Is there a doctor on board? Twitter as part of your Personal Learning Network

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.

My Analogy

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.

Tipping Point

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…

> @tombarrett there is a case study on the BBC newsround site

> @tombarrett – Have a look at…

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: 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.

18 thoughts on “Is there a doctor on board? Twitter as part of your Personal Learning Network

  1. Hi Tom,

    Came here as a result of you following me on Twitter. At the risk of seeming self-promoting, I have been trying to incorporate the PLN (by way of Twitter) into one of my high school English courses this year. It’s not been as successful as I’d hoped; you can read some posts about the planning and initial rollout stages here:

    I plan on writing a followup post on this topic by the new year; I’ll be re-attempting this experiment with my older Honors students in February.

    I think there’s value for students here yet to be mined; in my experience, I think it was a lack of intrinsic motivation on the part of the kids that doomed this (also the fact that I structured this to take place primarily outside of class). We seek out fellow educators and tech enthusiasts on Twitter because we are motivated to expand our knowledge base; I think that drive is the critical component for success.

  2. This is a great post Tom, thanks for writing it. You’re absolutely right about getting to the tipping point, that has been exactly the same experience I’ve encountered as well as so many people I’ve spoken to. Your examples are terrific and really highlight the power of a well constructed, well populated PLN.

    Not sure if you’ve seen it or not, but I made a short intro to twitter video on my blog a while back that has apparently been useful to a few people in helping them “get it”.

    The “Is there a Doctor in the House?” is a good one.

    Cheers mate

  3. Great post, Tom. When I started out with Twitter it took me ages to get the point. It’s only when you start following and building that you begin to reap the benefits. Hadn’t thought about it in terms of a PLN, but of course it is. Cheers!

  4. I’ve been on twitter for about a month. I saw twitter demonstrated at a education technology conference. I added the people who presented at the conference and was surprised and yet pleased when they followed me in return. I cannot get over how much I have learned from the network. Within two weeks I was having questions answered. Someone called twitter a virtual staffroom. I agree but add the cavet that it is much more positive and enjoyable than the physical ones I’ve been in! 😉

  5. I haven’t been using twitter for very long. I agree with what your saying, but you can get quite a bit out of it from just seeing what other people write. I don’t have very many people “following” me, but thats ok because I don’t update very often on there either. I read a lot of blogs, so I just took a afternoon and tried to find as many people on twitter that I already follow in Google Reader. Fortunately my school district isn’t blocking twitter yet, but they do block tiny url so I have to wait until I get home to check some of the stuff.

  6. This was is an excellent post Tom. As someone who has only been using Twitter for about a month and half, I have to say that I was a bit frustrated at the outset. I was used to posting to forums and message boards and receiving responses to my questions or posts. I find it difficult to only lurk and want to join in on the discussion! However, I find that I’m starting to receive responses to my questions which is encouraging me to post more.

  7. When talking about Twitter to professionals and academics, I always liken it to the conversations that happen at group dinners and other gatherings after conferences and such– we all love them, but we approach them very differently than we would an individual conversation. And finding the right group, like finding the right table or section of the bar, is a key to making it work.

    It’s the “worth of the blog” problem but on a much shorter timeframe. I’ve written in my blog before about the need to develop trust with those you work with so that they will give technology time to work for them– it takes time to build the network and see the effects. With blogs it can take a few months… people want to give it a week. with Twitter people expect a return the same day!

    So the most valuable thing you can do, apart from cultivating trust so those you are exposing will persevere, is to give them a headstart– give them a short list of people to follow that show a variety of voices (the info-heavy, the formal, the chatter) and show them how to explicitly follow the clues (find a favorite voice, see who they are following, follow the @messages to people you don’t know) to build their network.

  8. I am the fourth grade teacher using twitter with my fourth graders and embedding in our class blog, My students have been posting all year and are enthusiastic about blogging. The appeal of twitter is that it is immediate and the thoughts are concise. My plan is to have student tweet a reflection on a subject that was just taught. It is also a way to teach short, direct writing. No plan, no revision, just a quick couple of thoughts. I am interested to see what followers we get.

    Our first was Friday before the winter break, we will see how it progresses.

  9. Hi Tom
    I came to your blog via you following me on Twitter. I really like the train of thought on this post about the reasons for using Twitter. I will be directing teachers here in the new year (February for us in the sun!) when school begins.
    All the best for 2008

    Auckland, NZ

  10. Thankyou to everyone who has commented –
    Damian – I hope that you have more success with the concept when used with your older Honors students in February.

    Dorothy – don’t rub it in about the weather !! I trust your staff will find something useful here in the new term.

    Jeff – I really like the model of microblogging you have created with Room24 – it will definitely help to contribute to longer blog posts.

    Chris L – no doubt about the quality of your advice – many thanks – the idea of giving teachers or new users a headstart is very important . I almost convinced myself of a shortcut for new users to a wider network that would answer your queries immediately but I think that the journey of building a valuable PLN is vital. After all if you inherit a listening active network straight away it isn’t personal – it is just a LN. But what quality learning can take place when you hven’t selected the content? Perhaps then it is just a network. It’s all about the journey.

    Chris Bell – I have been frustrated too and was worried about the lack of response, Twitter + Patience = more success. 🙂

    CdnMathTeacher / John Sutton – it can become a virtual staffroom as long as you have filled it with the right personnel! Ben Hazzard and I imagine it to be a quick chat in the corridor with a colleague. Of course it will not happen on its own and needs time and effort to build a quality PLN.

    Chris Betcher – thanks for the pointer to the vid – it should really help.

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  12. Tom,

    I also found your blog via a Twitter follower request.

    As a relatively new user myself, I’ve been through pretty much the process you described. The people I follow outnumber my followers, and I imagine that this will always be the case, since some of the better know edubloggers limit their network – frustrating to a newbie, but understandable. It’s still enlightening to read their comments, even if they don’t see mine.

    With this in mind, I have a simple routine when I receive a request to follow: I view the person’s website, and if they appear to be reasonably “normal” – whether an educator or not – I accept. I’ve only denied two requests because of sites that seemed somehow off.

    I try to mentor other new users who appear to be getting discouraged (from my vast experience of a few months!). One tech coordinator was upset that no one answered her “shout out” when she was trying to demo Twitter to a teacher. I reminded her that not everyone has access to the site during work hours and suggested that she try to arrange for responders by tweeting her request a few hours in advance or by contacting friends who would be able to answer her call. I know that lessens some of the spontaneity of the medium, but it would guarantee a positive experience for someone trying to demonstrate Twitter’s capabilities.

    In tandem with my RSS feeds, Twitter expands and enriches my professional development. I love being connected to such a large and varied community of learners!


  13. Hi Tom,

    As a newbie on Twitter I have found your blog reassuring and encouraging. I’ve only be on for 13 days (during my summer holidays) and have learnt so much already! I still feel I am finding my feet, and don’t have as much to offer, as they have to offer me. However, I am hooked and can see the value of this PLN, especially once I begin the new school year in a new role.

    Helen Otway
    Melbourne, Australia

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  16. What’s twitter? … just kidding. I love all things twitterlicious! Take a look, at my header image … somebody is perched on the last head! jejeje

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