An Act of Heresy

Bless me father, for I’m about to commit an act of heresy. Whenever I say what I’m about to say, I get a reaction that ranges from raised eyebrows to outright hostility and arguments. But I’ll say it anyway.

I don’t like the hashtag chat format on Twitter. And I don’t like the timed presentation format used for Teachmeets. There. I said it.

Maybe I’m just becoming a cranky old man as I get older, but I don’t like either of these formats and for much the same reason. I find they dumb down the conversation.

I know that both of these formats are very popular at the moment, and I know that many people seem to like them. But I just can’t warm to them, and I wanted to write this post to explain why. Feel free to condemn me in the comments.

Let’s start with Twitter hashtag chats. That’s where you pick an abbreviation, slap a hashtag in front of it, set aside an hour or so, and off you go. Instant “conversation”. I know this form of conversation on Twitter is insanely popular right now, but I just can’t seem to work out why.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Twitter and think its impact on the world has been absolutely seismic. I joined it in early 2007 and have used it regularly since the very beginning. I’ve written a lot of very pro-Twitter posts about how wonderful Twitter is and how important it is that you should be using it too. Twitter is awesome. No argument there. It’s great as a backchannel at events, or as a way of distributing information quickly, or as a tool for building professional and personal connections. It’s a communications medium with self imposed limitations, but if you work within the bounds of those limitations, it’s absolutely brilliant in its simplicity. I like Twitter a lot.

But as a means for having deep, meaningful focussed conversations on specific topics, I struggle with it. It always feels to me like it’s being wrangled into doing something that it was never really designed to do, and consequently it feels like it does it poorly. Whenever I try to have a meaningful conversation broken up into 140 character chunks (less by the time you include the hashtag, the Q&A numbering and any @replies you might want to include), the “conversation” feels decidedly stilted, fragmented and superficial. I’ve participated in many of these hashtag chats over the years and I always find them frustratingly tedious. I can never say what I want to say in the space I have available to say it, so it ends up getting fragmented into disconnected chunks spread out over time, with no really functional way to reassemble those chunks into some semblance of a real conversation.

Hashtags chats usually start out with people saying hi, where they’re from, etc, which takes up the first 10 minutes or so, then the host/moderator throws a question into the ring (Q1, Q2, etc) and everyone has a go at responding with their own tweets (A1, A2, etc). As people respond, then respond to the responses, the conversation fragments even further until there is a confusing collection of truncated half-thoughts littering the timeline, waiting to be mentally reassembled into a thread that hopefully makes some degree of sense. For an hour or so, questions are added to the mix, replies are made, popular tweets are favourited and retweeted, and there always seem to be a whole lot of chatter that ends up in a confused, non-archivable mess. Which is a shame, because the actual ideas that were either poorly expressed, or hidden in that mess of messages, is potentially brilliant. But I think it’s far too much work and far too inefficient to be used like this.

I should point out that this hashtag chat idea is not the same thing (to me) as using a hashtag to aggregate tweets around a theme or meme. The latter is organic, and percolates naturally. People can contribute on the hashtag over time, and it is pulled together with a hashtag search query. This feels like a natural use of Twitter. The hashtag chat, on the other hand, where structured questions get sent out to a group for responses in a specific window of time, always feels contrived to me. It feels like a school project, where people are answering questions in response to the moderator, who artificially keeps the “conversation” moving. There’s nothing very organic or natural about it.

I’ve tried to give this form of “conversation” a go, but I just can’t warm to it. I know many people who love it, so hey, more power to them. If it works for you, knock yourself out. It just doesn’t work for me. I find I have to dumb down my contributions to stay under the character limit, or figure out how to say something so simply that it no longer conveys the meaning I intended. I end up writing in sound bites that become glib and superficial. And then I get frustrated because I wasn’t able to communicate what I wanted to communicate. I know, long form writing is not what the kids do these days, email is dead and Google+ is a ghost town.  Whatever. I’ve been told that anything worth saying should be able to be said in a Tweet-sized package, but I just don’t see it. Some ideas are worth more than that.

Which brings me to my second bugbear, the timed “Teachmeet style” presentation where each speaker gets a few minutes to speak and share a tool or idea. (The fact that there is even a “speaker” at what is essentially supposed to be an unconference style event should be the first clue that something is out of whack). For much the same reasons as I struggle with the idea of hashtag chats, I find this is yet another format with a self imposed artificial limitation that can easily ruin the potential value of the content. I don’t know if you recall the historical evolution of this format… the Teachmeet format was originally an unstructured get-together of teachers talking shop and sharing ideas over a few beers at a pub. Then it grew and spread and morphed into a range of formats, until every Teachmeet I go to now uses this same format where each speaker gets a short time limit to share an idea. Originally this time limit idea evolved from the Pucha Kucha style of presenting, but has now grown into being a standard Teachmeet thing.  It’s totally unnecessary. The Pecha Kucha style was designed originally to force presenters into a rigidly structured format – half the fun of giving a Pecha Kucha talk is about meeting the challenge of the format while giving an interesting talk. – but there’s really no reason that Teachmeets should continue to do the same. I agree that having some form of “lightning round” presentations, where you get a strictly timed few minutes to share an idea, can be a lot of fun. I think the 3 minutes Demo Slams at Google Summits can be a good example of this.

But when every Teachmeet becomes nothing but a series of rigid timeslots, it feels to me like we’ve jumped the shark. Making presenters squeeze their ideas into a few minutes might be good for keeping the program moving, but it can be counterproductive to real conversations and authentic sharing of ideas.

Some ideas cannot be distilled down into a soundbite sized presentation. Some ideas take more time, and need an opportunity for questions and deeper reflection. But when the only format for conveying ideas is this kind of short, sharp blast, the only ideas that get talked about are the ones that  fit the format. And I happen to think that there are many ideas worth sharing that need more time, more depth and more nuance than either a 4 minute talk or a 140 character tweet can do justice to. I think we are dumbing down the conversation far too much if this becomes the dominant means of sharing. If I’m going to spend time participating in real conversations with other human beings, I want to hear what they have to say, and not just to hear what they managed to squeeze into an artificially limited timeslot. I think we all deserve better than that.

I’m know I’m supposed to just agree with the status quo and go along with what’s popular. I’ve publicly stated my feelings about both these formats before and have been told all the reasons why I’m wrong. One of my favourite pushbacks is that sharing in this way is still better than not sharing at all. I think that’s a specious argument. Of course it’s better than nothing, but it’s still no replacement for rich, deep conversations or subtle, nuanced sharing of ideas. I’m tired of the shallowness and the superficiality of these formats. I think we can do better, and we can start by reminding ourselves that some ideas are bigger and bolder than a stopwatch or a character limit will allow.

Understand what I’m saying. There is still a place for this kind of rapid-fire sharing, but it should’t be the only place. Right now, every Teachmeet I go to uses this timed format, and the use of hashtag chats on Twitter is more common than ever. By all means, let’s use these formats, but let’s also be aware of their limitations and shortfalls and don’t fall into the dangerous trap of thinking they are the only formats in town.

Featured Public Domain Image – The Witch, No 3,
Wikimedia Commons

 

Dear Twitter… Help!

Sad Twitter BirdI started on Twitter back in February 2007, joining the service as user number 779,452 using the name @betchaboy. At the time, I thought I was already late to the Twitter party but looking back at it now that the number of users has crossed into the billions, I guess that wasn’t the case.

In the time I’ve been part of Twitter, my use of it has grown considerably. As I write this, my Twitter account follows 3,931 people (mostly other educators with a nice mix of others thrown in just to keep in interesting), and there are 8,496 people following me. With over 11,000 tweets since I joined, Twitter has been a big part of my learning for the last 7 years.

Twitter has been an incredibly valuable tool of connection and learning, and has enabled me to be part of conversations and communities that I never would have discovered otherwise. Twitter has, quite literally, been life and career changing for me.  I’ve written quite a few blog posts about Twitter over the years, some of which have been quite widely read. You could say I’m a fan of Twitter.

So here’s the problem…

Twitter had a security breach earlier this year and numerous passwords were compromised, apparently including mine. Now, when I try to access my account on www.twitter.com, it tells me that I have to change my password.

Fair enough. Click the link and it sends me off to do a password reset using either my username, email address or mobile number. The trouble is, no matter which one I use, it doesn’t work. The username and email options are supposed to send me an email so I can reset the password, but no such email arrives (and yes, I’ve checked the spam folder).  Likewise, requesting a password reset using my mobile number is supposed to send me a text, but no text arrives.  After exhausting all these options, I get a note on the screen that says “If you still don’t receive a message in a few minutes, then unfortunately there is nothing else we can do to help you regain access to your account.”

Come onTwitter, you can’t be serious!

To make things even more bizarre, I can still tweet from that @betchaboy account from devices on which I’ve never logged out since the password problem arose, and which are set to remember my password. I can tweet from my iPad, from the Chrome web app of Tweetdeck and from Tweetbot on my Macbook, all of which I have never logged out of since the problem.  However, on new devices I can’t connect, and I can’t connect any app or service that needs to talk to the Twitter API.

I find it really odd that I can tweet from existing devices that remember my  password (presumably the old password) but that I can’t log in with any new devices. And the fact that I can’t retrieve or reset my password and that I’ve written to Twitter Support six times now, all with no response, is just beyond frustrating.

I suppose I could set up a new Twitter account and just start again, but with so much invested into my original Twitter account, I really don’t want to have to do that. My Twitter username, betchaboy, has been very much part of my online identity and digital footprint and I really don’t fancy losing it. And of course, it takes time to develop a large network on Twitter so I definitely don’t want to have to start that process over again if I can avoid it.

Twitter, please, can you help me sort this out? I don’t know why the normal reset processes are not working for me. I don’t understand why I can’t get anyone to respond to a support request made through the proper channels. I’m super frustrated by this whole thing, but I really want to get it sorted out.

If you know someone at Twitter, could you pass this post on to them?  If you have any suggestions, could you let me know. I just want to get it resolved and move on.

Philly to Sydney with Year 2

If you like, you can skip right to the bottom of this post and just watch the video, but I always find the story behind the story kind of interesting. So I thought you  might like to know a little bit about how and why this video was made.

It started out with a simple tweet from my buddy Kim Sivick in Philadelphia.  It started a conversation that went something like this…

Do I know anyone who might make a quick Welcome to Australia video?

I sure do.

And besides, I owe Kim a favour. When I was running blogging workshops with our staff last year I was hoping to tap into the experiences of some very blog-savvy educators by getting them to Skype in and talk to our teachers about the realities and the practicalities of using blogs in the classroom. When I asked for volunteers on Twitter (where else?) Kim Sivick  was one of those who generously responded and agreed to spend time talking with us to share her expertise.

I also got to meet Kim in person at ISTE in Philadelphia last year too, so it was nice to “close the loop” on our virtual meetups.

Kim’s idea was deceptively simple. Get our kids to make a short video about a virtual trip to Australia, and in return her classes would make a video about a virtual trip to Philly for us.

With virtually zero planning, I dropped into one of our Year 2 classrooms and asked the teacher there, Lisa, if her kids would like to make a video for these students in Philly and she jumped at the chance. In no time, Lisa and I had a bit of  a brainstorm on what sorts of things we might do, and she started working with the kids to write a script using GoogleDocs. The script gradually evolved and took shape over the next few days.

I’d been wanting to do some work with chromakeying, or greenscreening for a while, but had just never gotten around to it. It wasn’t something I’d done before, but I suggested to Lisa that if we shot the video of the kids in front of a greenscreen, then it might be fun later to try and drop in the images of various parts of Australia as backgrounds. She thought that sounded pretty cool, so I went to our IT Director and asked if I could buy an inexpensive greenscreen kit. It was one of those things we’d talked about buying for a while, but never quite got around to it. With a reason to need it now, we went online and ordered it on the spot.

When it eventually arrived we set up a date for the shoot. The classroom was transformed into a studio for the morning with lights, camera, and plenty of action. I used iPrompt Pro on my iPad to transfer the script, and then held it up just under the camera lens as a  scrolling teleprompter so the kids could read the script as naturally as possible. We shot it on a Sony HiDef camcorder at 1080i/50. It took a few takes to get things right, but the kids really worked hard to do it was well as possible. Being able to repeat a section over and over in order to get it right was a valuable part of the learning experience.  When it came time to shoot, we all had fun calling out things like “Quiet on the set!” and “Rolling!”  and “Action!”, and running things just like a real movie set. I think the kids had a lot of fun recording it.

I took the footage back to my desk and dumped it all onto my MacBook Pro to ponder out the best way to edit it.  Although I definitely do want to get the kids doing more video work themselves, getting them to edit the footage was not really the learning goal for this particular exercise… it was all about their performance for the camera. After some experiments with iMovie I eventually decided that I’d cut it together with Premiere Pro instead. Premiere Pro was certainly not a program that I knew well, but this seemed like a great chance to get cosy with it. I’m glad I did… it’s a very impressive NLVE tool and I like it a lot more than Final Cut Pro 7.

I always try to make sure we set a good example for students regarding copyright, so it was important that all the background images were available under a Creative Commons licence. I think it’s really important that we demonstrate to our students that you can actually make worthwhile digital media without continually breaking copyright law. All the background images are CC licensed, as are the two pieces of music that I included, both from jamendo.com. The two videos were not released under CC, but using their YouTube contact address I wrote to the owners of both and both were more than happy for us to use their clip. One even offered to send us the hi-def footage! Most people are pretty generous if you just ask. Remember, Copyright doesn’t mean “you can’t use it”, it just means “you can’t use it without permission”, so if it’s not CC, then do the right thing and get permission! It’s just not that hard. (Publishing works under a Creative Commons license makes it much easier of course because it’s essentially an “up-front” permission which is pre-granted as long as you stick to the uses stipulated by the copyright owner)

After a couple of days of editing over the weekend, I did the final render to a 720p .m4v file and uploaded it to YouTube as a private link so the Philly kids (and our kids) could see it the next day.  Here’s the finished product…

It always nice to ceremonialise things that are a bit special, so we set a date for a premiere screening and invited all the Year 2 mums and dads in to watch. When the Year 1 Philadelphia kids watched it, they all wore Aussie bush hats and set up their classroom like the inside of a plane to watch the video.  We had our screening this morning and the movie played to a packed classroom of excited Year 2 students and their parents. Proud parents. Excited kids. Performing for a real audience. Making opportunities to create and practice and iterate. Immediate feedback. And lots of fun and laughs. An authentic learning experience?  You better believe it..

Kim tells me that her kids are working on the sequel for us, showing us their virtual trip to Philadelphia, so we are looking forward to that.

Lisa, our Year 2 teacher, now keeps asking me when we can do our next global project, and is coming up with lots of cool ideas for how it will fit into next terms syllabus.

Overall, I think I’d consider this whole thing a win, wouldn’t you. 🙂

ISTE in less than 140 Characters*

Pennsylvania Convention Centre
It’s been a big few weeks. I’m currently writing this while flying in an Air Canada Boeing 777, seat 40J, somewhere just south of the equator and slightly west of the International Date Line, chasing the sun around the globe on my way back to Sydney.

I’ve been in Canada for much of the last few weeks, visiting our Canadian family and friends, something I wish I could do more often. But for three days I managed to slip away down to Philadelphia PA for my first ISTE conference. If you know me, or read this blog at all, you may know that I tend to get around to a few conferences in various places, but the ISTE Conference (and prior to that, a NECC) has eluded me so far. For whatever reasons, I haven’t been able to get to this event so when the opportunity came up this year I jumped at it. And I’m glad I was able to… it is an amazing event.

In thinking about ISTE 2011 to decide what to blog about it, there are a few notable things to mention, but for me, one really stands out as the highlight.

First, there was the sheer size of it. With (I’m told) 20,000 delegates this year, the scale of ISTE is unlike anything I’ve seen before. Pennsylvania Convention Centre was simply enormous and easily housed the hundreds of exhibitors, vendors, workshops, presentations, displays, poster sessions, and of course, the thousands and thousands of attendees. I don’t know exactly how big the PACC actually is, but it’s huge.
Ed Tech Karaoke with David Wees
Secondly, the number of presentations taking place at any one time was mind boggling. There was so much choice, so many options, it was hard to know where to be. I only attended a few actual presentations, but the quality of the presenters and the information was very good. Whether your interest was in learning about the various edtech tools, in hearing about new pedagogical approaches, or finding out about new ideas for what works in today’s classrooms, there was something for everyone. Some sessions were huge, like the keynotes with 6000+ people, to presentations with a few hundred, to classroom-sized workshops, to poster session conversations; the choice available through the organized sessions was astounding.

There were also the fun events too. The Google Party held at the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, held among the dinosaur bones and the fluttering butterflies, was great fun, and being invited to the invitation only Google Certified Teacher cocktail party beforehand was pretty special. The Edtech Karaoke Party the next night (#etk11), where we all had a few drinks and got up and sang, was one of those events I’m sure I’ll remember for a very long time.
Leigh Zeitz and I
But the thing that really made the ISTE event most valuable for me was the opportunity to meet and mix in person with the people in my PLN. It was, as someone observed, like having your RSS reader come to life. I was constantly bumping into people I knew, whose blogs I read, who appear daily in my Twitter stream, whose YouTube videos I’ve watched. Some I’d met before, but most I had only ever known online.

As you’ve probably experienced yourself, the best parts of most conferences are the serendipitous conversations, bumping into people in the corridor, having a chance to chat face to face. For me, ISTE was all about the people I met.

After the conference was over, I jotted down a list of all the people I’d had a conversation with over the previous three days, and the size of the list surprised me. In no particular order (other than that dictated by my slowly deteriorating memory!) here is a list of all the characters I met, chatted with, or had a meaningful conversation with over the three days I was at ISTE…

The (less than) 140 Characters

Me, Mike Gras and Paul R Wood
Paul R Wood @prwood
Mike Gras @mikegras
David Warlick @dwarlick
David Jakes @djakes
Sharon Peters @speters
Amanda Marrinan @marragem
Roger Pryor @pryorcommitment
Wes Fryer @wfryer
Jason Arruza @jarruza
Vinnie Vrotny @vvrotny
Martin Levins @levins
Angela Maiers @angelamaiers
Kevin Honeycutt @kevinhoneycutt
Carl Anderson @anderscj
Holly Hammonds @libraryquest
Angela MaiersLinda Swanner @lswanner1
Melanie Burford @mwburford
Lisa Neilsen @InnovativeEdu
Dvora Geller @teachdig
Mark Wagner @markwagner
Nancye Blair @engagingEDU
Lisa Thumann @lthumann
Wendy Gorton @wendygorton
Cathy Brophy @brophycat
Paula White @paulawhite
Erin Barrett @erinbarrett
Charlene Chausis @cchausis
Cheri Toledo @cheritoledo
Karen Fasimpaur @kfasimpaur
David Wees @davidwees
Wes and ILeigh Zeitz @zeitz
Brian C Smith @briancsmith
Roland Gesthuizen @rgesthuizen
Marg Lloyd @?
Tony Brandenberg @tbrandenburg
JamieLynn Griffith @jgriffith2
Steve Hargadon@stevehargadon
Beth Still @BethStill
Christopher Craft @crafty184
Maria Knee @mariaknee
Molly Schroeder @followmolly
Dean Shareski @shareski
Julie Lindsay @julielindsay
Lisa Parisi @lisaparisi
Diana Laufenberg @dlaufenberg
Brian Crosby, Lisa Parisi, Sharon Peters and IEllen Sheerin @esheerin
Chris Walsh @chriswalsh
Adrian Camm @adrian_camm
Tom Petra @RealWorldMath
Pete Moran @pjmctm2010
Brian Crosby @bcrosby
Maurice Cummins @mauricecummins
Jennifer Garcia @mrsjgarcia
Ginger Lewman @GingerTPLC
Alice Barr @alicebarr
Susan van Gelder @susanvg
Dean Muntz @?
Diane Main @dowbiggin
Benjamin Grey @bengrey
Kim Sivick and IKim Sivick @ksivick
Becky Crawford @Becstr9
Scott McLeod @mcleod
Bethany Smith @bethanyvsmith
Sam Gliksman @SamGliksman
Rob Griffith @rgriffithjr
Gail Lovely @glovely
Henry Theile @htheile
Chris Lehmann @chrislehmann
Bud Hunt @budtheteacher
Gary Stager @stager
Jim Marshall (Promethean)
Frank Augustino (Luidia)
Jason Orbaugh (Smart Tech)
Maria Knee and IJohann Zimmern (Adobe)
Adam Frey (Wikispaces)
Anita L’Enfant @anita_lenfant
Paul Fuller @paulfuller75
Linda Dickerson @?
Kyle Pace @kylepace
Michelle Baldwin @michellek107
Steve Dembo @teach42
Robin Ellis @robinellis
Dorothy Burt @dorothyjburt
George Couros @gcouros
Liz B Davis @lizbdavis
Kelly Dumont @kdumont
Kristina Peters @mrskmpeters
Alfred Thompson @alfredtwo
Bernie Dodge @berniedodge
Pamela Livingstone @plivings
Jason and Dawn (from Wisconsin, not sure of last names, met them on the train back to PHL airport)

That’s nearly 100 people and nearly 100 great conversations. (*I was aiming for 140… there were actually about 120 people on my original list but thanks to the lack of an undelete feature in Pages on the iPad, I lost a bunch names that I now just can’t recall! Grr! My apologies if I left you off the list!)

I think it just goes to show that the real power of an event like ISTE is in the people you meet and the conversations you have. That’s where the real connections are made and strengthened. Between the catch-ups with people I already knew quite well – like some of this year’s significant Aussie contingent – through to the folk I have previously met in the past, to the many who I have only ever known through our online connections, meeting in person and having the chance to connect and share and talk was what made ISTE truly priceless for me.

Thanks for being part of my network! See you in San Diego next year?

PS: If I have missed your name, or was unable to include your Twitter contact, please let me know so I can include it.

*PPS: Apologies (or thanks) to @lasic for the idea of the name for this post

Mining for Meaning with ThinkUp

Judging from the blog comments and the @replies and the RTs on Twitter, it seems that my last blog post really resonated with a few people.  Apparently I’m not the only one who sees both the enormous value of Twitter as a social networking tool, and also a level of frustration with people who dismiss it too quickly for all the wrong reasons.

Here’s another tip about Twitter than can exponentially improve its usefulness. But be warned it’s a little geeky, and if you want to set it up for yourself it will require a certain level of technical know-how. But if you can work it out, it opens up lots of possibilities for Twitter power users and anyone who just loves playing with data.

The tool is called ThinkUp, and is an open source project led by Gina Trapani (who some of you might recognise as the founder of LifeHacker, and a regular guest on the TWiT network’s This Week in Google). Among other things, Gina is a web developer who’s been working on building tools to help mine the wealth of information that flows through the tweetstream.

To install ThinkUp you need access to the back end of a webserver and the ability to set up and connect PHP pages with a MySQL database. You’ll need to be able to manage the database access and FTP files onto the server, so this is probably not the sort of thing you should try unless you run your own (or a hosted) server. But if you can get it set up, it’s pretty interesting.

ThinkUp connects to your Twitter account using all the usual APIs but then tracks, monitors and archives a copy of your Twitter activity into your own database. If you take Twitter seriously as a tool, this is important because you normally have no way to permanently archive and capture your own Twitter activity. It normally resides on Twitter’s servers and is fairly ephemeral – once a Tweet is gone it’s gone, or at least it’s usually too hard to retrieve.  Finding a Tweet that you wrote, or the responses you might have received to it, can be difficult once the moment has passed. Trying to dig up a Twitter conversation from six months ago can be near impossible.

What ThinkUp does is to archive and organise your Tweets in your own database and provide you with tools to make more sense of them. One of the most useful things is to aggregate the replies to a question I may have asked on Twitter. Here’s an example… I recently sat in a meeting at school where we were talking about the challenge we were facing with kids keeping their laptops charged, and someone asked “I wonder how other schools handle this issue?”  While sitting in the meeting I Tweeted out the question and within minutes the replies started to come back in from all over the world.

The next day I had about 20 replies to the question, and while those replies were useful, the way Twitter normally works makes those replies hard to see in aggregate form – they were scattered all over the previous 24 hours of the public Tweetstream. With ThinkUp however, the replies to the original question can be brought together in one place, providing an easy to read Q&A type page with it’s own URL. Thanks to Twitter I was able to get a broad range of responses to the question, but because of ThinkUp I was able to get a clearer insight into what that response thread was actually trying to tell me. It also gave me an easy way to share that insight with my colleagues via a single URL.

From your ThinkUp homepage you can browse a range of interesting views of your Twitter data, such as…

  • The week’s most replied to posts
  • The week’s most retweeted posts
  • Graphs to show your follower count trends
  • Graphs to show where and how you tweet
  • Inquiries (a collated list of all your Tweets that contained a question mark)
  • Most replied-to Tweets
  • Most retweeted Tweets
  • Mentions (anything that contains an @ reply to you)
  • Conversations (and exchange between you an another user)
  • Chatterboxes (people you follow who post a lot)
  • Deadbeats (people you follow who hardly ever post)
  • All your favourite tweets in one place
  • Tweets that contained URLs
  • Tweets that contained pictures

and much more.

Next to each tweet are numbers to indicate how many times it has been replied to or retweeted. Clicking on the number takes you to a page listing all the details. On some pages you can even see a Google map that show the geographic locations of where each tweet originated (I’m having a bit of trouble making this bit work on mine but it’s a neat idea!) Update: It’s mostly working now!

As you can see, over time you’ll end up with an enormous amount of data in there. But because it’ all now in your own database, that YOU manage, you have full control over it. As you should… after all, it’s YOUR data. But what makes it all so much more useful is the way you can mine this data for meaning, because it’s in the mining for meaning that real insight about the data starts to emerge.

You can find my own ThinkUp page at http://chrisbetcher.com/thinkup. If you want to try ThinkUp for yourself but can’t install it on your own server, just make yourself an account on mine (by clicking the Log In link then click Register.)  I’ll leave the site registrable for a few days for anyone who wants to try it out.

 

Tiny Bursts of Learning

Despite the fact that I know many teachers who would rank Twitter as the most valuable and powerful networking tool they have access to, there are still many more who simply don’t “get” the value of Twitter. I’ve been to lots of conferences over the last few years where the enormous value of belonging to a Personal Learning Network was being touted, and Twitter is nearly always being suggested as the ideal tool for building that network. At one recent conference I asked for a show of hands for who was not yet on Twitter, and many hands went up… my response was “Why not? What are you waiting for? How many times do you need to hear people say that Twitter is the most valuable tool they have, before you actually try it for yourself?”

I spoke to a group of preservice teachers recently who were basically told by their lecturers that they needed to join Twitter. Despite the fact that it was being promoted to them as a powerful way to learn and network with others, most of them seemed to join up simply because it was part of their assessment requirement.  Because they joined Twitter “under duress”, I don’t expect them to actually buy into it, use it well, or continue to use it past the mandated requirement to use it.  And that’s a bit of a shame.

In contrast to all this is the general sentiment among many teachers that “we need more PD!”, or the always-amusing “How can they expect us to learn new things if all we get is a few PD days a year?”

If you still believe that professional development is what happens on those two or three days each year when you sit in a classroom and have some expert “deliver” it to you, I have bad news. That model is no longer sustainable and the days of PD as something that is done “to you” by “experts” a couple of times a year are over.

Learning needs to be ongoing. The world is changing. There are new tools that can help students learn, new ideas about learning, new brain research, new emerging technologies, new social structures, and so on… to think that you can maintain a professional outlook by attending two or three PD workshops a year is almost laughable. To keep up with new learning, you really need to be plugged in to an ongoing source of professional discourse and resource sharing. It needs to be something that happens regularly, at least several times a week. Like so many other aspects of the 21st Century, some of the “ways we’ve always done things” don’t really cut it anymore.

So how can something at simple as Twitter possibly be used to stay professionally current?

How I use my Twitter PLN to learn

I’ve been keeping an eye on my Twitter stream for the past 10 minutes or so. Using the Twitter app for Mac, it sits in a narrow vertical window on the right side of my screen and as the people I follow add their tweets they flow by in a steady stream that updates every few moments. How fast this flow happens is obviously dependent on how many people you follow… I follow about 2600 people, so it tends to be a pretty steady stream of tweets, but yours might be more or less. Occasionally I glance at this “stream of (networked) consciousness” and spot little gems that look interesting.

For example in the last ten minutes I’ve spotted the following things…

…to name but a few.

In the same 10 minutes worth of tweets, I also responded to a couple of questions from other people that I felt I could help them with, saw a funny story about Moodle, watched an amusing exchange between some people I know, and ended up getting invited into an Elluminate session about developing Moodle courseware.

Just ten minutes. Even just skimming through that list of things would give me more relevant PD than most teachers get exposed to in a whole year. And those of us who use Twitter in this way are able to tap this stream of information any time we like.

(I hope you also noticed that I still don’t know what Ashton Kutcher had for lunch, or what crazy antics Charlie Sheen is up to. I don’t care about that stuff, so I don’t follow those people, so I don’t see those tweets. Twitter works because you get to make choices about who is part of your network.  You create relevance for yourself.)

Now, before you assume that I spend my whole day getting sidetracked by Twitter, let me assure you that’s not the case.  I’m telling you about this 10 minute slice of time to make the point that Twitter, when you build a network of relevant people, is an amazingly rich sources of ideas, inspiration and connections.

I don’t read every tweet. I don’t follow every link. I let most of the tweetstream just flow by me, only dipping into it if I get a moment. If I spot something interesting I hit the star to favorite it and come back to it later. If anything really good turns up in the stream and I miss it, it gets retweeted over and over so the chance of me seeing it is still pretty good.  But mostly it’s just there, flowing by, ready for me to dip into it and pull out a few gems whenever i have a moment. Do that every day and pretty soon you have a substantial body of PD building up.

I understand why people find it hard to get their head around Twitter.  I understand why people are still skeptical when they hear others say things like “Twitter is the best PD you can get!”  It sounds like complete hyperbole… How on earth can a random collection of short messages from strangers possibly compete with professionally organised training and PD sessions?

It competes because it’s more relevant, more timely, ongoing, interactive, daily and personal. Traditional PD just can’t offer all that.

If you’re one of those people who resist Twitter because it just doesn’t seem logical, please just suspend your doubt and give it a go. Don’t just join and do nothing; give it a proper go. Follow a bunch of relevant people – at least 50 or 60 – get a decent Twitter client, and open yourself to the possibilities of what a network offers. You won’t regret it.

Coincidence or Connection?

One of the things that my American friends are always very proud of is that they claim to live in a country where dreams can come true and where everyone has an equal opportunity of success. They call it “The American Dream” and all over America young children are told that anyone – even them – has the opportunity to grow up and become president one day.

Of course, if you’re a young American, the reality is that while anyone can potentially become president, the probability of it actually happening to you is somewhere around 1 in 307,006,550 (which is roughly the number of people living in the USA at the moment). So while you possibly could become president, it’s far, far, far more likely that you won’t be!

If you did happen to somehow end up as the President of the United States, the odds get even more staggeringly unlikely that your son or daughter will also become president. Mathematically, the chances of two people from the same family both becoming President of the USA are around 1 in 9.42530217 × 1016, or, as my math teacher friend Darren Kuropatwa likes to call it, zero. While both people may have the same opportunity as anyone else, the statistical likelihood that two people from the same family will both end up holding the office of president starts to become so unlikely that you might as well call it impossible.

Yet, we all know that this has indeed happened in the past. George Bush Sr held the top US job between 1989 and 1993, and then his son George W Bush held the same position from 2001 to 2009. The odds of two people from the same family both reaching the office of President are very, very unlikely, yet it happened.

And this is not the first time it’s happened. Back in 1797, John Adams earned the US presidency and then his son John Quincy Adams took on the same position in 1825. And let’s also not forget William Henry Harrison, who became president in 1841, and then 41 years later so did his grandson Benjamin Harrison. What’s going on here? How can something so unlikely keep happening multiple times?

It’s not just politics either, it happens in other fields of endeavour as well. In sports, the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have done a similar thing, with both of them being ranked as the number one female tennis player in the world at various times. The statistical likelihood of getting to be the world’s best at anything may seem unlikely, but the chance of two from the same family should be nearly impossible.

Australian readers will remember the Waugh brothers who played cricket for Australia back in the 90s. Like becoming president, becoming an elite athlete is hard work and requires a great deal of focus, dedication and effort. Rising to a world class level is highly competitive and although many try to get there, few actually do. And yet Mark, Steve and Dean Waugh bucked the odds when all three brothers from the same working class family in southwestern Sydney ended up representing their country in cricket. The chances of one of the brothers playing cricket at the elite level is slim, but you’d imagine that the chance of all three of the boys doing it would be near impossible.

And yet, these things do actually happens far more often than you might think. You don’t have to look too far to find plenty of examples of people from the same family, group, team, organisation or school achieving significant unlikely success together. If you just look at it from the perspective of statistical probability, getting multiple people from the same family or group or school to succeed at a high level might seem unlikely to happen, and yet it does happen with surprising frequency. So what’s going on here? Are some people just in the right place at the right time? Are they just lucky? Or is there something else going on?

When you stop and think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. Although it may seem almost paradoxical at first, the notion that your own performance can be raised up by the associations and connections you create with those around you in the same field is really not all that surprising. When Venus improved her game, it probably spurred Serena on as well. When Serena learned to improve her serving technique she probably passed on some of that learning to Venus. Being around other people who are achieving excellence doesn’t reduce the likelihood that you’ll learn from them, it dramatically improves it!

If you know someone who has reached the top of their chosen field, and you spend a lot of time with that person, it usually makes it more likely that you will succeed, not less. You get to share their passion and their enthusiasm, which often drives your own passion and enthusiasm forward as well. You get to learn from them, which helps you avoid some of their mistakes while benefiting from their experience. You can get caught up in their competitiveness, which often drives you to be better, to try harder, to practise a little longer. Despite the apparent odds of more than one person succeeding at an elite level, it would seem that associating with like minded people who share your passions dramatically improves your own chances of success. As any sports star will tell you, the best way to improve is to regularly play with other good players.

How does this principle apply to you as an educator? What are the associations and connections you surround yourself with? Who are the people you associate with and learn from? How do you get to be part of an “all star team” that can drive your own learning and professionalism forward?

I’d suggest that the analog for committed educators is to development a strong Professional Learning Network, or PLN. I’m sure that those of us who are connected through tools like Twitter, the blogosphere, Skype, etc, can attest to the remarkable difference it makes. Not just a little bit, but an enormous amount. Being connected to the right people, being part of the right networks, sharing ideas and conversations with the right people… I would rate the idea of being a “connected educator” as the single most crucial thing you can do for your own ongoing professional development.

This all struck me as I was sitting in a meeting in Melbourne today with a group of leading Australian teachers. Many of them I consider to be some of the best educators I know. Many have enormous wisdom about teaching, about learning, about education, about schooling, about educational technology, about being an effective and fluent citizen of the 21st century. In short, these were a bunch of fine educational minds. At one point, it was noted that although many of us had never met in person before, we already shared many connections and the fact was cited that nearly all the people in the room were active members of the OzTeachers List (one of the longest running and most active educational online communities in the world).

Someone commented that it was quite a coincidence that, in a room full of leading educators, so many were all OzTeachers members. To which I would respond, it’s not a coincidence at all. In fact, it’s more likely the whole reason we were there in the first place. This was not a room full of random teachers who, surprise, surprise, all happened to belong to the same online community. Out of this “random” group of teachers, virtually everyone there could claim to be part of numerous shared networks of connection; ADEs, GCTs, Edubloggers, Classroom 2.0ers, Twitterers… The room was full of people who already knew each other from online networks. Coincidence? I think not.

This was a room of teachers who were already connected in numerous networked ways, and it was undoubtedly these connections that were the very reason they were asked to be there in the first place. It’s through being connected, belonging to shared communities of practice and being part of each other’s professional learning networks that makes leaders, not the other way around.

It drives me crazy when I meet teachers who continually resist the idea of belonging to online networks of like-minded educators. Like so many others in that room in Melbourne (and around the world in many other networks of connection) I know the undeniable value of being connected to others, of sharing ideas, of speaking a common language. I know what an amazing difference it makes when you expose yourself to a steady stream of innovative ideas, resources and people. Being connected to other passionate people exposes you to more good ideas in a single day than most unconnected educators will stumble across in a year. I honestly believe that being connected to others is the single best thing you can do for yourself and your own professional growth. As Steven Johnson says, “Chance favours the connected mind”.

So if you’re already a connected educator, congratulations… I’m sure you can attest to what a huge difference it makes in your own professional life. If you’re not, then maybe it’s time to finally bite the bullet and do it.

I’m sure Venus and Serena would agree.

Photo by emmettanderson