August 14, 2012

Teaching Teachers to Tweet – from Justin

In our summer workshops, when we mention Twitter, we typically get one of two reactions:

  1. I have no idea how to Tweet!
  2. Twitter is the best thing ever!

While there is occasionally some trepidation about jumping into social media, a wealth of resources exists in the “Twitterverse.” In his latest posts on EdTechResearcher, EdTechTeacher Founder, Justin Reich, writes about Teaching Teachers to Tweet.

Teaching Teachers to Tweet (part I)

It’s Connected Educator month here in the United States, which has me thinking about how we get more educators connected to one another. There are a number of sources of inspiration for Connected Educator month, but one important one is theNational Education Technology Plan. The National Ed Tech Plan was written by an outstanding team of researchers including Chris DedeBarry FishmanDavid Rose and about a dozen others. The plan has a specific section on helping educators in “Connecting to Content, Expertise, and Activities Through Online Communities,” with the this recommendation:

3.2 Leverage social networking technologies and platforms to create communities of practice that provide career-long personal learning opportunities for educators within and across schools, preservice preparation and in-service educational institutions, and professional organizations.

And sure enough, the U.S. Department of Ed is a co-sponsor of Connected Educator month. It’s actually really great to see the DOE taking the ideas from the National Ed Tech Plan and bringing them to life.

In my own practice, getting educators involved in these communities of practice involves helping them understand how to use Twitter, which is really the nexus of nodes in the twittoblogosphere, the place where most things come together and pass through. Now, some folks scoff at teaching teachers to use technology; after all, the Twitter design team is quite smart and has a simple product with relatively few technical barriers to adoption. But as with nearly all technology training, getting people to find the buttons is not the hard part; it’s helping people to meaningfully integrate the tool in their practice.

It is not intuitive to most educators how one would use Twitter as a meaningful part of professional development.

That said, getting teachers to start using Twitter is much easier than it used to be. Two years ago, Twitter was like Wikipedia was five years ago: educators didn’t know what it was but they knew that they hated it. These days, attitudes have softened and curiosity has grown. I ran a workshop last week on Personal Learning Networks (outline here) with about 50 educators. I asked how many had set up a twitter account, and maybe 40 had. I asked folks how many were regular users, and about 5 hands stayed up. Getting the technology up and running was easy; getting a meaningful set of practices developed is hard.

So, I borrowed Greg Kulowiec’s excellent slide presentation on Introduction to Twitter. It starts with a powerful framing question that instantly resonates with educators: “Should you search the Internet, or should you search people?” For lots of specific challenges in lesson planning and teaching, searching people is much more efficient than wading through the Interwebs.

Anatomy of a Tweet from @gregkulowiec

With folks hooked, I explained to them how to read a tweet. It may seem a little pedantic to explain handles, hashtags, retweets, and the nuances of Twitter etiquette, but in my experience this summer, educators find it tremendously valuable to walk through a few Twittish to English and English to Twittish translations. After some hands-on challenges, including getting people in the room connected, I ended the workshop by discussing how people make time and space for Twitter in their practice: how they make a few minutes each day for some serendipitous professional development, how they find kindred spirits on the many chats out there, and how they think about balancing work and life, public and private. All of these pieces are important to moving educators past the Twitter egg stage.

So it won’t be enough for connected educator month to hold a bunch of online events, mostly accessible to already-connected educators, celebrating their decision to be connected. We’re going to need a bunch of folks to get out in the physical world, and teach teachers how to tweet. For anyone who is planning some connected educator training at faculty or department meetings at their school this summer, there are a bunch of resources linked throughout this post; feel free to steal from them to get you started!

Teaching Teachers to Tweet (Part II)

Before we teach how to tweet, we must teach why one would tweet at all…

Folks seemed to find my last post about Teaching Teachers to Tweet somewhat useful (special thanks to Larry Ferlazzo and Eric Sheninger for some early re-tweets), although as I re-read the post over the weekend, I realized that something important was missing. We shouldn’t just teach teachers to tweet; we need to offer them a model of lifelong learning (specifically, Personal Learning Networks) in which learning to use Twitter makes sense.

The theme of Teaching Teachers to Tweet Part I was this: Don’t just teachers teachers to use the functions of Twitter; teach them how to read the language of Twitter and follow community conventions and then give them specific ideas about how to use this tool for meaningful learning.

To some extent, that resonates with the central message of every post on this blog about teacher professional development: don’t just talk about technology; instead, always ensure that technology in the service of learning goals.

But as I looked back on the post, I realized that I hadn’t sufficiently discussed a really important point: we should teach the tool (Twitter) in the context of learning goals (a disposition towards self-directed professional learning) and a pedagogical model (Personal Learning Networks). Teaching any particular technology (which will surely be eclipsed by something else one day) in isolation from learning goals and pedagogical models is just teaching people to click buttons.

I teach about Twitter in a workshop called Personal Learning Networks. The ostensible point of the workshop (often the advertised point of the workshop) is to teach educators how to thoughtfully use social media to craft a network of human and content resources that supports lifelong learning. The subversive goal of the workshop is to get teachers all excited about PLNs as a model for adult learning, and then to ask the question, “If you think this model sounds great for adults, shouldn’t we be helping young people build these networks as well?”

So before talking about Twitter per se, we talk about two kinds of challenges.

First, there is the challenge of the overwhelming amount of information available on the Web. As my colleague Greg Kulowiec says, we can solve this problem by searching people, not the Internet. In order to have people to search, you need to cultivate a network of good thoughtful people and engage them in conversation.

The second challenge is that most teacher professional development is prescribed, top-down, and low-quality. I use two images from Alec Courous to illustrate this problem (which he shared as early as 2008!). The first is a typical teacher network where educators are primarily recipients of information.


The second is a model of a networked teacher, who intentionally organizes human and content resources to foster lifelong learning.

These two challenges lead naturally to goals and models.

If the problem is too much unstructured information and too much over-structured professional development, then the new goal is to encourage educators to develop a disposition to seek out their own professional learning opportunities throughout their career. The model for them to do so is this idea of a Personal Learning Network, the intentional use of social media and peer production tools to create a learning environment that (relatively) easily allows them to act upon that disposition.

Now we’re ready to start clicking buttons on Twitter.

So this framing was the missing piece from the last post. At this point, you can go back to the original Teaching Teachers to Tweet post, and use all the ideas there for teaching how to use Twitter as one specific tool to build a Personal Learning Network. After Twitter, I usually mention a few other resources for building a PLN, like Ning’s, blogging, RSS social bookmarking sites like Diigo, and EdCamps and unconferences. Again, it’s not about any one tool or combination of tools, but supporting a model of lifelong learning.

(I should note that all of the above doesn’t take a long time: 15 minutes of talky-talk or Socratic dialogue maybe. And it is important to get to practices really quickly in a workshop, because ultimately practices drive beliefs. But it’s also important to orient people to the broader goals and models that specific technologies should fit into. Technology should always be in the service of learning.)

For more thoughts from Justin, you can read his EdTechResearcher blog on EdWeek.