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!

.

GP

September 2012

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