You might say that this post has been brewing for a while. I took another look at Twitter a little while ago and it started a train of thought about it’s place in a personal learning network(PLN). There is something odd about how it functions. I hope to explore in this post what part, if any, Twitter can play in supporting fellow education professionals and to unpick it’s nuances through a teacher’s lens.
Before I begin I want to set a clear frame of reference for what I refer to as the Twitter network. I will be referring to the supportive edtech environment it has created and is used by hundreds of teachers. The network that helps you to solve a Mac iPod problem or alike. I am not referring to the day to day trivia or more personal aspects of this form of communication.
This is very simple and I hope that it allows you to understand the basic issue that faces many new users of Twitter, and indeed turns people away from it.
I hope that I never have to ask the question:”Is there a doctor on board?” but if I had to I would prefer to ask the question over the tannoy on an Airbus A380 then a small helicopter. With 839 passengers hearing my question I clearly have a higher probability that someone is indeed a doctor! I know that my chances are pretty poor when I turn to the other 3 passengers of the chopper and say “Doctor?”. But, and here is where the analogy changes slightly, bear with me, imagine that you went to the tannoy or stood up on that flying bus and asked the same question but no one even heard you utter a word. In fact you have a legitimate need and you imagine someone can help, and yet nobody can hear your request. The only option for you is to listen intently to everyone’s conversation in the hope that they maybe mention something about your problem.
This, in part, explains the frustrations for new users to Twitter.
The New User Experience
Joining Twitter as a teacher, generally speaking, intrinsically means that you want to connect, collaborate and tap into the wider community’s expertise to help and support your learning. However it often takes time for the value in a Twitter network to be revealed. If a new user is not “followed” by many people than their voice is not heard, their questions go unanswered, they echo into an empty space. This is not what Twitter is about? Do we need to show new users the way it works? It would be great to see a movie of someone using Twitter to get an immediate response, receiving an answer to a question etc. This would prove the concept so clearly to a new user, maybe we need to model it.
I have begun to see much more of this modelling behaviour. I do not think that Twitter is a resource that can be explained if detached from the network itself ie. away from a computer that is online. You may refer a colleague to this great networking tool and they perhaps take a look on their own later that day but, not surprisingly, they will wonder what all the fuss is about. I demonstrated Twitter to a friend last weekend and after 5 or 6 quick responses from around the world, realised the value of the “Say hi to…” tweet (a Twitter message). It is quite an innocuous thing to do but modelling how the network actually functions, much like a great deal of learning, leaves a much more indelible image on a new user.
Building your Network
Everyone starts from the same place when using Twitter but the day to day experiences have a varying success, depending on the number of followers you have. It is a simple equation, that is, if you have accumulated 100’s of followers over the course of a considerable time using Twitter the chances are when you ask for advice / help / contributions – many more are forthcoming. This successful, positive experience breeds more commitment to the network tool. You see great value and consider using it more / more often.
The flip side of this is that a newbie may have to wait until their network is large and eclectic enough to reap the immediate rewards of Twitter. Perhaps it is these new users that need a broad, wide reaching network from the word go. They (and I am referring to teachers curious of the benefits of such a tool) need to have success pretty early on and see the link with their own practice and how it can make a contribution. Otherwise they may turn away and see no value.
I think the importance of “I follow you – you follow me” behaviour cannot be underestimated, we need to help each other build a supportive collaborative network.
Since I began writing this post (its been a slow one!) my own Twitter experiences have changed. I went through the period of use when my network was growing, when between 20-30 people were listening to your updates but you would get little or no interaction or replies. I am currently on 101 followers and I think that my first real successful interactions with the Twitter network took place between 80-100 people following my updates. These two experiences combined have been my tipping point – after which I knew that this tool is very important to my day to day work.
On a Thursday morning my teaching partner and I normally get some PPA time and 2 weeks ago we were sat talking about the following week’s planning. I was exploring the use of magazines in literacy linked with PSHE. I asked on the Twitter network:
> Anyone know of good examples of school magazines or newspapers produced by the kids?
Two replies came back immediately…
All of this occurred within the immediate time I was planning, allowing me to take it into consideration. Twitter has impacted on my planning processes.
The second positive experience I had was just this week. My Twitter PLN had grown to close to hundred followers by this point and this particular example has to be the most successful use of the network so far. After a successful meeting regarding the school laptop project I decided to author some possible questions for a pupil survey. However I just had a blank – I managed one but needed some inspiration. So I asked…
> Aaargh – I am writing our pupil laptop survey but hitting a brick wall, need some inspiration. 8 ltops per class 9-11yrs any ideas for q’s?
The responses were fantastic and really helped to shape the survey:
>where have they used the laptop? is it easy to carry? what action have they had to take to make sure its not damaged?
>Don’t know much about your program but here’s a question: What do u do on the laptop when ur not being told what to do?
>’Has using a laptop with a partner changed how they collaborate?’ ‘If so, how?’
>’given the choice, what would they still rather use paper/pens for?’
>Which was most fun / useful? Anything else they’d like to use? Best thing / Worst thing? Biggest benefit of having laptops?
>what about any software they would have liked on? frustrations, such as speed and connectivity to school network?
>Pupil survey Question: If u had to write a blog about using a laptop in school, what would the name of your blog be?
>three ways in which they have used it in subjects? what restrictions they have had?
As you can see the suggested questions are both insightful and creative – and they proved invaluable in authoring the survey. But the Twitter interaction was not finished there, as I created a Google Doc for the questions, shared the link and asked for comments about the drafted questions. Again the feedback was very helpful and contributed to a further edit of the survey. I am very grateful to those who helped.
Again it all comes down to numbers – if you have a large enough network with the right people in it who are willing to share, contribute, advise and help – then you will get experiences like this. Be patient and let your network grow – don’t expect too much from it early on. Nurture it and encourage it to broaden by following other classroom practitioners.
What does it all mean for classteachers and schools?
In my opinion building your own PLN is vital in the current edtech climate. I learn so much from being involved with people like YOU, reading this post, your comments and contributions help to shape my practice in class. Furthermore tools such as Twitter not only help make connections easier, but allow individuals to tap into the collective wisdom of many.
I would advise if you are a classteacher, like me, to take a look at Twitter – and if you can get someone to show you then all the better. But it is a long road and you need patience to build your network up. At the beginning of this post I was thinking of changing the Twitter model – to make it easier for newcomers to realise the potential, (I still think that this is important) to bypass the frustrations and shortcut into a bigger network, but perhaps a true networking journey in itself is more insightful and enjoyable.
Building any network takes time and I think that it is time well spent.
As I have been writing this final paragraph I saw this Tweet:
http://twitter.com/room24 This is cool experiment. 4th grade teacher letting students tweet on class account. embedded in his blog.
This would be a nice way into blogging in such a micro form and would facilitate further writing on a class blog. In effect the children microblog and connect directly with a class network.