Twitter – A Teaching and Learning Tool

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I think I have found the perfect place to reflect on the way a network, and specifically how Twitter, can impact on what goes on in the classroom. No mains gas, no telephones, no mobile signal, no internet connection, no possible way to interact with my personal learning network (PLN). Tucked away in the Cornish countryside the location of the cottage we are staying in provokes vocabulary such as: isolated, severed, detached and remote. But similar rhetoric could also be applied to the lack of connection I have with my network. I am removed from the network I want to reflect upon and away from the classroom that it can impact. This perspective is welcome as it offers me clarity of thought, as I write, that I have not had for a long time. In this post I hope to unpick what my Twitter network means to me in terms of my classroom practise and explore the best ways that you can utilise it in your own classroom.

Twitter: a communication tool

In my experience, and in the short time that I have used it, Twitter has grown quickly to play a major part in the way that I interact with fellow colleagues and professionals from around the world. In my classroom and with the children I teach it has been an exciting tool to utilise and support learning. However it is one of many tools that we have at our disposal. I do not see it replacing any of the others we use nor do I see the positive impact upon learning being exclusive to Twitter.

PLN Graph

This diagram is a simplistic representation of my network in terms of numbers. It does not reflect that many individuals in your network will be linking up with you using different tools. For example, someone may be your contact on Skype, Twitter and perhaps subscribes to your blog. This would not be uncommon as each tool plays a different role for you and your network. However what we can conclude from the numbers is that I have been able to connect with a large number of people using Twitter. It forms a large part of my current PLN, but has been the tool I have come to last of all. This should be encouraging for most teachers looking to use Twitter, as with careful consideration and some small effort your Twitter network can expand quickly.

Unique communication

Twitter is primarily a communication tool and has often been described as filling the gap between email and instant messaging (IM). It is interesting that it occupies this middle ground. I believe it is important to understand how this communication functions in order to make the most of it in your classroom. IM is all about synchronous communication, relying upon people being online at the same moment. Asynchronous communication characterised by email (and blog commenting) is slightly more time consuming but does not rely upon people being online at the same time.

Twitter synch

Twitter communication can be in both of these two different camps. It is a platform that can fluidly handle both synchronous and asynchronous messaging. However each exchange or interaction you have with your network can be more or less synchronous; no two will be the same. This is important because it allows a teacher the best of both forms of communication and the ability to utilise the power of them using just one application. So you could request information the night/day/week before and then return to those responses after some time. On the other hand you could activate your network to help on the spot, in that moment or current time frame when you need it. When you are planning to use Twitter as part of a lesson or to support learning the asynchronous facet of Twitter communication is perhaps the most useful. You can gather responses to a tweet over a short period of time and return to explore them with your class when you are ready. However you still have the opportunity to foster responses from your network in real time that can have an impact on learning. Here is a simple, theoretical timeline of a planned Twitter activity that can be easily adapted to suit your needs, and one that I know from experience works well.

Twitter timeline

The timeframe that A-D occurs in is flexible enough for it to work within hours or just minutes between. The repeat request (B) is optional depending on the sorts of responses you get from your initial interaction. If you are to take advantage of live feedback then it is a good idea to repeat your request (C) just prior to working with the children on the activity (D).

The information torrent/stream/river/brook/flood

Coombe Mill streamMy favourite metaphor for how we use Twitter is the idea that it is a river that is constantly flowing. And that when we open up the Twitter site in our browser or start up Twhirl we are at the banks looking on. Some of us stay on the banks, roll out our picnic rug or unfold that favourite chair and settle in to watch the information stream pass by. Others quietly observe from the banks for a short time but have their trunks on underneath their clothes, and were always going to jump in and contribute. However we choose to interact with this ever moving and changing flow of information, whenever we move away from the current we no longer see the flow – it passes us by, it carries on downstream. We can still hear the ripples and froths of the information eddying and ebbing along (or is that Twhirl alerts) but we no longer see it or interact with it directly. Understanding this distinct current is vital to make the most of Twitter in the classroom. I could ask for some contribution to a lesson, but those people momentarily away from the riverbanks could easily miss this request. My network may well return but the request will already be bobbing downstream out of sight.

I hope that you do not mind me indulging so deeply in such a metaphor – it helps me to appreciate the nuances of the tool.

Depending on how many people you follow will depend on how quickly the information flows. If you have only a small network of people that you follow then the brook will flow more slowly, those people are more likely to pick up upon your information request. Those following a large group of people will experience a much faster flow of Twitter updates and so when you throw your own into the torrent it can very quickly be washed downstream and out of sight. Armed with this knowledge I have begun retweeting requests so as to give people the opportunity to respond if they can. From the timeline diagram above you can see I have included just such a repeated request. This is particularly important if you are looking for a good number of responses to work with or if you send out a Tweet days before the event.

Manageable networks

Every user of Twitter has a different take on what sort of size your network should be to be manageable. In my opinion I do not think much of it matters. I currently follow over 500 people, I receive their updates, and I hear what is going on in their world. However they do not all tell me at the same time! I do not see this number being particularly difficult to manage, what is there to manage? I visit the information flow when I want and take what I wish from it. I know that when I am not engaged with it the river continues to flow. That does not bother me, I know that my PLN is wider than Twitter and anything important I need to know about will reach me through another tributary. I also appreciate some factors that will allow my network’s information to remain valuable even when it is greater than 500.

  1. How many people actually update every 5 minutes? According to my Twitter Karma only 236 contacts have updated in the last 24 hours. That is less than 50 percent.
  2. The global aspect means there will always be people asleep and inactive when I am engaged with Twitter.
  3. I know the times when my network updates the most.
  4. I also appreciate who updates most frequently.
  5. In my opinion the greater number of people I follow the richer the tapestry.

A global network

As any network grows it soon begins to encompass professionals from different parts of the world and this can dictate the levels of asynchronous and synchronous communication that goes on. When you plan to use Twitter in the classroom it is important to be aware of the time differences for different parts of your network. For example when I asked for some responses for a maths lesson at 9.30am GMT, Australian responses dominated the replies. I knew this was going to occur so I repeated the request later in the morning and at 1.00pm to take into account those waking up to the west. With this planned repeat of the request, members of my network in the US, Canada and South America were able to respond and contribute their small part to our lesson.

Who is in your network?

Although the numbers in the PLN diagram above are clearly dominated by those in my Twitter network I am more than aware that it is more to do with the “who” than the “how many”. In a previous post I explored a metaphor for interacting with your Twitter network. I wrote that asking if there was a doctor on board a plane would be much better if doing so on a large passenger jet, you surely have a greater chance of getting a response. When I wrote that, I was reminded of a story of a gentleman who, suffering from a severe heart attack aboard a small domestic flight, was saved by a whole team of cardiac surgeons, doctors and registrars who were all travelling to a conference on the same flight! I could not verify whether this was true or not and clearly there is a healthy slice of luck involved – but it does extend the metaphor in an important direction. A carefully constructed network of valued colleagues, all with a an ethos of sharing at the heart of what they do, may well be more valuable to you then a random mixture of hundreds of people. From my experience the vast majority of education professionals using Twitter have a fairly tight control over who they follow, I am no different. It is often when I receive an email notification of someone adding me to their network that I will think about these simple steps.

1) Explore their Twitter profile, scan who they follow.

2) Look for the language of education in the profile – teacher, tech coordinator, K12 etc

3) Explore their online work, blog, wiki or school website link.

4) Skim read recent Twitter updates.

5) If they are clearly involved in education I will follow back.

The very fact that someone has chosen to add me to their network is strong incentive for me to “follow” them back. I firmly believe in that approach to using this tool. I consider it to be a compliment every time someone clicks the “follow” button for similar reasons as I would. I try to thank people for adding me to their network with a direct message and I am always hopeful that in this new exchange there is a new possibility for learning for both parties.

Talking and listening

You have no control over the choices other people make in terms of adding you to their network. Just because you have added them does not mean it will be reciprocated. It is important to appreciate that Twitter in fact has two networks working alongside each other. To help better understand this below I have republished some graphics that I have used in the past to help explain this dichotomy.

Twitters two networks_2

Twitters two networks_3

Twitters two networks_4

Building your network

I do not profess to have all of the answers in terms of building a network using Twitter but below I have included some simple steps that I hope will support you in building your own. I have deliberately chosen to use the word “building” as I believe that you have to take some specific steps in order to lay the foundations for a successfully and appropriately populated Twitter network.

  1. Make it your own: the P in PLN is for personal, so take steps to follow people that interest you both professionally and personally if you so wish. There is no right way to do it. Consider how you want to use Twitter. In the classroom?
  2. Hit the ground running: if you are new to Twitter then explore other people’s networks and follow a bunch of people you would like to listen to, it will get the ball rolling.
  3. Go global: use Twitter mashups to explore possible colleagues in other countries – you will soon begin to appreciate a better sense of network geography.
  4. Friend of a friend of a friend: again use network visualising tools, like Twitter Blocks, to help you explore who is following members of your network. Take a couple of further steps and you may see many more possible connections.
  5. Your own rules: it is a good idea to establish what you will do when someone follows you, how will you check them out? Do they have to be a teacher? On what grounds will you decide not to follow someone?
  6. Reciprocate: try to follow back fellow education professionals when they add you. Your network widens and so does theirs.
  7. Balanced or unbalanced, does it really matter?: It is your choice how many people you follow and there is no Twitter police frowning upon us. If you want to follow 1000 teachers then go ahead!
  8. Participate: when it is right for you jump into the stream and get involved, there is no better way to characterise your profile then making contributions. When you want responses from your network, for your own lessons, your own participation may help to yield a reciprocated involvement.
  9. Respond: When other professionals ask for help/information or interaction via Twitter (and it is relevant to you) respond. Simple acts of 140 characters or less maintain a sharing ethos amongst your network. Others are ostensibly more likely to respond to your own requests later on.
  10. Search: Use Tweetscan to find out about discussions on Twitter. Search for keywords that are relevant to you – so a SMARTBoard or IWB scan may uncover a new network contact.
  11. Momentum: The behaviour of my network has changed since I began using Twitter. Momentum has been built in the numbers of followers I have and I would say that at around 400-450 followers I began to receive followers daily. That is network momentum.

Different types of questions to ask your Twitter network

When you plan to involve your network in teaching and learning in your classroom it is basically inviting individuals to offer their voice to what you do. Twitter is all about communication, so when thinking of what you will get from Twitter for your lessons – conversation is the currency. Below I have outlined some general categories for types of questions or requests you can make to your network, plus some examples for each. Anytime I would ask my Twitter PLN to be involved with the class with their responses I would always precede my response with, “I am working with my class…” or something similar indicating to all that it is directly for teaching and/or learning. I think that this helps persuade fellow professionals to contribute.

Creative

Involve your network in the creation of something new – perhaps in decisions during shared writing with a class, or a piece of music.

  • We have written this so far…what word would you use to describe the event/character/scene/action?
  • Can you help us to think of synonyms for “help”?
  • Here is what we have written so far (insert URL) Should the character in our story be A or B – and tell us why you made that decision.

Data

A Twitter PLN provides a large group of teachers available to contribute all manner of data to a historical or mathematical investigation. Twitter would allow you to collect data easily but only superficially, but if you were to direct readers to an online form or poll then the data could be more in depth.

  • What is the temperature where you are today?
  • How far do you have to travel to work?
  • How old is your school? What year was it built?

Opinion

This type of question could be incorporated into many different types of curriculum areas. What you are looking for here is the addition of another facet to the class debate and Twitter gives you that very easily, you can extend your discussions via feedback and insight from others. I would always recommend an age stamp clearly on these sorts of posts to signal what level of discussion, feedback or opinion would be most appropriate. (Twitpic is an excellent resource to share and discuss images using Twitter)

  • Here is an image of Queen Elizabeth I what does it tell you about her?
  • Here is what we have written so far (insert URL) Which of these sentences continues the report in the most persuasive manner?
  • We have written some class rules what do you think of them so far?

Information

Instead of gathering data from all of your contacts, with these types of questions particular information could be teased from your network. These could ideally be used to help provide a global perspective about school life for children. Further steps in the conversation could be taken to find out more about a particular school etc.

  • What is it like to work in an international school?
  • Does the weather effect you at school? What do the children/staff do to tackle the high temperatures during the day?
  • Most of the children in our class walk to school because so many live nearby, what is the most popular form of transport in your class and why?

Location

This is pretty simple – a request to find out where people are. I have used this to inspire a Google Earth introduction. Lots of potential for finding out about different locations and having a teacher there to guide you a little. Imagine having a teacher for your class to talk to in every city in the world?!

  • We are exploring world time differences, it is nearly lunchtime for us what are you doing and what time is it?
  • What is the weather like where you are?
  • We are looking at the differences between the UK and Australia, is there anyone who can help us?

Challenge

Ask your network to pose challenges and questions for your class. Again this type of response could be planned for and incorporated into many different lessons.

  • Challenge my class to find you using Google Earth, please provide us with just a small amount of information where you are?
  • My class is revising the human body. Please give us a challenging question to answer. Grade 5.
  • Challenge us to find a landmark or building that has a distinct shape?

There are many, many types of questions and requests you could make to your network but I think it is important that for every one you make there is a clear thankyou to those who have taken the time to contribute. After the lesson make a point of sitting down and tweeting to all of the individuals who helped. Another little tip that became very clear from the comments to a recent post is about the follow up. Where possible a blog post explaining how Twitter was used helps those who contributed get the bigger picture. Their 140 character contribution may have been a small piece of a larger tapestry – and it is useful to help other teachers realise that.

Reliable response

One of the most important questions when planning for a Twitter activity is: will I be able to get a response from my network? This is valid. You have to feel completely comfortable with the network you have built and the reliability of response you will receive. This reliability is very important if you are to plan for using Twitter as a teaching and learning tool, after all you do not want 0 responses. How can you get guaranteed responses? I think that this is impossible as you have no influence over the people that follow your updates. However there are two aspects that, in my opinion, can increase the reliability of response. Firstly it is important to build a network as described above. If you have network members that are more willing to share and contribute then a response may be more favourable. Secondly the sheer number of followers will statistically increase your chances of getting a response from the network.

The latter point is worth considering as you plan to incorporate Twitter in your lessons. If you have only just started out with the tool, then waiting for the number of followers to grow to reach a sort of “tipping point” is crucial. I explore the idea of a “tipping point” in this post. Only you can decide when this is, for me it was around 80-100 people and was proven in light of a particular interaction that went well.

Summary

In my opinion there is great potential in the use of Twitter to support teaching and learning. It is unique in this role because it is all about conversation on a larger scale. Not just instant messaging with one or two contacts or including a Skype call in your lesson, but speaking to a wider network of fellow professionals. Currently most users consider Twitter to be just a networking tool, this opinion was confirmed when I recently asked if it could be a teaching and learning tool. To make the transition into the classroom and having a direct influence on learning will take more people planning to use it and a growing weight of examples and successes to explore.

I look forward to seeing the different ways that I can use Twitter as a teaching and learning tool in the future with my class and I hope you will do to. Unfortunately the peace of the Cornish countryside is miles away as I finish this post. I have returned to the ever-connected world we work in and I can’t help but feel a mixture of reactions about that. Anyway I had better get Twhirl fired up and visit that river…

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