked In, Google+ and Second Life, though I recognise that they can make a valuable contribution. I see huge potential in social bookmarking and curation tools, as well as a variety of other useful applications.

But I believe that the whole can be greater than the sum of its parts. The trick lies in using these various instruments as seamlessly as possible, to create an accessible, effective and supportive social media environment.

I am sure you will hold a quite different perspective, but don’t let that prevent you from engaging with what follows! I have striven to hold these biases in check during the remainder of this post, though you may still see a trace here and there.

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Hypothesis

My fundamental hypothesis is that social media may well offer our best chance of realising E.M. Forster’s famous injunction to ‘Only Connect’, so linking together socially and geographically dispersed individuals, organisations and stakeholder groups, for the mutual benefit of all.

(The referencing of Forster’s epigraph in this context is not without precedent, as this early paper on ‘Computer-Mediated Association and Community Networks aptly illustrates.)

This is important because the fundamental weakness of the gifted education community lies in its fragmentation, its over-emphasis on points of difference and disagreement rather than points of similarity, and its overall unwillingness to collaborate to achieve broadly positive outcomes.

Some parts of the community are also bedevilled by insularity, failing to recognise that their part of the world does not have the monopoly on effective policy and practice and that they can learn from the experience of other countries, provided that they avoid the worst excesses of ‘policy tourism’.

I am not messianistic about the capacity of social media to generate a new world order in gifted education. I recognise that there are significant obstacles to the realisation of this outcome, some of which may prove insurmountable. But I do think that we can make significant further progress by building firm and sustainable social media foundations that will be beneficial to the future development of the European and global gifted education communities.

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Chipmunk courtesy of GP Junior

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The Meaning of Terms

This post brings together three complex concepts, each of which can be hard to pin down, namely gifted education, social media and globalisation. Relatively few readers are likely to be fully familiar with all three, and my interpretation may be somewhat idiosyncratic, so it is important to clarify what I mean by these terms.

 

Gifted Education

I tend to use ‘gifted education’ as a convenient shorthand for all activities associated with the identification, education and support of gifted learners, however that population is defined (and of course there are multiple definitions, with huge variation in the span and pitch of abilities accommodated, as well as the evidence of their existence required).

I use ‘gifted learner’ to mean all the beneficiaries of such activity, regardless of their age and whether they are receiving formal education, though children and young people of school age are foremost in my thinking.

I intend ‘gifted education community’ to include all those with a primary interest in giftedness, as well as all those engaged in some capacity with gifted education (and we know that those two factions do not always co-exist harmoniously, even in a social media environment).

Some might argue that my use of the terms ‘education’ and ‘learner’ is misleading, because they do not apply to some activities and settings I want to include. But that reinforces a tension between two parts of the community which seems to me reconcilable, if we can accept that all of us are engaged with education and learning in the broadest sense.

This is a broad church indeed, and the definitional variations I have mentioned make this even more pronounced. Sometimes it seems that the only common feature within this community is disagreement.

But part of my premiss is that only through collaboration can we accumulate sufficient power and influence to achieve the broadly common outcomes sought by the many different elements within the gifted education community. More specific preferences may have to be sacrificed for the common good. Social media can help to support such collaboration, helping us to circumvent the fragmentation that will otherwise undermine our collective efforts.

In this post, I have divided the gifted education enterprise into five areas, each of which is (stereo)typically associated with a particular stakeholder group, shown in brackets below.

These groups feature significantly in my subsequent treatment of problems and solutions. But I have avoided categorisation by group because each area is not entirely defined by the dominant group and, conversely, the activities of each group are not entirely defined by the area in which they typically feature. For example, it is quite reasonable to accept that teachers contribute to all of the five areas below.

The list is ordered alphabetically – no inference should be made as to the relative importance of the five components, all of which are critical to the success of our collective endeavour:

  • Advocacy (parents) incorporates all activity designed to raise awareness of the needs of gifted learners and those involved with their support – as well as the full range of personal and social benefits that investment in meeting those needs can secure – and lobbying to persuade those in positions of power and influence to address those needs and so generate those benefits.

This may be undertaken through organisations and networks specifically established for the purpose, or through more general governance arrangements (whether the governing body of a single school, a national parliament or something in between).

The most basic form is one-to-one interaction, typically between a parent and a teacher. It can take place face-to-face, online, or even in a blended environment. It may be highly formal, entirely informal or located at any point between those two extremes.

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  • Learning (learners) incorporates all activities and services that contribute towards the formal and informal education of gifted learners. In the case of learners of school age, the formal dimension will likely involve some element of compulsory schooling or its equivalent, typically but not exclusively provided through some form of differentiated classroom teaching, whether in a selective or mixed ability setting. Home schooling is of course an exception.

There may also be a significant element provided through additional extended learning activities that take place outside school hours, in the evenings, at weekends or during school holidays.

The distinction between formal and informal – already blurred to some extent through these out-of-school activities – becomes even more indistinct within an increasingly significant third component, namely voluntary, independent learning, now typically undertaken online and facilitated by social media.

The degree of independence varies, in that such online learning may be entirely separate from formal education, or fully integrated with it, or loosely connected.

The balance between these components can also vary enormously. In some blended learning models – often gathered under the general term flipped classroom – the independent online component is dominant, reversing the more traditional model in which face-to-face classroom learning predominates and is supported by additional online interaction.

One might expect the educational experience of gifted learners to require relatively more customisation and so typically include more out-of-school and online activity. Given that assumption, gifted learners are an important customer group for online learning providers to satisfy.

If we can also assume that education in future will be provided increasingly through online environments, then gifted learners can and should be at the forefront of that transformation.

But regardless of the balance, it is critical that these different elements are fully integrated and mutually supportive. If any part of the educational menu is perceived as second-order and ‘bolt-on’, the learner will suffer as a consequence. It follows that the organisation and recording of learning is essential to avoid fragmentation of the individual learner’s education experience, and social media can also support this.

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  • Policy-making (policy makers) denotes the development and delivery of all services designed to meet the needs of gifted learners and their families, as well as those engaged in associated advocacy, professional development and research.

This is likely to involve selection and assessment of different policy options, resource allocation, choosing a delivery mechanism, implementing a delivery process and evaluating outcomes. Policies and programmes must satisfy the political requirements of the entity responsible for approving them. They must also fit snugly in the wider policy context, supporting broader educational and social objectives wherever possible.

The communication of policies – how they are perceived by stakeholders affected and by the wider population – is a critical factor, and much of this engagement now takes place online. Policy makers are encouraged to use social media to conduct preliminary research, to consult stakeholders and as a feedback channel to inform the wider policy development process.

Although policy-making is assumed to be owned by those formally responsible for the design and delivery of services, whether at local/district, state/regional or national/federal level, that is not always the case. Concepts such as crowdsourcing and open and contestable policy-making are paving the way towards a much more distributed model.

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  • Professional development (teachers) comprises the initial training and subsequent development of all those engaged in educating and meeting the needs of gifted learners. This is not confined to teachers, though they will form the majority of beneficiaries. Other educators and paraprofessionals will also feature, some of them working directly with gifted learners, others engaged in related activities such as school leadership or academic research. Parents and carers may also benefit and there is a ‘training the trainers’ dimension too.

As with learning, professional development incorporates formal programmes that can be undertaken face-to-face, online or in a blended format. Provision may range from a full postgraduate degree at one end of the spectrum to a module requiring an hour or so for completion at the other.

And professional development is also making increased use of social media to provide the basis for collaborative interaction in a rich, multimedia online environment. As online and blended options become more popular, one might expect traditional face-to-face models to decline in popularity.

Meanwhile, social media also host a substantial and increasing volume of voluntary, independent professional development undertaken through personal and social learning networks (of which more below). And the distinction between these two strands is becoming increasingly blurred as those undertaking both at once build links between them so that formal and independent learning become mutually supportive.

This increasing reliance on social media and social networks is congruent with a widespread shift in the delivery model for professional development, away from top-down centralised models and towards devolved, bottom-up networked solutions that depend principally on educators supporting each other. Social media can help to combat the disadvantages of this distributed approach by extending its geographical reach and helping to ensure consistent quality.

Because educators are, by definition, at the forefront of pedagogical innovation, they too have a strong interest in pioneering these developments, testing out new approaches to learning on themselves.

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  • Research (academic researchers) includes all activity devoted to the production of knowledge about how best to meet the needs of gifted learners and those supporting them, as well as evaluation of the costs and benefits of doing so.

It may be undertaken in a formal context – typically a university or think-tank – and the product may be a research paper, report, lecture, presentation or book. Such research may be expected to inform advocacy, learning, professional development and policy-making but, if it is to do so, it must be shared openly with the relevant stakeholder groups rather than remaining in locked repositories.

Through the open access movement there is increasingly pressure to ensure that the outcomes of academic research are fully and freely available online, so that knowledge is not restricted to those in formal research environments and others with the ability to pay. Social media provide the means to distribute such research outcomes widely

But research may also take place in a different organisational environment, such as a third sector organisation, or be undertaken by advocates and/or educators working individually or collaboratively (including via a social network). It may be published through social media, perhaps in the form of a blog post or a wiki.

This democratisation of research, enabling those outside higher education settings to generate, publish and disseminate their findings, parallels similar developments in the other facets of gifted education already summarised above.

Whereas roles and responsibilities were once rigidly defined and allocated to specific subsets of the gifted education community, social media are beginning to bring about a more inclusive scenario – one which calls into question the relationships between different stakeholder groups that previously existed.

This provides an opportunity for those who were once in relatively subservient positions – or felt themselves to be so. But it also poses a threat to those who were formerly in positions of greatest power and influence. If I am right that the academic element has been over-dominant in the gifted education community, then social media may provide a means to rectify that imbalance.

But policy-makers and educators will also need to resign some of their former influence in this new environment. Indeed, as noted above, none of the five areas I have defined is any longer the province of a single stakeholder group. We must all work more closely together to make progress in each of the five.

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Lizard courtesy of GP Junior

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Social Media

This term is also convenient shorthand, typically used to describe the online environment, including the various platforms and tools that people use to interact, through the publication, curation, sharing, discussion and collaborative development of different kinds of content.

In the last few years there has been a tendency to use the alternative term ‘web 2.0’, as a synonym, distinguishing social media from the earlier, non-interactive phase of internet development, but this seems now to be yesterday’s jargon, especially as various attempts have been made to delineate a new ‘web 3.0’ phase (so far without much consensus over the meaning of the term).

Strictly speaking, the human interaction undertaken via these social media is more accurately described as networking. When using social media one sees constant reference to social networks and personal networks and, in an educational context, the word ‘learning is often added. But it is hard to find straightforward explanations of what exactly these two phrases mean.

This is my current imperfect understanding:

  • Social learning network synthesises two different concepts that predate the internet and sets this hybrid in an online context. One is the idea of networked learning, achieved through communication between members of a learning community; the other is the social network, originally describing any social structure comprising individuals and groups. The latter phrase is now more commonly used to describe online interaction between a group of users who share a common interest and/or use a common platform.

A social learning network is essentially a group of users who form such an online community for the purpose of learning. There is an ever-increasing range of social learning platforms which embrace a variety of different models. Some are more accurately described as teaching networks, because they feature a fairly traditional teacher-student relationship; others are designed to support collaborative peer-to-peer learning.

A subset that receives particular attention is caught by the acronym MOOC (Massive Open Online Course). Some MOOCs are hosted by traditional universities and there has been a spate of recent high profile launches. Enthusiasts regard MOOCs as precursors of fully scalable free online higher education which could rival more traditional cost-bearing university-based courses.

Others are less sure, with some critics suggesting that a certain adherence to traditional lecturer-student relationships is out of kilter with the core principles of networked learning. Commentators are beginning to highlight more of the downside.

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  • Personal learning network (PLN) is a popular phrase amongst educators who are active social media users. Essentially it describes participation in networked learning from the individual’s perspective, being the network of other people that the individual interacts with for the purpose of learning. It can also be interpreted as including the platforms and tools the individual uses for that purpose, though that is sometimes conceived of as a separate ‘personal learning environment’.

Such learning is self-directed and typically informal. Lalonde describes it thus in his thesis on The Role of Twitter in the Formation and Maintenance of PLNs (I have removed some of the academic references to improve the flow):

A Personal Learning Network (PLN) is a network of people you connect with for the specific purpose of learning. These people may assist you in your learning by acting as a guide, direct you to learning opportunities, and assist you with finding answers to questions.’

Lalonde adds this helpful gloss:

‘…PLNs also appear to differ from similar informal learning constructs, such as a Community of Practice (CoP) or a Network of Practice (NoP) in that both CoPs and NoPs are bound by a common practice, or specific domain of knowledge or interest..

…While people may follow similar people within their PLN, the PLN is an autonomous construct that is uniquely created by each individual to serve their specific learning needs. Therefore, there is no collective intention driving the development of the PLN as there is with a community, but rather a personal intention on the part of the person constructing the PLN…’

A PLN – or, more accurately, a PLE – may be constructed on the basis of several different tools and platforms, though most people come to rely principally on one or two. It is of course preferable that time and effort is invested predominantly in the most effective routes and that one aims for synergy between the tools/platforms selected.

To take a personal example, I rely predominantly on microblogging via Twitter and this Blog, though I also make less intensive use of Facebook and Linked In. I deploy various secondary tools to support this approach – eg Tweetdeck, Hootsuite, Bitly, Memolane – and, from time to time I test out other tools to see whether they would be valuable additions. Because of the development of GT Voice, I am also exploring the interaction between that social network and my own PLN.

The 2012 edition of the NMC Horizon Report for Primary and Secondary Education identifies the use of PLEs as an innovation that will become influential, entering the mainstream within the next two to three years.

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 Globalisation

My hypothesis is predicated on the argument that we are living in an age of globalisation, that globalisation is bringing about globalised education and, that being the case, we are entering a phase of globalised gifted education. Many of our former assumptions about what we can achieve and how need to be recast to fit this new environment.

Globalisation has a general meaning and a more specific economic definition. In general terms it describes a process of increasing integration and interaction regardless of geographical distance and national boundaries. The pace of globalisation has increased as a consequence of improved transport and communication, especially online communication.

Economic globalisation is the process by which national economic markets have become increasingly interdependent. In some areas of economic activity they have already merged into a single world market; in others, that is rapidly becoming the situation.

This has been attributable partly to the increased ease with which the means of production, especially human capital, can be moved physically from one place to another. But improved online communication has also meant that human capital does not always need to move physically to the location in which it is applied.

This is particularly the case in the so-called ‘knowledge industries’ which rely on highly-skilled labour. IT itself is one example; education is another. Many countries have invested heavily in the development of highly-skilled labour with a view to creating a ‘knowledge economy’ which can thrive in a globalised environment.

Education (alongside training) is both the means by which such labour is developed and one of the segments of the knowledge economy, employing a workforce that is engaged in educating the current and future workforce and the production and application of knowledge through research and innovation.

Education is no longer confined by national and geographical boundaries. Learners can more easily move to a learning environment outside their own country, learning providers are establishing bases in different locations around the world and the internet provides a mechanism for increasingly sophisticated distance learning. This applies as much to gifted learners and gifted education (and also related professional development) as it does to any other field.

Some countries have realised that they must invest significantly in gifted education to feed the pipeline of highly-skilled labour that will drive their knowledge economies. Several of the ‘Asian Tigers’ fall into this category, notably Hong Kong, Singapore and South Korea. Malaysia and Saudi Arabia are other notable examples.

They have recognised the economic value of investment in gifted education in a globalised environment. Other countries, including many of the leading Western economies, seem to prefer a strategy to raise the overall standard of their educational provision while simultaneously reducing achievement gaps between disadvantaged and other learners.

Given the latter emphasis, the rationale for gifted education in those countries may be articulated more in terms of equity and social mobility than in terms of economic investment. Or, where there is no rationale and no investment, the debate may be dominated by the significant gap between the needs of gifted learners and the capacity of the education system to meet those needs.

So some countries are investing in gifted education as a direct consequence of globalisation, but gifted education is also on the cusp of globalised delivery.

As social media create an increasingly sophisticated online learning environment, international exchange will no longer be confined to traditional academic conferences, franchised operations (such as CTY) and occasional opportunities for gifted students to attend summer schools abroad.

But it is not just learning and professional development that are becoming globalised. So are advocacy, policy-making and research. The introduction of online social media is both a driver of globalisation and our most effective means of response, across all five areas of gifted education outlined above.

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Robin courtesy of GP Junior

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How widespread is use of social media?

Before we go further, it is important to offer some further context for those who are relatively unfamiliar with the current reach and sophistication of social media.

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History

This is not the place for an extensive treatment of the historical development of social media since its earliest origins, but those seeking to understand the timeline and key stages of development can gain at least a broad understanding from this selection of infographics available online:

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Scale and Scope

It is less straightforward to convey succinctly to those not closely engaged a clear impression of the current scope of social media – the vast range of tools and platforms available and the way in which they can interact to create a holistic online environment.

I can only exemplify the former by referring unfamiliar readers to this online directory which provides details of and links to several thousand different applications.

These two infographics attempt a taxonomy of social media covering some of the most-used tools and platforms:

Two further infographics give a sense of how these different services mesh together from the perspective of the user:

  • This describes six types of activity undertaken by social media users, providing details of the extent of participation by age in the USA for each of them; and
  • The Social Media Effect is a simple flowchart illustrating how different social media tools and platforms can support each other.

This final infographic – Social Web Involvement – is the best illustration I can find of the huge number of people who use social media for different purposes in different parts of the world. This data is already three years old and the figures provided are likely to have increased significantly between then and now!

(The charts show interesting disparities between different European countries and we shall investigate that further below.)

This more recent Comscore Report from Autumn 2011 provides some mind-boggling statistics illustrating the scale of use and the pace of change:

  • Social networks have 1.2 billion users aged 15+ worldwide – 82% of the global online population
  • Social networking is the most popular online activity accounting for 19% of all time spent online, up from just 6% in 2007
  • Social networking is increasing in every country surveyed – 43 in all
  • The percentage of the online population using social networking has reached 98% in the USA and ranges from 86-98% in the 18 European countries surveyed
  • European females spent an average of 8.2 hours per month on social networks; European males spent an average of 6.3 hours per month.
  • People aged 55+ are the fastest growing group of social network users with 86% of all those active online in Europe now social network users
  • Between 2010 and 2011, use of instant messenger services by 15-24 year-olds declined by 42% and use of email declined by 22%; meanwhile, use of social networking increased by 34%

This post provides statistical key facts and infographics for seven of the leading English language social networks including Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

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More about Social Media Use in Europe

An Autumn 2011 European Commission study on adult Media Use in the European Union (27 member states) reports that:

  • 35% of all Europeans use online social networks at least once a week and nearly 20% use them on a daily or almost daily basis. However 44% said they never used online social networks and a further 11% said they had no access.
  • There are significant differences according to age: 56% of 18-24 year-olds use online social networks on a daily or almost daily basis, as do 29% of 25-39 year-olds, 14% of 40-54 year-olds and 4% of those over 55.
  • But there are only minor differences according to socio-economic status (as measured by employment) with 23% of managers, 25% of white collar workers and 20% of manual workers using online social networks daily or almost daily. Some 60% of students fall into this category.
  •  The Netherlands reports the highest usage – 56% of people use online social networks at least once a week. They are closely followed by Latvia (55%), Denmark 54% and Sweden 54%. The lowest usage occurs in Romania (22%), Portugal (24%) and, perhaps surprisingly, Germany (27%).
  • The biggest increases in usage by this measure since 2010 are reported in Luxembourg (+11%), Greece (+10%), the Czech Republic (+10%) and Austria (+9%).

As far as children are concerned, a September 2011 Report by the EU Kids Online Network published results of a survey of 25 European countries, concluding that  77% of 13-16 year-olds and 38% of 9-12 year-olds have a profile on a social networking site.

A supplementary analysis from the same source shows significant variance between countries.

  • The highest percentage of 13-16 year-olds with a social media profile is in Norway (92%), Slovenia (91%), Czech Republic (90%), Denmark (89%) and the UK (88%).
  • The parallel figures for 9-12 year-olds are: Netherlands (70%), Latvia (65%), Denmark (58%), Poland (58%), showing that there is significant variance between these two age groups.
  • The lowest incidence of social media profiles were found amongst 13-16 year-olds in Turkey (61%) and Romania (63%) and amongst 9-12 year-olds in France (25%), Germany (27%) and Spain (28%).
  • Gender differences are small – overall, 58% of boys and 60% of girls have a personal social media profile.

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Magpies courtesy of GP Junior

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In 2010 the European Commission published Learning 2.0 – The Impact of Social Media on Learning in Europe which uses survey evidence from 2008 and 2009.

It found that:

  • In 2009, across 27 countries surveyed, an average 31% of the population aged 16-74 used the internet ‘for seeking information with the purpose of learning’, up from just 8% in 2007. The proportion varied significantly between countries, exceeding 60% in Finland and Iceland.
  • In 2009 5% of the population used the internet to pursue an online course. The percentage per country ranged from 1% to 18% (Belgium)
  • In 2008, 35% of the population and 57% of internet users made use of the internet ‘for advanced communication services related to social media’. For 16-24 year-olds, these percentages rose to 73% and 83% respectively.

A sense of how quickly things are shifting can be obtained by comparing these figures with 2011 data from Eurostat, which shows:

  • 38% of all 18-74 year-olds participating in social networks within the last three months; 80% of 16-24 year-olds and 83% of students met this criterion. The overall percentage ranges between 72% in Iceland and 25% in Romania;
  • The overall percentage of 18-74 year-olds pursuing an online course remains at 5%, but the highest national rate has reached 14% (in Finland). Moreover, 8% of all 16-24 year-olds and 10% of all students are pursuing an online course.  The countries recording the highest percentages for students engaged are: Finland (50%), Lithuania (37%) and (perhaps surprisingly) Romania (22%).

In the UK, ONS Data for 2011 shows that 57% of adults who accessed the internet in the last three months did so for social networking purposes, with the percentage reaching 91% amongst 16-24 year-olds. Seven percent of adults accessed the internet to undertake an online course, including 9% of 16-34 year-olds and 45-54 year-olds.

The 2010 Report also drew on two commissioned research studies of the incidence of learning based on social media, concluding:

‘Within formal Education and Training… a great number and variety of locally embedded Learning 2.0 initiatives have been identified across Europe, which illustrate that social media can be, and are being, used by Education and Training institutions to:

  • facilitate access by current and prospective students to information, making institutional processes more transparent and facilitating the distribution of educational material;
  • integrate learning into a wider community, reaching out to virtually meet people from other age-groups and socio-cultural backgrounds, linking to experts, researchers or practitioners in a certain field of study and thus opening up alternative channels for gaining knowledge and enhancing skills;
  • support the exchange of knowledge and material and facilitate community building and collaboration among learners and teachers;
  • increase academic achievement with the help of motivating, personalised and engaging learning tools and environments;
  • implement pedagogical strategies intended to support, facilitate, enhance and improve learning processes.

The research on learning in informal (online) learning networks and communities… concludes that social media applications provide easy, fast and efficient ways to access a great diversity of information and situated knowledge. They also provide learners with opportunities to develop their competences in collaboration with other learners, practitioners and stakeholders. Additionally, they allow individuals to acquire competences in a holistic manner, embedded in real-life contexts; and effectively and efficiently support competence building in a lifelong learning continuum.

Research on informal learning activities in online networks and communities further suggests that informal Learning 2.0 strategies facilitate the development of key competences for the 21st century.

To sum up, both research lines point to the fact that social media can lead to innovations in four different dimensions. Firstly, social media allow learners to access a vast variety of (often freely available) learning content, which supports learning and professional development in a lifelong learning continuum; contributes to equity and inclusion and puts pressure on Education and Training institutions to improve the quality and availability of their learning material.

Secondly, social media allow users to create digital content themselves and publish it online, giving rise to a huge resource of user-generated content from which learners and teachers can mutually benefit, also encouraging more active and pro-active approaches to learning.

Thirdly, social media connect learners with one another, and to experts and teachers, allowing them to tap into the tacit knowledge of their peers and have access to highly specific and targeted knowledge in a given field of interest.

Fourthly, social media support collaboration between learners and teachers on a given project or a joint topic of interest, pooling resources and gathering the expertise and potential of a group of people committed to a common objective.

These four dimensions (content, creation, connecting and collaboration) have been labelled as the four C’s of Learning 2.0 in IPTS research.’

This December 2009 presentation by the Commission’s Joint Research Centre exemplifies how the 4Cs were then being embodied in online practice.

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(Not Much) More about How Educators Use Social Media

The social media learning environment has improved radically since 2009, providing far more choice and a far richer multimedia experience.

But, while there is an abundance of material online describing how innovative educators are using social media to support pupil learning and their own professional development, it is surprisingly hard to find reliable survey information about how teachers more generally are utilising these techniques and tools.

I can find no recent and reliable survey data for Europe, or even the UK, though there is some limited material relating to US and Australian practice. The Australian sample is very small, while the US survey dates back to 2009.

 

Here ends the first part of this post. In Part Two we will examine more closely the challenges faced by contemporary gifted education, how social media is helping to frame our response and what steps we might take to maximise its contribution.

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GP

September 2012

Contributions to the ECHA Conference Symposium on Social Media and Gifted Education

 

My last post set out our plans for a Symposium and Twitter chat on Social Media and Gifted Education, taking place on Thursday 13 September at 14.15-15.55 local time in Munster, Germany. Please consult this link for times in your part of the world.

The timetable for the Symposium is as follows (Munster time):

14.15-14.55 – Introduction and presentations from Javier Touron, Peter Csermely and Roya Klingner respectively

15.00-15.35 – Presentations from Tim Dracup and Albert Ziegler respectively, followed by response from Joan Freeman

15.35-15.55 – Open discussion for local and Twitter participants featuring comments on Twitterwall

We want to give participants – whether in Munster or engaging via Twitter – the opportunity to access material in advance, so they are better prepared to take an active part in the proceedings.

So I am posting here links to all presentations and papers relevant to the Symposium. We now have a full set:

The presentation includes an embedded video:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vqb8nKbOo-c&feature=channel&list=UL

This summarises a two-part post which sets out my full argument:

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We very much hope you will join us for the Symposium, either in person in Munster or online via Twitter. If you will be joining us on Twitter please use the #echa12 hashtag.

We look forward to a lively and informed debate that is not just theoretical, but will ultimately help to bring about real improvements in how we utilise social media to support giftedness and gifted education.

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GP

September 2012