It wasn't so long ago that online "communities of practice", discussion groups and forums were all the rage for English language teachers. If you wanted to join one you went along to sites such as the BBC/British Council's Teaching English or Macmillan'sOne Stop English, signed up and you were instantly part of a community.
But with the age of web 2.0, social networks and user-generated content, hasn't all that changed? Do we still need to "outsource" our networks to the established ELT organisations? Can't we do that for ourselves now?
With teachers such as Jamie Keddie with his TEFLClips.com (Now lessonstream.org) site and Russell Stannard's TeacherTrainingVideos.com competing against the major UK ELT publishers and winning in the British Council's innovation awards, it seems that we teachers can now produce and publish online-quality content alongside that of the publishers.
With a plethora of ELT-related groups and fan pages appearing on Facebook and teachers such as Shelly Terrell building up a Twitter following that exceeds those of many of the publishers, we can now be the host to our own communities and take ownership of networks that are starting to rival those of the ELT establishment.
So, how have the "big players" in the ELT field responded to this and what incentive is there for us to keep sharing our work and expertise with them?
The BBC/British Council's site for teachers Teaching English has responded with a redesigned site that focuses much of the interaction around its "Guest writers" series, offering readers the opportunity to question well-known ELT writers and experts. Much of the community -style interaction is based around their own commissioned content and there has been a recent increase in the type of high-quality video content that many teachers find it harder to produce themselves.
However, Pearson Longman's offering, the ELT Community, seems to have gone almost entirely the other way with a community-driven platform that offers users many ways to interact and share content, from uploading files, to sharing ideas in special interest discussion groups. Pearson Longman's own content is limited to a series of videos produced by ELT author Jeremy Harmer, but with an interesting twist: instead of Harmer sharing his expertise, the videos contain genuine classroom teachers telling Harmer their ideas about their best lessons.
With One Stop English, Macmillan has taken yet another approach. It has built on their original offering of classroom-ready worksheets, lesson plans and photocopiable resources, but many of these now appear behind a log-in gate for teachers and organisations willing to pay for premium, high-quality materials. At the same time, though, they have developed resources such as Onestopblogs that pulls the most recent articles from the "blogosphere" into a single portal that promotes the best of ELT blogging.
Signing up to one or all of the established publisher's portals is a great idea if you are teaching a heavy workload, have very little time to prepare your own materials and don't get much contact and support from other teachers. It instantly makes you part of a community and you have an excellent chance of finding good-quality materials without the hassle of having to sort through dozens of half-finished or poor-quality blog postings.
If you have more time and enjoy producing your own materials, reflecting on your teaching practice and confronting your beliefs and opinions, then creating your own web presence and building your own international network of contacts has never been easier. Services such as Tumblr.com and Posterous.com make creating and updating a blog as easy as sending an email and you can start to build a network and share your blog postings through Twitter or by submitting your blog to Macmillan's Onestopblog. On Facebook you can find a multitude of groups and fan pages created by individuals or the established ELT publishers where you can share links to your blog posts and start to attract readers and generate comments.
If you want to get the best of both worlds and pull in the best content from the ELT publishers and from the blogosphere, then in a few minutes you can set up a personal home page using Netvibes, Google Reader or Scoop.it that will read the RSS feeds of any site and bring its content to you.
But the really great advantage of the DIY approach is that you have ownership and control of what you read and more importantly what you write. This can help you to develop your own profile and portfolio so that perhaps in a year or two you too could be competing with the major publishers for your innovation award.