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.


22 Comments Twitter for Teachers: an experiment in openness

  1. Meg King-Abraham

    Derision was definitely my first stage after being given an assignment in graduate school to create a Twitter account. I remember teling my professor that I couldn’t believe that he wasted his time by being on Twitter. I later apologized. Now I am definitely in the Enthusiam stage. It is my best source of PD!

    1. bon

      i think the whole culture narrative around Twitter makes it hard to get people to see its potential. there’s as much unpacking of that narrative that needs to go on as scaffolding of actual skills and possibilities.

      i do wish i’d had more time, amidst the rest of the course, to check in face-to-face about Twitter and try to address the disconnects. i think i’d structure that into classtime more if i ever were to try the experiment again. :)

    1. bon

      uh, thank you? i wondered about this piece. it’s very long and rather raw for a professional reflection. but i like – and learn from – reading about other educators’ challenges. talking about the power relations of openness is something i think i may want to do more of.

      anybody else got stories?

  2. Jennifer

    How old were your students? I’d be surprised to find anyone under 30 deriding twitter – right? Or does twitter have no cache among the younger crowd? Well. Now I’m wondering exactly who uses twitter, these days.

    1. bon

      the majority of the #ed474 class are under 30. all use FB – i asked on the first day – and some had Twitter accounts but said they didn’t really “get it.” a few were users, but personal users.

      the piece i found most interesting, now that i think back, was actually the separations the group tended to make between their use of social media and the value of social media. the first day, many worked within a narrative of “addiction.” they’d absorbed the idea that it was negative and had little educative value, even though they’d integrated the practice of using it into their lives.

      i don’t know if the course changed that or no. #ed474? got any input?

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  4. Daniel

    Now having offered a companion piece to yours, I realize there are so many other things to throw in, for me anyways.
    Your so much more eloquent than I, and I am not sure how many details to offer are “safe”?
    So many details could be included.
    But since it is a focus on Twitter, there aren’t as many moments to share. What happens if we open this to ED 474 in general? Twitter was a big piece, but the nature of the course itself, and us just saying “Hey – no papers here!” would make good (non) fiction too right?

    1. bon

      dude. we have written quite a companion tome, and you’re right, only scratched the surface. it’s what makes teaching such a fascinating job.

      i’ve never really written *about* my teaching before, though…interesting boundaries question. while i don’t mind getting naked(ish) out in the open about how the course felt for ME, good and bad, i don’t want to make the students feel, um, exposed. maybe we should’ve taught with blogs instead and then we could get a big ol’ carnvial of reflections in the round going on!

      anyhoo. this course made me think and i think i’ll be learning from it for a long time to come. am grateful to you and to the students and all the people who threw in on the #ed474 hashtag now and then for coming along for the ride.

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  6. @EduSprocket

    I enjoyed reading about your experience and journey with twitter for educators. I commend your boldness and am inspired. After reading your reflection, I find that you seem to have found the core of teaching in this digital age; “It’s only you, and your fairness and accountability and willingness to both listen and lead.” This is tough stuff and from what I read, you handled your “classroom” brilliantly. I love the interaction and conversation you scaffolded for your class with the Skype session with Will Richardson. This is genius! I would have loved to have had similar opportunities set up as a part of my collegiate education.
    You’ve hooked me as a reader, student and teacher. Thank you for sharing what you know.


    1. bon

      Ha. Boldness. It *was* tough stuff and to be honest, I struggled more with this course than I have in fifteen years in higher ed. It wasn’t the students’ fault, but more a huge chasm between what Daniel & I designed the course to be and what they wanted it to be. There’s apparently been a long tradition of students hoping this course will just fill them with all the tech mastery they need – a how-to course, essentially – and that was very much not the approach we took, because a) I, at least, don’t believe that’s possible and b) I don’t believe it’s helpful even if it IS possible. I wanted to push them to try to engage critically with participatory tech and combine it with participatory pedagogical approaches and stop expecting mastery of themselves. I don’t think I really succeeded, all the way, but the conversation got started. And hopefully, for some of them, it will continue.

      For me, on the other hand, the learning was HUGE. If I were to teach the course again, I can think of fifteen things I’d do differently or approach differently. I think of *that* as a huge success. ;)

  7. Jeff Mac

    As a person who was taking part in this process from a student point of view, I must say that I quite enjoyed this class and article. It helped me to better understand the use of participatory learning through experience. I saw this unfold through out the nine weeks and the deeper understanding of what was actually happening within the classroom was revealed through time. I can see the potential for having students be collaborative and self motivated in regards to their own learning. Through reading your article, and reflecting back on the class we both had taken part in, I can see how this type of learning is different when it becomes open, and live. To engage with the other two classes at any time through twitter was helpful to enhance discussions. I hope as a teacher that I will be able to enrich my students to become independent learners through collaboration in networking, and allow them the freedom to follow their own passions about learning. Instead of having myself being the one direction flow of information.

    1. bon

      Thanks, Jeff, for jumping in, both here and in class. Glad the experiment turned out to be useful for you – at least we all got to celebrate Quinn’s birth with you that weekend! – and glad to be following you on Twitter going forward. :)

  8. KeAnne

    What a great teaching experiment and class! I think I stumbled into one of your Twitter class sessions once, but I appreciated that outsiders were welcome to contribute.

    I love Twitter for the entertainment it provides but more so for the connections and information sharing you hope your students were able to realize. It frustrates me that those very real and very important benefits of Twitter are ignored. Every presentation I give on social media emphasizes the learning aspects.

    I was in grad school part-time from 2006-2011 and while we played around with using social media to communicate, it was through closed channels such as a private FB group or closed blog. Even my course on online social networks was closed; I wonder if any of the courses are now experimenting with open channels?

    1. bon

      i really enjoyed the contributions by “outsiders”, KeAnne…you and a few others in my networks joined conversations and for me, it brought our discussions out of the classroom and into public and i think that matters.

      there seem to be a lot of vested interests – old school and new – working against open channels…but i still like to hope education *may* still go more in that direction.

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