When Tom Barrett, a 4th grade teacher in Nottinghamshire, England, wanted to spice up a math lesson on probability, he didn’t turn to his department colleagues or a professional organization. Instead, he looked to the micro-blogging tool Twitter. Before class, he sent out a message to his followers on Twitter, asking them to report the chance of snow that day in their area. Barrett received answers from more than 20 people by the time the lesson started, with more rolling in during class.
The responses came from Australia, Scotland, Korea, the U.S., and elsewhere, providing a variety of probability data to work with. As a bonus, many of the responses used regional phrases (such as “buckley’s mate” from an Australian, meaning “no chance”) that Barrett employed as an opening to talk to his students about vocabulary and geography.
“I was delighted to use this networking technology in this way and it was great to finally execute what I had long conceived to be possible in my head,” Barrett wrote on his blog, ICT in the Classroom. “The lesson was so much richer for the carefully planned introduction of Twitter responses.”
Barrett is not alone. A growing number of teachers are using Twitter—the oft-derided social networking platform on which participants share text dispatches of no more than 140 characters—to connect with colleagues from around the world and generate ideas for teaching and professional growth.
Better than Google?
“At its simplest level Twitter is a resource for sharing things quickly,” says Bill Ferriter, a 6th grade social studies teacher at Salem Middle School in Raleigh, N.C., and author of the popular blog The Tempered Radical. “I follow teachers who teach similar grade levels or teachers who have similar interests as I do. I follow some middle school teachers, [some] ed tech folks.”
Ferriter says Twitter has become a regular part of his planning process. “Twitter has become the first source I turn to when I’m doing research because I’m seeing links from sources I trust. It provides a professional network of colleagues all over the globe that I can reach out to when I’m considering developing [new curriculum ideas].”
Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach, a former teacher and administrator turned digital-learning consultant, contends that Twitter essentially provides an at-your-finger-tips professional learning community that can help educators stay abreast of their field.
“It is my best learning tool,” says Nussbaum-Beach, who is co-founder of Powerful Learning Practice, LLC, a digitally-oriented professional development provider. “I believe strongly that in today’s changing learning landscape, in order to stay on top of the spiraling changing pace, you need to use a resource like Twitter. Having a network to turn to when I have a question is invaluable.”
• Begin by following people you already know and trust.
• Explore related resources like Twitter4Teachers (http://twitter4teachers.pbworks.com/), a wiki that helps teachers find other teachers on Twitter in their subject area.
• At least at first, limit your network to a manageable number of followers; be mindful of information-gathering objectives.
• Be generous in “retweeting”—i.e., share messages by others with your followers.
• When appropriate, use hashtags (#literacy) to share your tweets with a larger interest group; but do not overuse hashtags.
•Tweet wisely: Remember that whatever you post can be shared across the Internet; avoid talking about individual students or colleagues.
Both Nussbaum-Beach and Ferriter say their Twitter networks provide targeted feedback and resources from peers that other Internet tools like Google and message boards cannot match.
“Google is a powerful search engine, but it’s not nuanced the way Twitter is,” explains Ferriter. “Searching Twitter is searching the minds of teachers. It’s collective intelligence. When you can pick the brains of 200 highly accomplished teachers, you’ll get good success.”
“I have a learning network that can help me, give me resources, collaborate 24/7,” says Nussbaum-Beach of her Twitter connections. “So anytime I want to plug in, the help is there.”
Not for Everyone
Still, not all educators see Twitter as a must-use tool for professional learning. Jim Randolph, a blogger and K-5 teacher of English-language learners in Gwinnett County, Ga., agrees that Twitter has potential as a learning tool, but says he didn’t find it useful enough to stick with it after an initial trial.
Time and convenience played a big part in Randolph’s decision ultimately to close his account. Twitter is blocked in his district and there’s no cellphone reception in his school, so receiving tweets by text wasn’t an option. And he didn’t have time to wade through all the tweets on his page when he got home from work.
Randolph agrees that it’s necessary to stay connected to the online education community to keep learning, but doesn’t see Twitter as the only way.
“[Twitter supporters] are right. It’s important to know what’s going on, but I think blogs and Twitter do equal roles in keeping you informed,” says Randolph. In particular, Randolph points to the importance of blog RSS feeds, which he can access at school, in helping him stay connected with educators outside his building.
Though she praises Twitter, Nussbaum-Beach agrees that building a network is more important for teacher learning than what program you use. “It isn’t that one tool is better than the other. You’re going to go where the people [you want to connect with] are, where you can build the best network relevant to your interests.”
Even avid Twitter proponents like Ferriter admit that Twitter alone can’t provide the same sort of deep learning that in-person professional development sessions can, but they say it fills a separate, valuable role.
“If you’re talking about an expert coming into my building giving a deep and meaningful talk, that’s not Twitter,” Ferriter explains. “But good PD targets the individual needs of a particular teacher. Twitter allows me to tailor my research and learning to the things I need to learn about. It’s a completely differentiated learning opportunity.”
“Maybe Twitter itself isn’t good PD,” he adds, “but it’s the bridge to very good, meaningful PD.”
A version of this article appeared in the October 01, 2009 edition of Teacher PD Sourcebook