Well, my talk at the CEASA Spotlight Seminar the other night seemed to go OK, although I’m not sure that I really addressed the question of how social media can be utilised by professional associations. A quick look at the CEASA website shows that even in this comparatively small state, there are over 50 associations under their umbrella. I belong to one – CEGSA – but I’m a relative newcomer to being a member, only joining a little over five years ago. So, I don’t have this ingrained history of having a particular professional stake in the continued prosperity of an association. However, if my short stint on the CEGSA Committee is anything to go by, all associations have similar issues in terms of maintaining membership, maintaining a viable financial base and offering support to its members in their particular field of interest.
I use social media as an individual. Associations are about a community. I wasn’t really sure where to look to find an association that was leveraging social media for its members until I remembered that Jo McLeay is now working for VITTA. Their approach is to offer an extremely resource rich website and add the social media in on the platforms where they are found out on the wild web. There’s a blog and a Twitter account. The Twitter account is interesting in that it’s not necessarily a collection of VITTA members on the following list but a carefully curated collection chosen for their potential value to the membership. A quick look at that collection shows a significant number of individuals, all obviously putting out tweets of significant interest for their own network, of which VITTA has now become a node. But as for how many VITTA members are availing themselves of this social media feed, well, I couldn’t tell.
Professional educator organisations cater for interest groups within the education community. They provide Professional Development sessions, run conferences, maintain websites and newletters with the aim of equipping their members with the latest resources and offering information and opportunities to improve their members’ professional practice. This has worked well for quite a long time and many organisations have embraced the use of technology to improve outcomes for their membership base. But in the same way that the internet is a disruptive force starting to rumble through educational institutions, the web and in particular, social media services threaten the status quo. Online events like the K12 Online Conference show that membership to an organisation is no longer a requirement to hold or participate in Professional Learning of the highest quality. The ever popular TED Talks provides keynote quality out of the budget range of any South Australian organisation.
Professional associations are a way of pooling talent and resources for the common good of a larger group. But they have to provide value for their annual subscriptions or potential members are less enthused about joining. At the Seminar, two SLASA members showed an online referencing tool that their organisation had developed, pointing out that this had the potential to be a positive drawcard for their organisation and that licensed access to this tool could be an income generator for SLASA. But in my mind, there is a danger in this. My experiences and interactions with many educators online indicate that the days of hording an idea behind a locked web portal and charging for access are over. People will just search for another free tool online. That doesn’t mean that talented members should not develop these useful tools. Just don’t expect them to be a money spinner.
As I wrote before, professional associations are a way of pooling talent and resources for the common good of a larger group. Prior to the internet, this was a way of connecting locally as time and distance prevented the easy exchange of ideas between states and other countries. An annual conference of sister associations across the nation provided important cross-pollinating opportunities as key members travelled to an interstate venue and brought back new ideas and initiatives for the local group. Social media throws the need for most of that out the window. If I’m a Maths teacher, why would I restrict myself to only the ideas within my state association when increasingly, many of the best and most innovative ideas are being published and discussed across digital networks in various corners of the world? Now, it could be that many associations serve a niche demographic where educators of similar ilk world wide are not blogging, tweeting, YouTubing or pooling ideas and practices on a wiki. But there is a definite trend occurring. You could see the edtech community as being an innovator, with early adopters in other educational fields starting to multiply until all areas of the education spectrum have networked individuals sharing and benefitting via the web.
So, if professional associations are to stay vibrant, healthy and relevant, they must work out how to leverage the tools social media offer and look at the trends towards openness and sharing in order to redefine themselves for the years ahead. I’m not at all sure what that could look like but like the education system itself, professional associations must continue to evolve to attract membership and then meet that membership’s needs in an era where professional learning is ubiquitous as information itself.