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.

The Wisdom of Leo

I’m a big fan of Leo Laporte.  Leo is best known these days for running the TWiT network (This Week in Tech), a podcasting empire that publishes more than a dozen excellent tech podcasts like MacBreak Weekly, This Week in Tech, This Week in Google, FLOSS Weekly, Windows Weekly, Net@Night and quite a few others, but he comes from a background in traditional radio and TV media. Leo has a wonderful, easy-to-listen-to manner, has his finger on the pulse of the tech industry better than anyone I know, and is always covering the latest, most interesting stories in tech.  It’s easy to stay current with the latest tech goings-on just by listening to one (or more) of his podcasts. I listen to at least three of them reguarly, and others when I have more time… my drive to work just wouldn’t be the same without Leo!

This clip is a recording of a live stream from a talk given by Leo to the Online News Association Conference in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago.  It goes for about 40 minutes, but if you’re looking for some excellent explanations of how and why the media landscape is changing, you really should take a listen to what he has to say.

Some of my favourite quotes from this talk:

On the economics of online advertising: If you think the newspapers and the television stations are in trouble now, just wait a few years, because Facebook and Google offer advertisers the holy grail. When you buy an ad on those platforms, you’re buying an ad from somebody who is interested in buying your product. They’re pre-qualified. Yeah, I can get 18 million on Seinfeld, but I have to pay for 18 million – I only want to talk to 100,000.  On Facebook and Google I get that 100,000 and no more.  It’s hugely valuable, and they’re not going to pay these princely sums for these audiences anymore.  That model is dead.”

On the future of traditional media: “Newspapers were invented to distribute display ads, and they just stuck some stuff in between the display ads. As soon as display ads don’t work, which they’re not, it’s going to go away… (newspapers) will be the realm of the rich person.  We’ve seen revolutions like this before. When Gutenberg invented movable type in the 15th century, before that, only the very rich could afford a book because it had to be hand-written by a monk. The printing press made all this accessible. Did it kill books?  No, but it changed fundamentally what a book is.  So if you look really short term, yeah TV didn’t kill radio or the movies, we still have all that… but I think we are in a much more fundamental transition… Will blockbuster movies go away? Probably not, but I think you’re going to start to see far more small films created by kids with digital cameras.  This YouTube generation is going to change everything.  I think way we understand movies, the way we understand newspapers is going to go away.”

On the role of Twitter: “Twitter is brilliant, but I think it’s just the first iteration of what will eventually be an internet nervous system that you’ll be plugged into, and the zeitgeist will flow around you at all times. I think there’s better ways to do it than Twitter.  I think we participate in it as journalists… we’re actually the input, we’re the ones who are putting content into it, and then people stir it and churn it around.  Twitter is at it’s best, not when you say ‘I had toast for breakfast’, but when you say ‘Did you read this great article?’  If you really use Twitter properly, if you check it regularly, you don’t have any fear any more that you’re going to miss something, do you? Because you just know. If you follow the right people, the stuff you care about, you just know.”

On getting attention online: “The science fiction author Howard Sturgeon said ‘80% of everything is crap’, and I think there’s some of you right now that might say it’s more like 99% of everything is crap. There’s all this stuff now, and how does stuff surface. I believe that the 1% of the great stuff will just surface.  As this internet nervous system gets more developed, word of mouth becomes more efficient and great stuff rises. Soon, you will no longer be able to use mainstream media as a launching pad. The answer, I think now, is the same as it should always have been – the best content. The way to get good is by doing great stuff. Do the best stuff you can, do the stuff you care the most about so that your passion shines through, because people love it when you’re passionate.  And if your passion shines through and you’re doing great stuff, I believe that this new internet nervous system will surface you. So yeah, there’s a lot of crappy YouTube videos, there’s a lot of stupid Twitterers – there’s a lot of crap, there’s more crap than ever before – but at the same time, there’s more great stuff than ever before.  Just do good stuff.”

As an educator, I think that last quote contains the real truth that we need to be encouraging out of our students, ourselves and our colleagues. “Do the best stuff you can, do the stuff you care the most about so that your passion shines through, because people love it when you’re passionate.”

Thanks Leo.

ULearn 09, Day 1

So here I am in Christchurch, New Zealand for Ulearn 09, certainly one of the biggest Ed Tech conferences in NZ, and probably one of the biggest in the southern hemisphere I would think. It’s a education conference that I’ve wanted to attend for the last few years, having only ever heard good things about it, but for whatever reason I just haven’t been able to get here for it.  This year was different, and after hearing how good it was from my work colleague, @sirchriss, I was very keen to get here. Fortunately, a number of Australian educators were sponsored to attend the event this year and I was lucky enough to have my presentation submissions accepted, so here I am.

It really is a beautiful part of the world, and Christchurch is a very attractive city.  The conference itself is quite large, with close to 2000 delegates, 400+ workshops and presentations, 150 support staff and over 60 vendors.  The logistical effort to plan and host a conference of this scale is significant and the organisers do an amazing job.

I got up early enough this morning to attend the Powhiri, a kind of Maori welcoming ceremony.  I’m constantly struck by the energy and pride of the Maori people, and think it’s wonderful that the two cultures of New Zealand, the traditional and the contemporary, exist together in such harmony and respect for each other.  This is a country that really values their indigenous people.

But mainly, today has been full of meeting people. Many of them for the first time (although I felt like I’ve known many of them for a long time.) I bumped into @janenicholls at the Powhiri, and then during the day I kept meeting more and more people who looked just like their Twitter avatars. “Hey, you’re @moodlegirl!” or “Hey, you’re @keamac!”, “Hey you’re @dwenmoth!”, etc, etc. Then of course there was the reconnecting with people I have met before, people like @rachelboyd, @allanahk and @dragon09. I also attended the unconference session in the afternoon at Boaters, where I got to meet many others and to take part in some powerful conversations.  I really enjoyed the unconference – really just a very informal gathering to chat about whatever topics came up – and I got a lot out of it.

After the unconference, I met up with Matt from Core-Ed to record a short video interview as part of the Edtalks series.  This is another terrific NZ initiative, and involves recording short video interviews with leading teachers about some of the things they are doing with technology to make learning more engaging for the kids they teach. Over time the Edtalks video library has grown to become a valuable collection of good ideas and best practice for other teachers, and it was a bit of an honour to be asked to make a contribution to it.

Tonight, I went to the dinner with about 40 other conference folk, where I met still more people that looked a lot like their avatars.  More conversations, more great ideas exchanged, more opportunities to hear about how other people approach this incredible job called teaching. Likewise, I had a few people say to me today, “Hey, you’re @betchaboy!” as though there was almost a sense of celebrity to it for them. It’s really, really weird. After having a day full of these “Hey, you’re @that_person” moments, it made me think about how funny it is that we have these little “celebrity” moments when we meet someone that we’ve only ever know from the online world, especially if it’s just from reading their blogs, following them on Twitter or hearing their podcasts. I mean, we are all “just” teachers, and yet there is that glimmer of excitement when meeting each other for the first time.

It reminded me of an Intel ad currently screening on TV back in Australia, where Ajay Bhatt, the co-inventor of the USB, walks into a room full of “fans”. The ad concludes with a great one liner that kind of sums up the experience I had in meeting people today… I won’t ruin the line by telling you what it is, you can watch it for yourself…

Andy Warhol once said that everyone will get their 15 minutes of fame.  Maybe with the rise of global social networks, extensive personal learning networks and the notion of “celebrity” now existing way out on the edge of the long tail, we’ll all just want to get our 15 minutes of obscurity instead?

Looking forward to Day 2 tomorrow…

Technorati Tags: ulearn, ulearn09

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

You are what you Tweet

Someone once said to me that if you do something once, it’s an accident. Do it twice and it’s a coincidence.  Do it three or more times and that’s just the way you’re living. The underlying message is that if you repeat something enough, then the patterns of use start to tell their own story. Your repeated activity starts to build up into a pattern of use and looking at those patterns can often give insights into the activity that are not apparent by looking at the individual instances of the activity.

This idea of allowing data to “rest where it lays” and deriving insights from it is essentially the idea behind tag clouds, whose patterns reflect repeated use of words, tags, keywords or ideas.  If you look at someone’s Delicious tag cloud and see the patterns emerging in the form of highlighted, emphasised words, then you see a clear indication of what interests that person.  The more they bookmark using tags, the more evident their interests.  The numbers don’t lie when there are enough of them.

if you aggregate enough tag clouds you start to get an insight into the “patterns of the patterns” – you see not just the interests of individuals emerging, but the interests of the group. This is the whole notion of a folksonomy, and it taps into the fascinating concept of the “wisdom of the crowds”.  Data, especially when you have enough of it to form reliable patterns, starts to become very interesting.

In the same spirit, I was a little intriugued by a twitter app I saw today, called TweetPsych.  TweetPsych looks at the contents of your last 1000 messages on Twitter, analyses the words you use and the way your sentences are constructed, and tries to draw conclusions about what you do, what interests you, and what sort of person you might be – psychologically speaking.  I’ve no idea how accurate it might be, but it’s an interesting idea. I’ll be honest and admit to you that I have absolutely no idea what they really mean, but here’s my results anyway… http://tweetpsych.com/?name=betchaboy.

Regardless of whether TweetPsych is accurate and up to scratch just yet or not, I think it signals an interesting development in what is sure to become a much bigger deal.  The notion that some level of machine intelligence can be derived from an analysis of massive amounts of our online footprints.  We are all leaving massive amounts of data behind us as we trawl around the Net, and somewhere in that trail of data there are machines piecing together an accurate picture of us… what we like, where we go on holidays, who we talk to, what our preferences are, and so on.  It’s not a new idea – Google’s entire advertising strategy is based on the concept of knowing more and more about you – but seeing TweetPsych’s attempt at psychoanalysing me from these 140 character snippets of my thoughts just threw it into a new light.

Let’s just hope that this data can be put to use in positive, creative ways that help enhance our lives.

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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/14829735@N00/360683898

The Twouble with Twitter

Sorry Twitter… I really like you and all, but this little video has quite a bit of truth to it. Funny too!

Did I mention that someone I know sends out tweets, on average, including sleep time, every 8 – 10 minutes? Needless to say, I don’t actually follow them.