Why We Should Be Teaching Twitter (or at least following our own children)

I joined Twitter on January 5th, 2008. It was after hearing Will Richardson speak at the RCAC Symposium (a yearly conference held in London Ontario focused on the intersection between teaching and technology.)

I struggled to create what I had seen performed on the stage: a Personal Learning Network, at my beck and call, willing to answer questions, and share; willing to tweet back to an audience of teachers and principals at the drop of a hat. You’ve probably seen this done, as I see the request frequently pop up in my feed: “I’m presenting to [some-conference], please share how you use Twitter. Use this #hashtag so that people understand the power I wield on Social Networking sites” (I may have added that last bit after the hashtag). It’s a cheap parlour trick; but it does illustrate the interconnectedness of Twitter. The public nature of it all. Somewhere in your feed is someone connected to thousands of people, who has the potential to reach subsequent millions.

I started following a few people, but every tweet went unanswered, leading me to think that no one was listening. I didn’t “get” hashtags. After a brief stint leveraging Twitter with my students as part of a Global Twitter story (we were lucky to be chosen to write the important last chapter), I left the account to languish until a few years later when “got it”. I can see this echoing the experience of most Twitter users upon initial adoption. Until you have followers, you are shouting to an empty room. If you don’t use hashtags to help you participate in larger conversations with people who DON’T follow you, you’ll always be tweeting to a small room of followers. The biggest difference, and the one that I think catches our students (who have grown up with the (potential) privacy of Facebook) is that NOTHING ON TWITTER IS PRIVATE. I don’t have to be following you to see everything you tweet, and I will judge you based not only on that but by the company you keep (who you follow). Even Direct Messages — which you may assume to be private — are not private as a trend begins to emerge where users have begun taking screenshots of private conversations (whether through IM or through DM on Twitter) and sharing them on social networks (“haha, look at this private conversation I was having with Jimmy, he’s so silly”), which leads me to a second truth: NOTHING IS PRIVATE. Whether it’s via screenshot or via a BCC in an email, in an electronic world everything you share may find its way into unintended hands. That pen being used at your next meeting might be a Livescribe, recording your every word.

Which brings me to the point of this post: We need to be teaching how to navigate this world before students end up suspended, jobless, or charged with libel. The student in this article, who is quoted saying that they “don’t feel safe on Twitter anymore” has learned the valuable lesson late. They should never have felt “safe” on Twitter. Every message is potentially being shared with every other user on Twitter: there is nothing safe about that. It’s a contract you should enter into cautiously. You should constantly be thinking about how what you say on Twitter will be mangled, misconstrued, changed and retweeted to an audience of strangers.

The screenshot attached here shows a student from HWDSB participating20121126-111349.jpg in the Director’s Student Voice forums. Within the span of a few minutes, the student retweets @malloy_john, posts inappropriately, and then thoughtfully participates in the #HWDSBvoices hashtag. Do they not understand how Twitter works? Did they not think that someone might go and navigate their profile once they started using the #HWDSBvoices hashtag (not that they were anymore private before). The student used their real first and last name on their Twitter profile. That name is distinct enough that a summer employer would easily locate the account. It may be that the student doesn’t understand how Twitter works. It may be that the student doesn’t care what others think because their small audience of peers think this post is funny. Either way, there is teaching to be done.

Published by jarbenne

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

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  1. We had a similar experience in GEDSB when twitter was used for our Student Voice conference. These things will happen. You can react to it and shut it down or you can see it as an opportunity to open up a dialogue about digital citizenship. I prefer the latter because shutting it down doesn’t solve the problem, it just shifts it somewhere else. Those kids are still being inappropriate online, just in places where nobody knows.

    1. Part of the issue is how the tools get stigmatized from being blocked (either by net filters or resistant instructors). For some students this may have been the first time Social Media had been leveraged in positive ways. It probably felt incongruous.

      One would hope that through purposeful use an awareness of audience would emerge. I’m not endorsing every classroom get on twitter (there is some nasty stuff in there that should be part of a larger discussion) but we need to teach students to be social-media savvy.

  2. I had a similar conversation with my 14 year old twins. They have recently switched from using FaceBook to Twitter. They didn’t realize how Public their conversations were on Twitter. I explained that even Gramma goes into Twitter.com and searches for her family members to stay up to date.
    So, don’t post anything you wouldn’t say in front of Gramma. She’s reading too!

  3. I really think it is important that we help educate so students are aware ” that NOTHING ON TWITTER IS PRIVATE. I don’t have to be following you to see everything you tweet, and I will judge you based not only on that but by the company you keep (who you follow)”.

    Just outlined this to a few grade 8 students the other day that Twitter is public – they had no idea. One girl went home and to educate her older sister.

    I agree with Andrew – they use it because its the “it thing” so don’t block. If we block, it’s just shifts elsewhere, so we need to educate and make them aware.

    If you don’t mind I’d like to share this post with my Students (more specifically the quote I included in this comment) to initiate further discussion. Thanks for the post!

  4. Twitter is still a largely teen/YA dominated space and they’re the ones who have created the norms. That is changing and as it does so will the norms. Wonder if that means a change in how they use SM or a flight to somewhere ‘cooler’ so they can say whatever they want. Maybe both?

    1. I feel like this is a shift. When I first started using Twitter, all the kids were on fb, and Twitter was largely an adult space. Now it’s Twitter and Instagram and Tumblr. Tomorrow it will be something else; but the skills needed to navigate these spaces are transferable.

  5. Judging ppl by who they follow and RT is always a bit ‘iffy’ for me. Sometimes I follow someone to get a different viewpoint or a new perspective. That’s one of the great things about twitter, it’s the access to a variety of voices. I don’t want students to feel like they have to play it safe.

    1. I think it happens regardless though. We make assumptions. I am entertained by Louis CK, but I don’t follow or RT him using the account I know students follow me on. If I did, it might colour how you see me. If you haven’t met me face to face, it may also give you a skewed image of who I am.

      I also follow different people for different perspectives, but I’m cautious and mindful. Do I still tweet things that have no edu value: constantly. Do I tweet about the great Riesling I just bought: never. (Maybe that’s my Baptist upbringing.) I try to be conscientious about what I share, while still participating in the conversation. I’m not necessarily talking about divergent thinkers as much as I’m looking at students who follow potentially x-rated content.

  6. We talked about this very thing in my Philosophy class today when discussing whether we are inherently good or selfish. The point was made that, without instruction, the laws of the jungle apply on Twitter or the cess-pit that is the YouTube comment stream. If we don’t teach students how to use social media in a legally and socially responsible way, who will? I hope that, in our classrooms, we will challenge students to become responsible “digital citizens” rather than putting up more firewalls. I think that to be effective, this has to be equal parts instruction and positive modelling of the correct behaviours.

    1. Agreed. YouTube comments are a great example of a space where Piggy is dead and everyone is holding the conch.

      It really becomes about teaching students about the importance of community, and their place in the world, and about how every action positive or negative, has repercussions within the community. It’s difficult to be a bright light in such a dark space; but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to help make things better, and model acceptable behaviour, instead of throwing the baby away…

  7. Thank you for this blogpost – and to everyone for their comments. Really enjoying everyone’s point of view, and also thinking about conversations I have had with parents recently about the value of our grade 5/6 class Twitter account. Wish I had been “on my toes” with respect to pointing out that our class twitter is an excellent teaching opportunity to prepare the students for future personal twitter accounts…which will happen sooner than parents realize!

  8. What a great post, Jared, and one that I completely agree with! Earlier on in the year, I blogged about a lesson that I did with my Grade 6’s on the very public nature of Twitter. A student shared something that she probably shouldn’t have, but instead of just talking to the student, I talked to the class about what “public” really means. I showed students how easy it is to take a screenshot of tweets and even email them along to the principal. I noticed students going back and deleting some tweets that they sent earlier, and now many of them are really re-thinking what they’re sharing online. I don’t follow my students on Twitter, but I do click on their names often and read what they tweet. I’m much happier to see what’s being shared. Teaching students about the public nature of Twitter is so important!


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