When Lance Armstrong pedaled his way into Paris yesterday for an unprecedented seventh-consecutive Tour de France victory, veteran educator Hall Davidson was standing by, video camera in hand, to capture the moment.

A guest of Armstrong’s Discovery Channel Team, Davidson, a former teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District, is in France to promote the Discovery Educator Network (DEN), Discovery Education’s new initiative that seeks to establish a global community where innovative teachers can trade best practices and work together to improve the quality of learning in their classrooms, wherever those might be.

While on the road with the world’s most famous cyclist, Davidson and a select group of “Discovery Educators” are documenting their experiences in the form of video and journal entries and posting them to a special Educator Blog. (To view selected videos, click here.)

Entries from the once-in-a-lifetime trip–which began cropping up online July 16–represent the first step in what Discovery hopes is the beginning of a new culture of sharing and communication in schools.

First announced during the National Educational Computing Conference (NECC) in Philadelphia in June, Discovery’s Educator Blog was conceived as a venue for tech-savvy educators to discuss their use of Discovery’s unitedstreaming video-on-demand product, the web-based multimedia learning tool now reportedly used by more than 20 million students in some 50,000 schools nationwide.

“The goal is to connect teachers with teachers,” said DEN Vice President Coni Rechner. The company hopes the majority of the conversation will stem from the use of Discovery’s products in the classroom, but Rechner said educators are free–and even encouraged–to chat about broader issues concerning the use of technology in schools.

“We want to use unitedstreaming as the nucleus,” she said. But as teachers, “these people hear and see lots of things about implementing technology in the classroom. We want them to talk about these things, too.”

Indeed, the blog has already begun to confront some longstanding debates regarding the use of technology as a tool for learning. Recent entries have discussed everything from the textbooks vs. laptops dispute currently raging in Arizona (See “Textbooks give way to digital curriculum“) and the effects of game-based learning on student achievement to the use of video production and presentation software in the classroom and the 20th Anniversary of Christa McAuliffe’s selection by NASA as the first Teacher in Space, among other topics.

Of course, the DEN isn’t the first corporate project to offer blogs for educators. Other firms and media organizations, including eSchool News, boast similar tools. But Discovery says the DEN is about much more than creating a dialogue between teachers: It’s about turning good ideas into actionable results.

To help the project get under way, Discovery has tapped a group of 35 former teachers and administrators, including Davidson, to begin populating the blog and recruiting potential contributors to the site. As full-time Discovery employees, this first group of educators will be responsible for canvassing their local communities for technology success stories and recruiting others who are willing to share their stories with the world.

Each educator then must apply for membership to the program. Among the requirements, educators are asked to submit a one-page statement that addresses their motivation for participating in the network as well as how their inclusion will benefit other teachers; a detailed description of what they believe are the most effective ways to integrate technology effectively into classroom practice; and an outline detailing at least one lesson plan that demonstrates the use of Discovery’s line of digital media products in the classroom.

If selected, they will be given the opportunity to post information to the site; exchange ideas with other Discovery Educators; participate in special education summits and industry trade shows; download special training kits, learning resources, and Discovery support materials; beta test new Discovery Education products; and earn technology discounts for their schools, among other benefits.

For Carole Gooden, distance learning specialist for the 40,000-student St. Lucie County Public Schools on the Florida coast, the decision to participate was a no-brainer.

Unfortunately, she said, “teaching is not often a team sport. You have wonderful things happening across the district, throughout the building, and even across the hall … and nothing is shared. [The Discovery Educator Network] is a wonderful opportunity to share best practices with one another. It’s a real sounding box,” she explained.

During NECC, the group held its first Discovery Educator Network Summit, at which the founding members got together to talk about the program’s direction and make suggestions for future improvements. Suggestions, which can be found on the DEN web site, include developing partnerships with museums, cable companies, zoos, national parks, associations, and corporations to provide more virtual learning opportunities; recruiting authors and education personalities to conduct online events and webinars for students; providing professional development and increased recognition for innovative teachers; and emphasizing greater student involvement.

In terms of stakeholder buy-in, Gooden says, Discovery did well to recruit former educators to help spread the word.

“When you send salespeople into a school district it’s always about the pitch,” she said. With educators there is an inherent confidence that these people know what they’re talking about–that they’re doing it not for money, but for the good of the kids, she said.

With no limit to how many educators can participate in the program, Discovery aims to recruit its first hundred applicants by the fall. To expand the program’s reach, the company also is in the process of building an online discussion board that will allow educators worldwide to make contributions to the site, Rechner said.

But like Armstrong shedding his rivals during steep climbs in the Pyrenees, Rechner says, teachers today face a hard road–and Discovery’s quest to connect educators is no small task.

“With all the stress educators must deal with today,” she said, “it’s even more important for them to have a network where they can share their stories.”

Early adopters are excited about the network’s potential.

“This is a way to keep fresh–to really show people how to use the technology effectively,” said Gooden of the initiative.

Her network counterparts agreed.

“To me, the Educator Network is about teachers working with teachers to do things they never dreamed of and using the power of Discovery to make their ideas a reality,” wrote Discovery Educator Betsy Whalen, a former public school teacher in Washington, D.C.

Links:

Discovery Educators’ Videos
http://www.eschoolnews.com/vrc/denvideo725.cfm

Discovery Educator Network Web Log
http://discoveryeducation.typepad.com/

Discovery Education
http://education.discovery.com/

Discovery Educator Network
http://unitedstreaming.com/publicPages/den.cfm