Topic Sharing Promotes Teacher Collaboration

September 12, 2016 Jonathan E. Martin

Teachers last year at Barstow School encountered a small but irksome obstacle as they managed an interdisciplinary tenth grade project. Students were tackling their challenge in English and History, and teachers were working to provide them resources and guidance in their onCampus classroom platform, but each teacher could only have their one, unique and separate, Topic module for what was a unified, two-subject project. Teachers at Barstow are proud of their strong collaborative culture, but they needed the technology to follow suit, to be flexible enough to allow them to do what they wanted to accomplish with their students.

What to do, what to do. Together with their Director of Technology, Scott Daniel, they approached Blackbaud's Senior Product Manager for onCampus, Jackie Christensen, to noodle on how to address the challenge. Jackie had heard about this limitation in the system from other schools too, including Milken Community Schools, and set to work with her team to find a solution, and hence, Topic Sharing was born.

This year at Barstow, one of the two teachers will simply create the topic (or open an existing one from last year), select the blue arrow icon above the topic she wishes to share, select the teacher and class section she wishes to share them with, and then select “Can Edit.” Upon doing so, the teachers now have a single, joint Topic module that they can manage at will.

Two aspects are important to be noted here. One, when sharing Topics, it’s not obligatory to allow the editing function.  At Milken, for instance, its Web Communications Manager Amy Hirschfeld explains, the Math Department chair has created several topic modules he wishes to be consistent across all geometry sections, and so has decided to not select the edit function. Two, it is key to recognize that when selecting the edit function, teachers have to recognize that the material in that Topic is now entirely modifiable by his or her colleague, who might delete or alter it as desired.  Trust and clarity about how the process works is important for Topic Sharing to be fully successful, though helpfully the system does provide an alert message when selecting Edit reminding the user that the topic might be altered by the other teacher.

Topic Sharing can be used in any number of ways. It’s not just the interdisciplinary project teachers at Barstow appreciating the system; Algebra 2 teachers are excited about it also.  Teacher Matt Thurman explains that he and his colleague are both adding materials to the shared Topic; when Thurman inserts a chapter review worksheet, his colleague will put in the answer key, and all students have access to both materials. Students are benefitting from having more resources available, and the teachers are saving themselves time and energy from unnecessary duplicate effort. Thurman says he’s using the time saved to create more tutorial videos, which are also being added to the shared folders. Daniel, the aforementioned Tech Director, says his own son, a student not in Matt’s section, is enjoying having easy access to the useful video materials found in the shared Topic.

Barstow’s Daniel says that another opportunity is emerging in the English department. The 9th grade teacher works carefully with students to establish consistent norms for style and composition, and has a Topic module dedicated to these guidelines and resources. But after her students leave ninth grade, they currently no longer have those materials available. Now, her intent is to provide a (non-editable) topic share to her English colleagues teaching grades ten through twelve so her students will continue to have easy access to these guides. Similarly, Matt is thinking about sharing his Algebra 2 video tutorials with the PreCalculus classes in the first weeks of that class, when students review (and are tested on) the previous year’s material.

Daniel explains that it is still “early days” in the adoption of Topic Sharing at Barstow, but anticipates it going viral soon. He’s devoting one of his upcoming Tech Mondays to sharing how it is being used and how easy it is to adopt. So far, he says, “there have been no real obstacles or hurdles for teachers. It’s been one of the simplest rollouts of any new feature.” 

The opportunity Topic Sharing presents is more, he says, than just easing collaboration. “I’m excited to see how this tool will let teachers better see into each other’s classrooms and curriculum; I think it will genuinely create a more transparent teaching environment from which everyone, educators and students alike, will benefit.”

Milken’s Hirschfeld similarly is excited about the potential. “This should lead to a lot more collaboration among our teachers, something our school values greatly. With Topic Sharing our teachers will become much less isolated than before, and with this greater communication among them, sharing units and resources, I expect we will see even more consistent teaching and learning across our school, which is great for our students.” 

About the Author

Jonathan E. Martin

Jonathan E. Martin has 15 years experience as a Head of School, and eight years as a teacher, at three independent schools in California and Arizona. He holds a BA from Harvard University and an MA in School Administration from the University of San Francisco; in 2008 he was a Visiting Fellow at Teachers College, Columbia University. An expert on 21st century learning and assessment, he has presented to school-leaders, teachers, and trustees at more than eighty conferences and schools since 2010. He writes widely and consults to schools nationally on innovative instruction, 21st century educational program design, educational leadership, and next-generation assessment. Jonathan is also a Blackbaud K-12 expert and you can find him online at www.21k12blog.net and on Twitter @JonathanEMartin.

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