IT Infrastructure

Educators Test the Limits of Twitter Microblogging Tool

By Katie Ash — June 25, 2008 5 min read
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The microblogging and social-networking Web site Twitter has begun to capture the attention of educators as some ed-tech enthusiasts try to harness its potential—both as a classroom tool for students and as a way to connect education colleagues.

Launched in 2006, Twitter invites users to sign up for a free online account, find friends and colleagues to follow, and publish short updates, or “tweets,” of 140 or fewer characters to send to their networks. The users’ accounts are then updated with tweets from those they have chosen to follow, which the users can check online or have forwarded to a mobile device, such as a cellphone. Users may choose to have all tweets forwarded to their cellphones as text messages or select just a few accounts to receive on a mobile device. They can also update their own Twitter accounts through text messages from their cellphones.

The 140-character limit forces users to be brief, and many use their accounts to post links that may be of interest to friends, family, and colleagues. Some teachers have begun to explore ways to use Twitter with their students.

George Mayo, an 8th grade English teacher at the 780-student Silver Spring International Middle School in Montgomery County, Md., recently used Twitter as a platform for a collaborative story written by his students.

“One of my goals was to try and collaborate online,” says Mayo. But after spending some time exploring the use of blogs for collaboration, Mayo instead turned to Twitter. “That was my avenue into online-collaboration projects,” he says.

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Mayo created a Twitter account called Many Voices and invited his students, and students around the world, to add a sentence or two to the ongoing story through tweets. Within six weeks, the rolling story, written 140 characters at a time, was finished—with the help of more than 100 students in six different countries.

“It was incredibly simple and really amazing,” says Mayo. “My students and I would come in, and suddenly kids in China had written a chapter for the book.”

Mayo then used a self-publishing Web site to print the book, a suspenseful science-fiction story about a mermaid-turned-human, and make it available as a free download for his students.

‘Safe for Kids’

But even Mayo says that Twitter has limitations for classroom use.

For his project, he created one account and gave out the password, rather than have students set up their own separate accounts, over which he would have no control. “The only reason I was able to use it was because it was teacher-controlled,” he says. “I don’t think Twitter would be appropriate for unleashing on students.”

Paul R. Allison, a teacher at the East Bronx Academy for the Future in the 1.1 million-student New York City public schools and the technology liaison for the New York City Writing Project, which aims to improve the literacy and writing skills of New York City students through professional development for teachers, was also intrigued by Twitter. But he felt uncomfortable with the lack of control for teachers—a concern that has led many districts to block the Web site altogether. Consequently, he built a site in January called Youth Twitter, which allows teachers to edit students’ tweets by granting them “administrator” status

“What we’re trying to create here is a space that looks like Twitter and acts like Twitter, but you’ll be able to make the argument that it’s safe for kids,” Allison says. With Youth Twitter, which is actually powered by the Wordpress blogging platform, teachers can fix broken links or take down inappropriate comments. Allison hopes the teacher controls will allow educators to feel comfortable using the Twitter platform and to take advantage of its educational benefits.

‘Cross-Curricular Tool’

Allison aims to keep the Web site as open as possible, at least in its scope.

“We were trying not to have a [specific] purpose for it,” he says.

So far, students have used Youth Twitter to post links to online projects, respond to questions posed by teachers, and interact with other students.

“Getting a response [from an online audience] for our kids is often difficult [using blogs],” says Allison. “This is a way to create a community of kids who then will write the longer pieces [like blog posts] for each other.”

Denise R. Legore, a former 5th grade teacher at West Central Elementary School in Joplin, Mo., who recently became the school’s principal, has had positive experiences using both Twitter and Youth Twitter, although she thinks Youth Twitter has many advantages for use in classrooms because of its teacher controls. She has used Youth Twitter as a way to have students respond to prompts or questions she poses and to provide feedback on other students’ online projects.

“[This] is a cross-curricular tool that can be used in a variety of ways,” Legore says. “I know I am just touching on the tip of the iceberg in the ways I am incorporating it within my classroom.”

Using Twitter with students also teaches important 21st-century skills, says David Parry, an assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Texas at Dallas.

“The citizens of the future are going to have to learn how to participate in these writing mechanisms,” he says. Learning used to center around memorizing facts, says Parry, but now “it’s a matter of learning how to navigate information.”

“In that regard, Twitter is really important,” he says.

Networking Tool

Perhaps the greatest value of Twitter, though, lies in the opportunity it provides for educators to network with other educators.

Lucy Gray, the lead technology coach for the Center for Urban School Improvement at the University of Chicago, uses Twitter to spread the word about upcoming ed-tech events she is attending, promote her seminars and workshops, share new ideas and best practices, follow ed-tech experts, and learn about new tools from educators around the world. She currently follows almost 1,000 people.

“The flow is fairly fast,” she says, “but the idea is that you don’t have to monitor every single thing that every single person says. I can look for five minutes and invariably I find something valuable.”

Gray encourages Twitter users to keep their audience in mind, however, when posting new tweets, especially if they have a large number of followers. For example, tweets about sitting at a coffee shop drinking a latte may not be appropriate for a professional audience and could clutter up other people’s Twitter pages, Gray says.

An overload of inane or irrelevant tweets is the top criticism of Twitter, according to EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit organization that promotes the use of technology in education.

Despite the drawbacks, Twitter has the potential to be a powerful professional-development tool, says Mayo, from Maryland’s Silver Spring International School.

“I’ve really grown as a teacher through all my interaction with [other educators] through Twitter,” he says. “It’s constantly showing [me] new tools and better ways of doing things. I’m constantly learning new things about using technology.”

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