Big Twitter, Little Twitter

This video just went live today from New Zealand’s wonderful EdTalks collection.  I’d forgotten all about it, but it was recorded back in October at the ULearn conference in New Zealand.  It’s kind of weird looking back at things you said many months ago and had forgotten you’d even said.

Anyway, for what it’s worth, here’s a few thoughts about the use of Twitter for ongoing professional development, and some musings about how kids might use it (or something like it) to develop good digital citizenship skills.

Using Twitter to develop a PLN

Another article written for Education Technology Australia. Probably not much new in here for regular readers of this blog, but I thought I’d post it just in case anyone found it interesting…

Of all the tools to emerge from the Web 2.0 revolution, few are as intriguing as Twitter. When Twitter first appeared in 2006 it was one of those hard to define web tools that, on the surface, sounded silly and trivial. However, in the last few years it has risen to be one of the web’s most powerful simple ideas.

At its best, Twitter is the ultimate real-time communication tool, enabling ideas to spread across the Internet with unprecedented speed and reach. As a mechanism for gaining insight into the “wisdom of the crowds” it has few equals. During the recent elections in Iran for example, Twitter proved its worth as a vehicle for people in Tehran to keep the flow of information going to the outside world, even when official news crews were being silenced and censored by the government. Thanks to Twitter, the truth still had a voice.

At its worst, Twitter can be nothing but an embarrassing parade of personal ephemera, filled with people publicly sharing the most inane and trivial aspects of their lives.

Twitter was created in 2006 as a side project by Odeo Corp, but has since evolved into one of the web’s hottest properties. Thanks to its recent “discovery” by Hollywood stars and TV personalities, Twitter has experienced a massive burst of growth and visibility. It seems that everywhere you turn these days you hear about Twitter, and yet it remains generally misunderstood by most people.

So what exactly is Twitter? Think of it as a cross between SMS, email and blogging. Usually referred to as a microblogging service, Twitter enables users to send out short 140 character messages to anyone who chooses to “follow” them. Some people have thousands of “followers” reading their updates, or “tweets”, each supposedly answering the simple question “what are you doing?” Followers have the opportunity to engage in dialog with those they follow by sending a public reply – usually called an at-reply due to the Twitter convention of prefixing their response with an @ symbol – or to reply in private with a direct message, usually called a DM. These short 140 character bursts of text between individuals are generating thousands of simultaneous conversations that anyone can take part in.

Originally the domain of the geeky elite, Twitter has expanded its reach into far more mainstream uses. Celebrities are using Twitter to build their fan base. Marketers are finding Twitter powerful for spreading the word about new products and services. Companies monitor the flow of Twitter messages to see what people are saying about them. Politicians are using Twitter to converse with their constituents. It seems that many people are finding plenty of uses for a tool that lets you quickly and simply communicate you are doing.

But what about educators? What possible uses could teachers find for a tool like Twitter? As it turns out, quite a few.

The trend in professional development for educators is towards the development of a Personal Learning Network, or PLN. PLNs utilise the principle of just-in-time learning by encouraging teachers to surround themselves with others who share similar interests or knowledge. A teacher with a well developed PLN is able to turn to her network of colleagues to share ideas, ask questions, get feedback or find an audience. Many teachers have limited opportunities to surround themselves with like-minded others, either because they work in a small school, teach a niche subject, or simply don’t have access to people who think like them. Consequently, it becomes easy for many educators to feel as though they work in a vacuum, with limited opportunities to discuss ideas or get advice from others. Attending conferences or professional development days can be really useful, but these are usually limited to a few days a year.

By using a tool like Twitter to surround themselves with a network of other educators, and then using these networks to engage in ongoing conversations about teaching and learning, any teacher can have access to the “brains trust” of a larger groups of people at any time. Twitter can play a key role in connecting people together to form these personal learning networks.

Anyone can sign up for a free Twitter account at www.twitter.com. Upon joining Twitter, they will be provided with a list of suggestions for people to follow, but these are usually a random assortment of Hollywood celebrities, companies, politicians, musicians and sports stars… not exactly the right foundation for building an education-based personal learning network! Of course, there are no real rules about who you can and can’t follow – follow whoever you want – but remember that if you want to develop a Twitter network with an education focus then you should begin by following people who are already engaged in these conversations. During the signup process, Twitter will also offer to search your email address book to see if any of the people you know are currently using the service. If it finds any, it will offer to add them to your network.

The best way to start building your network is by following someone you already know and seeing who they follow. Clicking on the grid of icons will lead you to the Twitter pages of others, where you can read their bio, their latest tweets and see who else they follow. Once you find someone that sounds interesting to you, just click the “Follow” button to add them to your network. The real value of a Twitter network does not become apparent until you add at least 40 to 50 people, so continue this process of finding people to follow until you build this critical mass. When you follow someone, they receive an email notification about it and can then decide whether they want to follow you back or not. Don’t be to concerned or offended if someone does not follow you back immediately.

The other way to quickly develop a network of people is by using a list such as that found at http://twitter4teachers.pbworks.com. This list, built using a wiki by Gina Hartman, a teacher from Missouri, contains organised lists of teachers who use Twitter to help make the process of building your network simpler. Similar lists exist at http://twitterpacks.pbworks.com, where you can search for all sorts of interesting Twitter-using communities. Another excellent list of education professionals to follow online can be found at http://c4lpt.co.uk/connexions. Take some time to explore these lists and you’ll soon find plenty of interesting, relevant people to add to your network.

Once you begin to build this network around you, you’ll find a constant stream of new ideas, new links and new tools to explore. People in your network will be sharing thoughts with each other, having conversations that you can join or simply eavesdrop on. With the right group of people in your network you will be exposed to more new ideas and suggestions each day than you would normally get in a whole year of regular PD. You will have a team of people around you that you can ask questions and get suggestions from. You can tap their collective wisdom. You can get perspective from outside your regular contacts. You can find people to collaborate with. You can find an audience for student projects. Having a global network of people surrounding you, enabled by Twitter, opens up a world of professional possibilities for your own learning and sharing. You will get a much better feel for the pulse of the web.

Unlike social networking sites like Myspace and Facebook, Twitter has not become hugely popular with school-aged users and it remains somewhat of a place for “grown-ups”. Many specialist communities have adopted Twitter for their own uses, and education is one field which seems to have truly grasped the value that the service can bring to their community. Because Twitter is driven by short, to-the-point messages, it seems to be a place where content and conversation is valued. If you find particular users talking about trivial things that don’t interest you, or “overtweeting” – tweeting so often that it simply becomes annoying – you always have the option to unfollow them. You have complete control over who you want in your network. It is a very democratic environment… if people add value they find followers.

Once you start to use it more you will probably find the Twitter website a fairly inconvenient way to use the service, so there are some excellent Twitter clients – specialised software for using Twitter in an easier, more integrated way from your computer or mobile phone. There are many to choose from, but TweetDeck, Twhirl, Tweetie and Nambu are very popular. There are also plenty of Twitter clients tools that run on mobile phones – mobile versions of TweetDeck and Nambu for the iPhone, or Gravity for Nokia phones, enabling you to tweet from wherever you are.

If you haven’t tried it yet, give Twitter a go. Try using it to build a personal learning network of people you find interesting. You might be pleasantly surprised as just how powerful this simple idea can be.

Evil Twitter image by http://www.flickr.com/photos/dorsner/ CC BY-SA-NC

Finding the Needle in the Twitter Haystack

With millions of Twitter messages floating through the Twittersphere each day, you can use the search tool at  http://search.twitter.com to find references to ANY word that gets uttered there.

So a search for the word “dog” will find every tweet that contains the word dog, and so on.  You can even search for your own twittername and see any time your name is referenced online.  Many companies now use this search feature to find out whenever anyone mentions their products or services on Twitter.

The search tool for Twitter is really quite powerful, and can also be used to generate RSS feeds that can then be embedded into other pages and services.  There is some awesome potential there.

However, Twitter’s ability to search for words being mentioned out there becomes less useful when you search for a really common word, since the search results will invariably turn up lots of stuff you probably don’t want.

When you’re attending a conference for example, you could find every mention that people make about the event by searching for the conference name.  However, it wouldn’t be all that helpful just to do a search on the term “conference” since it would catch all the other possible mentions of the word “conference” from a bunch of other conferences you don’t want. Using the full name of the conference would probably work, but because Twitter limits you to only 140 characters, it would be silly to devote so many of them to including the conference name… there would be little room left for the actual message!

To get around this problem, Twitter users came up with the idea of using a hashtag.. by adding a # in front of a search term. it’s a way to trick Twitter Search into avoiding any results that might contain the keyword but don’t have the hash in front of them.

For conferences, there will generally be a designated hashtag containing a # symbol and an abbreviation for the event. People attending and Twittering from the event can include this short code at the end of each tweet, and then a search (and also an RSS feed) can be created to grab a feed of all the tweets that contain the hashtag, regardless of who they come from. This let’s people follow the conference Tweets in a single stream.

What if the conference has an unusual name already?  A search for a conference abbreviated to “educonf” would probably find most of the references to it fairly easily, since educonf is a kind of “made up” word already.  In this case, a search for the generic term “educonf” or the properly hashtagged “#educonf” would probably turn up pretty much the exact same results.

The real need for the hashtag arises when you have search terms based on regular English words that are ambiguous to the search.  The added # to the front of them makes them unique and helps them stand out from the generic non-hashed word and stops the generic words from getting caught up in the hashtagged feed.  It also carries the added bonus that many 3rd party Twitter clients such as Tweetdeck, Tweetie or Nambu can identify the hashtags and use them to create saved searches, making it much easier to follow the stream based on that tag.

Interestingly, the search feature was never a part of Twitter’s original functionality.  Twitter search was done with a third-party tool created by a company called Summize, but the huge potential (and possibilities for future monetization of Twitter) became immediately obvious and Summize was acquired by Twitter for about $15M almost a year ago.  Now the built-in search functionality is a key part of the Twitter experience, and hashtags play an important role in making that experience even more powerful.

CC Image: ‘Haystack Owl
www.flickr.com/photos/[email protected]/360683898