Professional Learning

#140conf and Teachers Who Use Twitter

November 6, 2009

140 Speakers, 64 Sessions, 2 Days, 1 Stage

That's the way Jeff Pulver, creator of the 140 Conference, summed up the most recent installment in Los Angeles.

Basically, the 140 Conference brings together all kinds of people from the Twittersphere to talk about how Twitter is changing the way they do things. Over the two days we heard, of course, from the business world and celebrities.

But we also heard from the Police Chiefs Who Tweet and how they use Twitter as a new form of community policing, and from a homeless woman in Chicago who uses Twitter at a public library to find resources for herself and her children. We heard about how a family, touched by cancer, reached out on Twitter to help raise money for research. And we heard how a group known as Mommy Bloggers uses Twitter to provide support for moms all around the world.

Tom Whitby (@tomwhitby), Shelly Terrell (@shellterrell), Eric Sheninger (@NMHS_Principal), and I (@web20classroom) were invited by Arpana Vashisht (@parentella) to speak about how Twitter is changing the business of education. Specifically, we discussed how we are using the #edchat forum as a way for educators to meet, converse about policy, and exchange ideas. Though we were given only 20 minutes, we were able to tell our story to the movers and shakers in the world of social media.

I started on Twitter in November 2008. Part of my job as an instructional technologist is to help teachers find great resources to use in their classrooms. I spend lots of time looking at the curriculum and finding Web sites, articles, activities, lessons, anything that teachers can use to support what they are already doing.

I used to do a monthly newsletter for my teachers; however, I found that I was finding so many great things that a newsletter just wasn't enough. Then I started a blog, and still there was just so much to share. That is when I turned to Twitter.

Initially, my intentions were to build a network of teachers in my school district so I could instantly share information with them in real time. They could follow me and see the resources I had posted. Quickly, I came to the realization that what was working for my teachers surely had to work for teachers all over the world. And that is when I began to build my professional learning network (PLN).

I found interesting teachers to follow through the Twitter4Teachers wiki. Once I had a small base of other instructional technologists to follow, I looked at the people they retweeted. (Retweeting is the practice of sending along something someone has tweeted to a different network.) I could then look at the things those people were tweeting and decide to follow or not. My network grew instantly.

The big misconception with Twitter is that it is about vanity. For some, that is true. That fact could not be more highlighted than the Race to 1 Million Ashton Kutcher entered with CNN. (If that isn't vanity, I don't think I know what is!) And if you look at the public timeline, you will see people tweeting about nothing that interests anyone. For education, as we discussed at the conference, it's different.

Almost 7 percent of teachers each year leave the profession. The most common reason given when asked is job dissatisfaction. Teaching is hard. Those of us who are in the thick of it day in and day out understand this.

I have seen great teachers leave the classroom because they were not supported. Through Twitter, we are trying to change that. Those in my PLN are trying to tell other teachers, "You are not alone. Oh, you teach sixth-grade language arts? Let me introduce you to 100 other sixth-grade language arts teachers who you can network with." And why stop there? Teachers are filling their PLNs with teachers from all grade levels and subject areas, because we all have resources to share and we all can use the support.

But that is not the only way Twitter is changing education. It is the real-time aspect that has the greatest impact. Every day, I see teachers Tweeting a lesson that just did not work in their first-period class, and they are seeking help with making it better. In five minutes, they have 20 ideas on how they can make a little change to make the lesson more effective.

Five minutes! In the time it takes for kids to change classes, teachers have myriad new ideas to use in their classroom. For me, that is huge! The ability to obtain and give instant feedback has tremendous effects on the classroom.

Twittering teachers can also make amazing connections. Before the school year started this year, I saw several teachers Tweet out units they were going to teach or books their students were going to read. Within a matter of hours, I saw teachers connecting with other teachers to form Skype chats with their students for book talks or creating wikis so that their students, from across the globe, could collaborate on projects. Watching these conversations unfold before me was truly amazing.

Last, we explained to the audience how Twitter finally gives a voice to educators. Education is not immune to problems. We face them every day. Lack of parental involvement, overstrict Internet filtering, lack of student motivation -- in some form or fashion, the vast majority of educators across the globe have similar problems. Back in August, Tom, Shelly, and I created the hashtag #edchat. (Hashtags are ways to track tweets: Users enter a tag preceded by the hash symbol. Some popular education hashtags are #education, #edtech, and #teacher).

What we wanted was a forum so that educators could talk about the problems they face in the classroom. Each Tuesday at 7 p.m. EST, we talk about a topic chosen by a vote of our participants. The chats are fast paced and usually lead to more questions. But that is the beauty of #edchat! We can talk about our frustrations with strict Internet filtering but also find solutions or ways in which other teachers have gotten their districts to loosen restrictions. Again, it's all about resource sharing.

Each week, we have over ten countries that participate in the discussions, and we have been fortunate enough to have a few well-known members of the education community join us. Alfie Kohn, an outspoken advocate for taking homework out of schools, joined us for our talk on whether homework raises attainment. In an upcoming session, we have Alan November, one of the biggest names in educational technology, lined up to join us. Twitter levels the playing field and allows teachers to talk to the education movers and shakers.

The 140 Conference was an amazing experience. Jeff was great to allow us to come and speak, and I hope that more educators get the chance to tell their stories on how Twitter is changing education.

So, is Twitter changing education? I think so, but moreover, I hope so! Please share your thoughts.

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