Twitter for Teachers: an experiment in openness

So. Nine weeks of teaching Educational Technologies with a Bachelor of Education class. Out in the open. Quite an experience.

At the intersection of the Internet and education, ‘open’ seems to be the word on which directions hang. Openness is everywhere: in code, in the shift from scarcity to abundance, in OERs and MOOCs and all those Big Things that are going to change Everything. Um, somehow.

The issue is that ‘open’ is open to interpretation. As a signifier in the world of education and technologies, it’s a word that means different things to different people.

Most of those things – open education, open access, open content among them – have their own histories and interests. They intersect around sharing and re-use of resources, to an extent, but are not interchangeable.

Each of them has important contributions to make to education, particularly in relation to the rise of the venture capital xMOOCs and Khan Academy models, wherein ‘open’ increasingly looks like it’s being taken up as a precursor to the words ‘for business.’

But all these forms of ‘open’ tend to be tied in some way to the paths via which the Internet bypasses closed and traditionally-monetized systems.

There’s another form of ‘open’ that the internet makes possible.

Why Openness?
I think it may be the most important one, in terms of education’s potential. But it’s tied to a concept of value that doesn’t necessarily monetize well.

It’s ‘open’ in the personal sense, where the boundaries of privacy and professionalism blur. It’s still about sharing and re-use, but from an individual node-in-network perspective. Here is my stuff, it says. My learning, best as I can sum it up or package it right now. My efforts. Here is my work, my passion, my humour, my stumbling in the dark. Here are my people, my conversations, my ideas in raw form. Maybe you can do something with it. With any of it. Go.

It’s the kind of ‘open’ at the centre of Alan Levine’s longstanding True Stories of Openness project (recently re-branded from Amazing Stories of Openness thanks to closed copyright issues), which captures powerful stories of individual experiences of transformation and opportunity and travel (and more!) all stemming from sharing and re-use at the personal level.

It the kind of ‘open’ that takes traditionally-closed subject roles like ‘teacher’ and ‘student’ and forces everyone to navigate new ways of interacting, based less on the safety net of hierarchy and formality and more on plain old engagement with ideas.

Why Twitter?
I’ve been writing and working professionally in the open, in this sense, for years, blogging and sharing and Tweeting and somewhere along the way, building up an incredible network of people whom I talk to about education and writing and technologies and parenting and learning and…welll…just life. I’ve gotten great value from it all, and while much of it started for me with my blog, it’s been Twitter that’s really opened up and enriched my circles these past few years.

So this past term, when I had the chance to build Twitter into the Technologies in Education course my friend & colleague Daniel Lynds & I were developing and teaching, I leapt. I’ve introduced classes to Twitter before, and even had them utilize it for particular assignments, but I’ve never made it a central (and required) thinking and sharing space over the length of a term. And I’ve NEVER shared a class hashtag with two other sections (I taught one section of #ed474; Daniel taught two) of the same course, effectively making the Twitter space an open, cross-class forum for seventy-ish people, a good three-quarters of whom went in quite unenthused about the whole Twitter prospect.

It turns out it’s fun. And one of the hardest things I’ve ever done as a teacher.

Here’s some of what I (and we) learned in the process.

The Plan: Participatory Education 
The course was titled “Technologies in Education.” When Daniel & I were hired, we were asked to keep the syllabi fairly parallel, so we designed the course structure together, building in part from old course descriptions and timelines but creating an entirely new reading list, with new assignments.

One of these? Twitter. At least four tweets a week, for nine weeks. At least half these had to be conversational, directed at other classmates or authors of articles or us as instructors, or anybody else brave enough to take up the shared and public #ed474 hashtag. At least one tweet a week was supposed to share a link, with synopsis, related to our readings and the reflective assignments going on behind the scenes, in the Moodle LMS spaces assigned to each class.

The main goal of the great #ed474 Twitter experiment was basically to try to scaffold students into meaningful engagements with the real affordances of the Internet: openness, sharing, collaboration, networking beyond geographic limitations.

Yeh. Nothing ambitious. ;)

We wanted to model participation: Twitter tends not to make sense to anybody in the first few weeks they try it. It’s a participatory medium – sustained engagement is key.

We also wanted to model networking. There were twelve required readings in the course, plus a number of suggested videos and other resources. The majority of these were by people working actively and openly in the field of Technologies in Education. People on Twitter, people who students could engage with – maybe – if they tried. People whom students could make part of their own long-term, sustainable professional development networks. People whom students could, in effect, leave our classrooms and take with them. People like Will Richardson, who took half an hour to Skype with my class and talk about an article many of them had found inflammatory on first contact. That half hour – and that sense of connection, which both they and he continued on Twitter – may have been the factor that opened the door to what ‘open’ can be, for many of them.

In education, we talk a lot about student-centered learning and collaboration and real-life engagement. These are important, we tell pre-service teachers. But we don’t always do a great job of modelling them. We figured if we could make this experiment work, even a little, students would come out not only with skills in utilizing social media for professional and educational purposes, they *might* also come out with a far more 21st century sense of what it means to be an educator.

Mutiny in The Open?
Even aiming in this direction – for Daniel and I – meant changing our senses of our role and its entitlements, as well.

Academia tends to be one of those (literally) old-school closed structures. Education is about and has always been about systems of power. It’s also about learning and transformation and all those things, but the traditional classroom system privileges the teacher as authority. We’re trained from childhood to pay attention when the teacher raises her voice or flicks the lights. There’s no equivalent process in social media. When you open things up and get three classes of students actively sharing a hashtag, you change the power differential. Not entirely, but more than is comfortable, sometimes.

A few weeks into the course things got tense. Daniel & I hadn’t fully managed to get students onside, I don’t think, with the structure and intent of the course overall, and there was anxiety across all sections about an upcoming in-class assignment. The individual circumstances governing our classes differed, and Daniel ended up postponing that assignment for his two sections.

Ten minutes later, the first Tweet came across my screen: “can we get an extension too?”

One student asking quickly became three. In the open, indeed.

Our class didn’t actually have the same reasons for postponement: this was a participatory assignment and my instincts were that to build energy and buy-in, I needed to engage them, not postpone. But I also needed to address the request Right That Minute, in a public way, in a series of 140 character tweets that let them know I heard and respected their concerns.

Because if I’d walked away, by the time I came back, the requests would have built to a clamour. And by the time there’s a clamour, people have dug in.

I gulped. Then I put on my Very Best Self and listened and and tried to hear what was actually being asked for. It sounded like fairness was being asked for – they needed to know there were real reasons not to postpone our group given that the other group had been. Fair enough.

That’s the thing about working in the open. You can’t simply dim the lights and hush everyone. You’re part of something, and you may be guiding something, but you don’t control that thing. You’re in it with the network you’ve built. If that network includes your students, then they have public voices within it. If they mutiny, the mutiny will be active and loud and confusing unless you understand what’s going on. They’re not being insubordinate (usually). Networks are not hierarchies. And the medium encourages overt performance of discontent or questioning in a way that the classroom simply doesn’t, unless you’re in Dead Poets’ Society.

And however you all succeed or fail or muddle through, everybody’s watching. No pressure.

In truth, though, as someone who is both a teacher AND a student and has worn both hats simultaneously for years, this openness is a Good Thing. It begins to unpack the power structures around teaching. But your role won’t be the thing that backs your authority. It’s only you, and your fairness and accountability and willingness to both listen and lead.

The End Game
The jury’s still out on whether the course worked, particularly in its Twitter incarnation.

I think, for some, it did. Others went along but aren’t likely to leave enthusiasts of the platform. Daniel has a theory that there are Stages of Twitter, like Stages of Grief. People start with Reluctance (or Derision, even), and might stay there forever unless some form of necessity (like, say, a course) forced them into the environment. Once there, they flounder through Confusion, Awareness, Acceptance, and…if all goes smashingly well, into Engagement (even Enthusiasm!)

I think a few of our students made it to Enthusiasm. One – bless her – said, via a series of Tweets: “In our program so much of the theory speaks to collaboration but it wasn’t until #ed474 that I was was able to put this theory to practice through tweeting and moodle posts. Learned a lot & enjoyed #ed474 – look forward to keeping up these connections for my continuing professional development.”

A couple, out of the nearly seventy, stayed firmly if respectfully in Reluctance. Most made it to at least Awareness, if only because Confusion simply tends to fade after a few weeks of sustained usage, whether you like what you’re doing or no. A good number, I think, will keep their accounts.

(Those who do will notice I unfollowed them. NOT because I don’t want to be in their networks…I do. But forcing people on Twitter and then hoping they’ll stay but making them feel stuck with me feels…Big Brotherish. So I’m giving them the out. If they want me in their professional networks, they just need to say hi and I am THERE. Will follow again. But if they want to use Twitter henceforth to talk solely about…well…whatever…without me, they can. At least as much as one can on a public platform.)

Many may only use it now and then, from here on in, but from the feedback I received from my own class, at least, a fair proportion did genuinely take away some kind of real, hands-on understanding of participatory practices that I’m not sure we could have modelled for – and with – them without it.

And that’s really all I’d hoped for. I’m not a Twitter fan in any true *geek* sense of the word – I don’t find the platform elegant or appreciate the growing corporatization of the space, and I think for teachers working with younger students there are real alternatives that may still develop some of the communications affordances that Twitter does while NOT throwing everybody into the great wide open.

But out there, and only out there, in some kind of busy open network, can they get the sense of possibility that I think all the hype about “21st century technologies” in schools tends to miss entirely: these technologies are supposed to be connecting people in new ways for learning purposes, not just entertaining them.

At its best, Twitter does both. And #ed474 certainly gave me learning and connection opportunities that I’ve really never had with students before, this term…even just in laughing together on a dull Friday evening while we all stayed home writing papers.

And in the end, that felt like a kind of openness I could really get behind.