Exploring Self-Directed Professional Learning Online and Off: A conversation with Jeffrey P. Carpenter

This week, IEN shares an interview with Jeffrey P. Carpenter (@jeffpcarpenter), the latest in the Lead the Change (LtC) Series for the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association. Carpenter is an Associate Professor of Education and Director of the Teaching Fellows Program at Elon University in Elon, North Carolina, and he has been a teacher in high schools and middle schools in Japan, Honduras, and the United States. A pdf of the fully formatted interview will be available on the LtC website.

Lead the Change (Ltc): The 2021 AERA theme is Accepting Educational Responsibility and invites those of us who teach in schools of education to accept greater responsibility for the inadequate preparation of educators for work in racially, ethnically, culturally, and linguistically diverse P–12 schools and postsecondary institutions. For example, when educators discipline African American students at disproportionately higher rates, misdiagnose them for special education, identify too few of them for advanced placement and international baccalaureate programs, deliver to them a culturally irrelevant curriculum, teach them in culturally disdaining ways, and stereotype their families as careless and hopeless, the schools of education that produced these professionals are just as responsible as the professionals themselves. Furthermore, if scholars who study and document these trends do too little to make our findings actionable, then we, too, are contributors to the cyclical reproduction of these educational inequities. Given the dire need for all of us to do more to dismantle oppressive systems in our own institutions and education more broadly, what specific responsibility do educational change scholars have in this space? What steps are you taking to heed this call?

Jeffrey Carpenter (JC): Across all education sectors, it is clear that we need to do more to contribute to change in the interest of systematically underserved and oppressed students and communities. I primarily study self-directed teacher professional learning, and this past summer, many educators undertook various forms of self-directed learning around matters associated with racial justice and anti-racism. I’m engaged in several current research projects in which we study the opportunities and challenges of self-directed educator learning in this context. For example, I’m working with colleagues on a study of Instagram content from educators who identify themselves as anti-bias, anti-racist (ABAR) educators. I’m also interested in how educators can sustain self-directed learning that may make them quite uncomfortable or lead them into potentially complicated and contentious discussions. Although autonomy can be beneficial, it can also potentially be exercised to avoid or flee difficult but potentially necessary and powerful conversations. So, one step I am taking in my work, to support these aims, is to ask more research questions that pertain directly to self-directed educator learning that challenges the status quo and helps make our teaching and schools more justice-oriented.

Also, I agree that researchers, myself included, often do too little to make our findings actionable to educators. The implications of our research cannot always just be, “Well, it looks like we need to do more research.” To try to get my work in front of more educators’ eyes, I have tried to translate some of my research into practitioner-oriented pieces for outlets like Educational Leadership (see Carpenter, 2016) and Kappan magazine, and to present at practitioner-oriented conferences like ISTE and ASCD. I also share summaries of all of my research articles via my Twitter (@jeffpcarpenter). Recently, I’ve tried doing a couple livestreams where I talk about my research. I know, however, that this is an area where I can improve and need to do more. I’m also aware of the risks of going too far or too fast with implications and actionable findings; sometimes it does require time for knowledge to build and accumulate

LtC: Given your focus on various form of technology and its role in teacher professional development, collaboration and student learning, what would be some of the major lessons the field of Educational Change can learn from your work and experience?   

JC: Research on teacher learning has paid a lot of attention to formal interventions or programs targeted at developing teacher knowledge and/or skills in particular areas. Research on online teacher learning has also tended to explore formal online programs. We’ve learned a good deal from such research, but we also know teachers do not just learn and engage in professional activities in such formal contexts. I don’t think you can fully understand educational change without paying some attention to teachers’ organic, informal, self-directed, grassroots professional learning. My work has therefore been more focused on the ways educators use different technologies outside of official programs or courses for professional learning and networking. I’ll highlight four studies my co-authors and I published recently that should be of interest to the field. The first two studies deal specifically with change in relation to professional learning that includes digital elements.

First, I’ve co-authored several papers with Torrey Trust and Dan Krutka on professional learning networks (PLNs), and we recently published an article in the Journal of Educational Change on how educators’ PLNs change over time (Carpenter, Krutka, & Trust, 2021). In 2018, we followed up with respondents to a 2014 survey on PLNs and asked them how their PLNs had changed since that earlier survey response. The respondents described a variety of changes in their PLNs and attributed those changes to a multitude of factors; we analyzed these changes using a social ecological model. Participants were most likely to reference changes in the people in their PLNs, and shifts in jobs or job responsibilities were the most common factor influencing changes in PLNs.  

The second study that specifically addressed change is part of a series of studies I’ve conducted with Bret Staudt Willet on teaching-related subreddits (Staudt Willet & Carpenter, 2021). In this most recent study, we analyzed more than a million contributions from close to 100,000 users to two subreddits over a three‐and‐a‐half year timespan. The two subreddits were quite different in nature and culture, which demonstrates how online spaces for educators are not monolithic, even within the same platform. Subreddits are also different from many other social media in that users primarily remain anonymous, which creates both opportunities and challenges with educator professional activities.

“Online spaces for educators are not monolithic, even within the same platform”

Two other studies that should be of interest relate to recent trends in educators’ uses of technology. First, I’m working with Matthew Koehler, Catharyn Shelton, and Spencer Greenhalgh on research into the online educational marketplace TeachersPayTeachers.com (TPT), which is widely used by educators but to date has barely been researched (Koehler et al., 2020). It appears that many teachers are making use of resources and curriculum from sites like TPT, and these sites operate outside of the regulation and approval processes associated with more traditional sources of curriculum. There’s little understanding of how sites like TPT may be contributing to education change. We recently published the results of the first stage of this project, which focused on the money side of the platform. We found that despite some of the democratizing rhetoric around the site, TPT sales were dominated by a small group of elite sellers who may in many regards be akin to small publishing houses. 

Finally, Instagram has become the site of a fair amount of professional activity among educators, and my Elon colleagues and I conducted the first survey of educators on their Instagram use (Carpenter et al. 2020). Instagram’s role in education will be interesting to follow, as the rise of social media influencers has been important in other industries and we are beginning to see more education influencers on Instagram and more recently Tik Tok. What kinds of change influencers may bring to education will be important to explore.

Across these four studies, it is apparent that by using social media and other online platforms, educators can adjust their professional learning activities according to their evolving interests and choose different spaces that meet their various needs. However, the same openness that may attract educators to these media mean that issues of quality, expertise, and commercial motivations inevitably complicate the use of social media platforms 

“By using social media and other online platforms, educators can adjust their professional learning activities according to their evolving interests.”

LtC: In some of your recent work, you highlight the possibilities and challenges of self-directed learning in social media spaces. Such work has implications in terms of how we can best promote meaningful change in learning delivery and orientations across educational institutions and the field writ large. What do you see as the most needed changes to policy/practice to address these issues in the field, in educators’ daily practice and interactions with colleagues and students alike?    

JC: Self-directed educator professional learning is commonplace, but school districts and re-certification regimes often accept only certain types of activities for continuing education credit or licensure requirements. This can mean school districts potentially miss out on some of the benefits of the collective knowledge and resources educators develop through self-directed learning. It can also mean that there are missed opportunities to scaffold and improve the quality and impact of self-directed professional learning. Policy makers could consider how to accommodate and support the admittedly messy variety of participant-driven, voluntary professional activities that exists. Yes, formal, school-mandated PD can positively impact teacher and student learning, and it will remain part of the professional learning landscape. But it is apparent that educators do not learn and network purely through such PD formats. Meaningful learning and professional connections can occur via social media. Why not try to leverage that? Many, many educators do not want to learn only about the topics their state, district, or school decide to prioritize. Different educators begin professional learning experiences from different starting points and seek to implement what they learn in unique contexts.

School administrators should seek to understand and support the full scope of professional activities and learning in which educators engage. Self-directed learning activities may sometimes be less explicitly linked to institutional goals or strategic plans, but some such activities can likely be harnessed to the benefit of schools or districts. Educational institutions and policy makers have often attempted to curtail teachers’ social media use, especially their interactions with students, and such policies often fail to consider the ways educators use social media for professional learning. Educators can use platforms like Instagram, Reddit, and Twitter, to connect with others and engage in various kinds of professional exchanges. School leaders, policymakers, and teacher educators alike should consider ways in which wise professional uses of social media could be scaffolded and encouraged, while pitfalls and problems could be minimized or avoided. For example, some school districts have developed systems by which educators can earn continuing education units (CEUs) through submitting documentation for and reflective writing about some of their self-directed professional activities on Twitter (Carpenter et al., 2016).

LtC: Educational Change requires those engaged in and with schools, schooling, and school systems to spearhead deep and often difficult transformation. How might those in the field of Educational Change best support these individuals and groups through these processes?    

JC: That so many teachers appear to be willing to engage (largely voluntarily) in self-directed professional learning via social media suggests to me that there are a lot of teachers who are hungry for educational change. However, social media stereotypically is not associated with “deep and often difficult transformation.” Now, some of that stereotyping of social media is a little unfair, as there are deep and difficult discussions that happen among social-media-using educators. But discussions don’t inevitably lead to transformation, or even humbler forms of change. It is possible that some or even much of the education discussion on social media amounts to idle chatter that does little to contribute to changes in teaching practices and student learning. There is important work to be done regarding how to help educators derive the most possible benefit from the wider networks they can establish and conversations they can engage in thanks, in part, to social media. For social media to have more positive impacts in education than negative ones, teachers will need to be able to manage a variety of tensions; the field of Educational Change may be able to impact how those tensions are navigated and mitigated. For example, social media is lauded for lowering barriers to participation and giving voice to users who may struggle to be heard elsewhere, but this lowering of barriers to participation also means that the quality of the shared content via social media can be problematic. Educators who use social media must be skeptical and critical consumers, aware of the pitfalls and perils associated with these media, and they may need assistance to become such users.

“Educators who use social media must be skeptical and critical consumers, aware of the pitfalls and perils associated with these media, and they may need assistance to become such users.”

Another tension the field of Educational Change can further attend to is exploring the optimal balance between self-directed professional learning and system-directed professional learning. Administrators, school boards, and policy makers understandably are interested in PD that is related to the approved curriculum, educator performance standards, and school and district strategic plans. They may have very good reasons for wanting groups of teachers to have shared PD experiences and common understandings of certain topics. If every educator pursues a completely self-directed PD path, educators in a district or school could lack the shared understandings that would help them to collaborate and push forward bigger change initiatives. Some educators may be self-aware enough and engage consistently in reflection such that their self-directed PD is maximally beneficial, but others may need external nudges to recognize their own areas for growth. Also, students could encounter a dizzying array of strategies and expectations if there are no shared experiences of any kind in the professional learning of their teachers.

LtC: Where do you perceive the field of Educational Change is going? What excites you about Educational Change now and in the future?

JC: The pace and quantity of social media activities and content are relentless and potentially overwhelming. This contrasts sharply with how much of the work of education change is slow and incremental. We are experiencing a historical moment where there is finally, and rightfully a lot of demand and momentum for educational change. The immediacy and public nature of social media may help keep up the pressure for change, and that pressure may at times be helpful and on other occasions it may not be. I am excited by the prospects for helping pre-service teachers (PSTs) to make wiser use of social media. Many PSTs will at some point explore professional social media uses. To increase the chances that they use social media in ways that contribute to positive educational change, teacher education programs could help PSTs learn how to leverage the learning affordances and mitigate the challenges of social media. Teacher educators may be able to play a key role in helping PSTs understand the dangers associated with different social media platforms. Social media can provide PSTs with access to resources and educators otherwise unavailable to them, but managing the quantity of content and assessing its quality can prove difficult. Many PSTs could benefit from activities that help them consider the relative strengths and weaknesses of tools such as Instagram and heuristics that help them assess the content and ideas they find via such media.


Carpenter, J.P. (2016). Teachers at the wheel. Educational Leadership, 73(8), 30-35.

Carpenter, J. P., & Krutka, D. G. (2016). The virtual workroom. The Learning Professional, 37(4), 24.

Carpenter, J.P., Krutka, D.G., & Trust, T. (2021). Continuity and change in educators’ professional learning networks. Journal of Educational Change. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10833-020-09411-1

Carpenter, J.P., Morrison, S.A., Craft, M., & Lee, M. (2020). How and why are educators using Instagram? Teaching and Teacher Education, 96,103149. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tate.2020.103149

Koehler, M., Shelton, C.C., Carpenter, J.P., & Greenhalgh, S. (2020). Where does all the money go? Free and paid transactions on TeachersPayTeachers.com. Teachers College Record. https://www.tcrecord.org/Content.asp?ContentId=23478

Staudt Willet, K.B., & Carpenter, J.P. (2021). A tale of two Subreddits: Change and continuity in teaching-related online spaces. British Journal of Educational Technology, 52(2), 519-535. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjet.13051

ABOUT THE LTC SERIES: The Lead the Change series, featuring renowned educational change experts from around the globe, serves to highlight promising research and practice, to offer expert insight on small- and large-scale educational change, and to spark collaboration within the Educational Change Special Interest Group of the American Educational Research Association.  Kristin Kew, Chair; Mireille Hubers; Program Chair; Na Mi Bang, Secretary/Treasurer; Min Jung KimGraduate Student Representative; Jennie Weiner, LtC Series Editor; Alexandra Lamb, Production Editor.

One response to “Exploring Self-Directed Professional Learning Online and Off: A conversation with Jeffrey P. Carpenter

  1. Pingback: Exploring Self-Directed Professional Learning Online and Off: A conversation with Jeffrey P. Carpenter Study Aims

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s