Considering Twitter…

Twitter isn’t new, but it can be confusing to the novice. Here are a few pointers to get started:

Know your audience, and be mindful of the transparency of twitter: Unlike Facebook, where activity you contribute is private (as long as you have your settings correct) to only those individuals who you “friend”, by default Twitter is an open book. If you want to see what I am saying on Twitter, you don’t have to have an account to visit my profile page and read the updates I share. In some ways this means that you can never “know your audience”, and must be mindful of who your audience might be. I cannot as a professional post inappropriately, and then defend myself under the guise of intending my tweets for a specific audience of friends: I need to always be aware that students, parents, colleagues, or my superiors may be “lurking” on my account, regardless of whether or not they are on twitter, or appearing in my Followers list.

Create your account for that audience. Unlike Facebook, whose terms of service frowns upon users creating multiple accounts (preferring that people establish one account and manage the different facets of their public and private face through their everchanging privacy settings), Twitter allows you to create different accounts for different purposes. This is the case for student accounts as well. If you choose to use Twitter in the classroom, and have students who use Twitter already, ensure that they create an account separate from their personal account. In the same way that you don’t want them seeing pictures you’ve tweeted of your weekend pool party, you certainly don’t want to open yourself up to the scrutiny and risk of viewing (and thereby advocating, accepting, or condoning the extra-curricular lives of your students). It is certainly within our role to help teach our students how to constructively contribute in all areas of society, but the Friday-night musing of adolescence is a space best moderated by a parent or guardian. With that in mind, if you choose to use Twitter with students, create — and ensure the students create — separate, professional, edu-focused accounts, and teach the students the purpose of this account is not to tweet to Cody Simpson, Justin Bieber, or Charlie Sheen. You are creating a virtual classroom, despite the fact that this classroom is open beyond the hours of the instructional day, contributions will be reviewed and utilized within class, and must adhere to the rules of your bricks-and-mortar classroom. Twitter has created a tips page for parents on how to keep children safe on Twitter. It should also be noted that Twitter users MUST be 13 years of age or older according to the Terms of Service.

Start by lurking: I know that sounds odd, but the reality is, until you build up a list of followers, you are talking to an empty room every time you tweet. Find like-minded people, and follow twitter accounts that are interesting, but also be mindful that the list of people you follow is also available to anyone who can visit your profile. In some senses, you may be judged by the company you keep. As you start to build a presence on twitter, you may find others looking to you as the curator of helpful accounts to follow. It may be that your extra-curricular interests create a window into your personal life you would rather keep closed.

@mention people. Twitter is a conversation in a very noisy crowded room. If you don’t yell my name first, I won’t know you are talking to me, and I will probably miss what you have to say. @mentioning people is also a good way to build up your followers list. Start contributing insightfully and people will want to include you in their network. Until you have that network established you can’t really use twitter to its full potential: the ability to crowd-source answers to questions you have only comes when you have built up an army of people who might be able to help you out. If you try to use Twitter as a place to go ask questions too early, before this base is established, you may get discouraged with the lack of response. If there are individuals you know might be able to help you, @mentioning them that question may result in someone else seeing your question and helping out.

If you ask questions, stick around to hear and respond to the answer. As learners and intellectuals, some use Twitter to ask great questions; but if you tweet: “How can we ensure all students are learning in present century ways?” be sure to stick around and respond when people start to answer you question. Twitter is a conversation. There is nothing that says that you cannot use Twitter merely to broadcast information (“Staff meeting was great tonight. Wonderful collaboration between our School and the surrounding community”). A tweet like this does not demand a response, and using Twitter in this way can be a way to differentiate your message to a larger audience; but if you ask a question, don’t leave the room while others clamour to respond.

Use hashtags. This one really throws people, and probably deserves its own post. Hashtags create a different way to search and aggregate content. If I want to quickly reach thousands of teachers on twitter who don’t follow me, I can include the hashtag #edchat in my tweet and reach everyone who has saved that search. By including the “#” symbol in my tweet, any word that comes after it becomes a hyperlink that takes you to a listing of all the other tweets that include that term. This is different than following people. You can save searches of keywords or hashtags and then quickly see at any moment what people are saying around that subject. When individuals go to conferences, creating a backchannel for conversation, or reporting out to the followers not in attendance, can be accomplished using a hashtag: connecting all the attendees without requiring them to follow each other first. I should also highlight that at any given time under the Discover page on Twitter, there will be a number of trending hashtags. This could be during an event of general interest ie: #Oscars2012, #NFLDraft but can also be a statement that the twitterverse is “riffing” on like #thingsIlookfor, #overheardinthesubway, #stuffpeoplesay: these posts are inevitably inappropriate for a student audience, usually obscene, including photos, language, and content that will evade the internet filters within the school out of virtue of Twitter being open and available. This is another reason to exercise caution when using Twitter with students. You aren’t necessarily revealing anything they couldn’t find on their own, but by introducing it to them, you are advocating their participation in a community that may be mature beyond their years. The flipside of this is the ability for hashtags to collect news the moment it happens, as was the case with hashtags concerning the tsunami in Japan: where twitter was breaking the news out of virtue of users tweeting from the eye of the storm.

I’ll follow up with a future post concerning creating a School or Department Twitter account, and ways to use a Class Twitter account to take advantage of Twitter’s virtues while navigating its pitfalls. I will also leave you with this link to the Ontario College of Teachers Social Media Advisory which correctly cautions the use of these tools, highlighting how boundaries can be easily blurred.

I’ll end by taking another opportunity to endorse the use of the HWDSB Commons as a board-provisioned platform for student collaboration. The Commons allows for following, hashtagging (a little-known feature of the site), and @mentioning, and is a great space to help younger students begin to navigate spaces like Twitter, without unfurling them into the minefield that is Twitter.

Twitter is an integral part of my learning process, and I would invite all teachers to begin using it to help establish a Professional Learning Network beyond the walls of their Grade or Divisional teams within their schools. I’ll expand on this in a future post.

Published by jarbenne

Jared Bennett is the Student Information System Consultant at Hamilton Wentworth District School Board.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *