Last summer, I designated August 2012 as Connected Educator Month, to encourage and expand the opportunities for professional learning for teachers through online communities and networks.

Continuous learning and problem solving in online spaces is not only possible, but can also be integral to supporting teaching and school leadership. The month’s activities helped many educators become connected for the first time — and it deepened connections for those already learning and collaborating online.

The growing movement of connected educators has a lot of room to expand and mature before it can reach its full potential. But lessons learned in August can help guide that work and make online collaborations a more robust part of professional development in the months and years ahead.

The response to Connected Educator Month was outstanding — and was a powerful testament to the hunger of teachers for professional learning and their desire to grow as educators. A diverse group of 151 organizations offered 455 free online activities and events involving more than 2,000 speakers and facilitators. Close to a third of these opportunities for online learning and collaboration was the result of new partnerships between the organizations that offered them.

Together, they resulted in well over 90,000 hours of professional development — freely given and freely taken. Even more impressive was the rich social media conversation, in which I took part on an almost daily basis throughout August.

On Twitter, the hashtags associated with Connected Educator Month generated an average of 1.4 million impressions each day during the month, reaching more than 4 million readers. An Internet search for “Connected Educator Month” at the end of August returned a quarter of a million references; that number nearly doubled by the end of October.

During the month, teachers banded together to each “adopt a colleague” and help them become “connected educators” who participate in learning together online. In fact, many participating organizations offered online learning and collaboration opportunities because for the first time, they saw themselves as part of a shared project to support connected educators.

Professional learning in online communities has a unique potential to support educators when and where they need it — and it makes way for a more personalized learning opportunity in the context of professional teaching practice.

To be sure, connected educators face some real challenges. Throughout the month, the need for more formal support and recognition for online social learning and problem solving was a common theme. One key step in the right direction would be devising methods for making online professional learning count as legitimate professional development.

I urge schools and districts to come up with creative ways to incorporate these essential activities into their official professional development programs and policies.

Educators and school leaders need to devise smart, evidence-based ways to provide time, credit and credentials for participation, tailored to the ongoing needs of teachers, if online professional learning is going to become part of the norm, rather than the exception in professional development. That evolution is key to capitalizing on technology’s potential to support not only students as learners but also to fully support each and every teacher, each and every day.

I would like to hear from you. What online opportunities are most helpful to you as a professional? What do you imagine could be helpful if it were available? What barriers exist to you making the best use of online opportunities to continuously improve your practice? I look forward to hearing — and learning — from you.

Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education

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