21 February 2017

Twitter for Professional Learning in the Digital Age


"You must leave digital footprints so people know you’re
treading among them and part of the community"


I joined Twitter in July 2012 and I honestly can’t tell you what prompted me to join. I had been in a school in Malaysia for a year and that had been my first exposure to teaching with technology. We were a 1:1 Mac school just starting to implement GSuite for Education (or Google Apps for Education as it was then). At that time, the apps were limited, tables for example, in Google Docs, didn’t work properly and the formatting options were limited. There was no Google Classroom either. However, it revolutionised my teaching and I began to write websites as schemes of work that had my learners as the audience and focused on what they were doing, rather than an list of instructions that I, as the teacher, should do to them. I also began to use Edmodo to share all my resources and lessons with my learners online for 24 hour access.

My principal was moving to Singapore to establish a sister school and my work and teaching was recognised as what was wanted in the new school, and so we moved to Singapore in July 2012. Perhaps it was the acknowledgement of my success as an enthusiastic teacher who used technology effectively in the classroom that spurred me on to start building an online Professional Learning Network (PLN), to begin building “an online presence that works to [my] advantage” and help “create a culture of creativity” (Lindsay & Davis, (2013).. Whatever it was, I have not looked back since. It has allowed me to “easily connect” with teachers from across the globe who share my ideals and teaching philosophies making me feel “less professionally isolated” no matter where I am in the world.

Twitter, by its very nature, is short and snappy. The limit of 140 characters per Tweet works to the busy educator’s advantage; I can spend two minutes scrolling through my feed and be guaranteed to find a couple of blogs or resources I want to check out. This is every time I go on to my Twitter feed, which is daily. That adds up to a lot of inspiration and new ideas. A study conducted in 2014 (Visser et al) found that 40% of the teachers surveyed reported using the mobile phone as the primary means of connecting. The ubiquitous nature of the smartphone two or three years later means this percentage is probably much higher in 2017. This ease of seeking and “learning about the latest research, pedagogical strategies and best practise” at their own convenience means the practice has become “embedded” as part of a daily routine of PD, as mine has, which overall findings suggest has lead to “improved classroom practice” (Davis, 2011; Gerstein, 2011).

Twitter is invaluable as a resource for ideas, support, news, and as a “tool for meaningful communication, sharing, and collaboration” (Visser et al, 2014) and truly addresses the need for an effective “alternative to conventional models of professional development (PD)” (Visser et al, 2014). At the start of 2013, Kristen Swanson released her book, ‘Professional Learning in the Digital Age’’ via a three-week Virtual Book Club, which I took part in to advance my understanding and use of an online PLN. She advocates multi-layered contributions as digital educators, ranging from Tweeting (or even more basically, Re-Tweeting) to speaking at conferences. Tweeting is easiest - it is a “pull technology” which “helps you siphon manageable sips of meaningful, useful information” (Lindsay & Davis, 2013). In addition, the use of hashtags in Twitter, first coined by Shelly Terrell in 2009 for the now huge, #EdChat, (Herbert, 2012) means it is easy to search for AND post about certain topics, as well as follow conferences even when you are not attending them.

In 2013, I spoke at a Google Summit in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. Whilst there, I attended a scripting session presented by Evan Scherr*, who asked how many of us in the room were on Twitter? I was shocked at the poor response, but glad he then evangelised about how educators must be on Twitter. I agree with him wholeheartedly, it is an essential tool in being connected with a global network of like-minded educators - and if you are not connected, you are missing out. Creating a handle is not enough. You have to use it. It is ok to “learn and lurk” but we really need to be contributing. The final part of Professional Learning in the Digital Age concerns contribution and how it is our duty to give as much as we take from our Personal Learning Networks (PLN), if not more. In '3 Reasons Why the School Principal Needs to Tweet' Mark Guay (2013) suggests sending out "3-5 daily tweets that stay on the positive". We all have something to give, we all have something to share - whether it is anecdote or expertise - and we can all learn from each other. I think that, whilst “many in the general population fail to see [Twitter’s] relevance” (Visser et al, 2014) the power can really be seen only through use.

Guay advocates the use of principals taking control of what is in the media by creating their own media channel. He states that schools must utilise this free publicity through constant and committed use:
It takes time to develop the benefits from having an online presence. However, through time, the community and your students will start seeing how to use social media wisely and will have more reason to believe in the school system. (Guay, 2013)
This means not only are schools getting free publicity, they are also acting as positive role models about how to act responsibly, safely, ethically and positively in online interactions, an important literacy that needs to be promoted.

My experiences over the past five years using Twitter have been varied. In 2013, I was approached by the #SatChat team. #Satchat is a weekly Twitter discussion that started in April 2012 with approximately 25 educators. As a 'family', #SatChat has branched out to include educational Twitter chats based in a variety of locations around the globe. Starting as a founding moderator for #SatChatOC (for Oceania) whilst in Singapore, I noticed a 'gap' in the market in terms of time zones, as well as a lack of ed-tech based initiatives hailing from the Middle East. Moving to Qatar proved a valuable opportunity to plug this gap and get educators from this part of the world sharing and learning together.

Following the success of my experience with #SatChatOC, I wanted to be able to share this experience as well as establish and create a PLN in a new part of the world that is emerging educationally. #SatChatME initially met from 7-8pmKSA every Saturday - the nature of the name required the 'chat' to be on a 'Sat' and we worked around existing SatChats to ensure there was a chat for every time zone. Topics are decided on amongst moderators, arise from chats, are voted on by chatting contributors or hosted by special guests. Each week, six questions based around the topic are released over the hour. Chats are archived and shared each week via Storify.

Unfortunately, due to the aforementioned limited exposure to Twitter and technology use by educators in general in this part of the world, the chat was not as popular as it had been in Singapore. Part of this was I had an amazing co-moderator for #SatChatOC but here, the team were new and not as hands-on as is needed for success; it became too much for me to manage the whole process - setting topics, writing questions, advertising etc., whilst they just rocked up during the chat and took credit for the whole thing . In addition, Saturday evening is the the evening before our school week starts and not an ideal time for people in this part of the world to be able to give up an hour to participate. Therefore, #SatChatME took a break. Recently however, I have started working at a new school and met two people who almost treated me like I was famous, as they have not only seen me speak at conferences, but have followed my on Twitter and loved the chats. Following this research, I am inspired to get going again, but, to allow more movement and freedom in not being tied down to every Saturday evening, I plan to go for a longer, ‘slow chat’, where questions are released over the course of a week for people to respond to at their leisure. I think this is beneficial when we look at the “pull” nature of Twitter and how teachers have embedded the practice into daily routines. I am hoping this flexibility will mean that more educators get the chance to participate and contribute.

In 2014, when I worked in Singapore, each of my learners had a blog. One learner wrote a review of a book she had read, which I Tweeted to the author. The author read it and responded to her - which was an invaluable way of encouraging learners to read and share their thoughts! We also held a special end of semester event that saw Middle School learners working vertically to solve a murder mystery; they had to write Twitter summaries, create photofits, find clues in a customised MincraftEdu space, attend press conferences, listen to news reports and work together to find out, 'whodunnit'. It was a great day and generated a huge buzz. It also finally hit the power of Twitter home. At the start of the day, it was stated that Mrs Holly's mission was to get our hashtag, #daysofnexus, trending. The learners got on board, the teachers got on board and, eventually, by the end of the day - we did it! We trended in Singapore. The organisers of the day were chuffed. Through contacts, we had some of my followers from Australia to America commenting. At last, the power was seen. We put our school on the map.

I have reaped many benefits from my use of Twitter; not only have a forged links and connections with amazing educators around the globe, I have been asked to present at conferences, and write articles. In 2014, I was invited to be a guest on another Twitter Chat, #PSTChat, which is for pre-service teachers based in Australia. I have shared student work and conducted research. I have found a supportive personal learning network that has taught me so much. It does require sustained use, but it truly is worth it and I would like Twitter to be part of the DTTP but at the same time, I do not want to overwhelm teachers with too much tech, as this is exactly what I am going against. I do strongly advocate all educators create an account but perhaps as something to explore in their own time. I have thought about creating a hashtag to get them sharing and allow them to see how their PLN will grow organically as they become familiar with the way that things work. I may also incorporate our topics with the #SatChatME chat, to grow the PLN outside of school, gauge opinions and get advice from other educators in the region. I have learned so much about myself and others; I have been supported through dark times and praised through good times that I do believe the time to get to know it is worth it.

Go. Get out there. Tread softly among the others educators and leaders who are learning and sharing. Create a digital footprint and follow a path - or go off and start your own. Let the community know you are there and try to give as much as you take.

--------------------------

References

Davis, M.R. (2011). Social media feeds freewheeling PD. Education Week, 31 (9), S13-S14.

Gerstein, J. (2011). The use of Twitter for professional growth and development. International Journal on E-Learning, 10(3), 273-276.

Guay, Mark W. “3 Reasons Why the School Principal Needs to Tweet.” Visibli, 12 June 2013, knolinfos.sharedby.co/share/hBvYn9.

Hebert, M. (2012). Why all the chatter about #EdChat? District Administration.

Lindsay, Julie, and Vicki A. Davis. Flattening Classrooms, Engaging Minds: Move to Global Collaboration One Step at a Time. Boston, Pearson, 2013.

Swanson, Kirsten. “Virtual Book Club.” User Generated Learning, 7 Jan. 2013, www.usergeneratedlearning.com/.

Swanson, Kristen. Professional Learning in the Digital Age: the Educator's Guide to User-Generated Learning. 2013.

“#Satchat.” Evolving Educators, www.evolvingeducators.com/satchat.html.

Twitter, Inc. (2013). Retrieved from Twitter: Twitter.com

Visser, R. D., Evering, L. C., & Barrett, D. E. (2014). #TwitterforTeachers: Implications of Twitter as a self-directed professional development tool for K-12 teacher. Journal for Technology in Education, 46(4), 396-413.

*(Check out Evan's great blog www.scherrology.com, follow him on Twitter @EvanScherr, and Google+ +Evan Scherr)