It may be a little silly to try and talk about “best practices” when it comes to Twitter, because the technology is so new and people are still inventing uses for it. I’m certainly not nearly as active a “twit” as some out there, but based on my limited experiences to date there is no question I LOVE the sense of community Twitter enables. Additionlly, I love the way Twitter permits the thoughts and work of others to cross my “attention radar screen” during the day in ways those ideas wouldn’t have been able to in a world without Twitter.

One of the big things I’ve noticed about Twitter that may be a “best practice” is to “follow the followers.”

Follow the Followers!

The reason is pretty basic: If you want to use Twitter as tool for learning, conversation and community building, it’s much harder for Twitter to support that goal if the conversation is one sided! I’ve experienced this recently, when someone I was following was not following me… and when I posted an answer to something they asked, and realized there wasn’t any way for them to see my response! This situation can be addressed if people using Twitter choose to “follow all their followers.” The counter to this idea might be that some people really do want to limit the number of folks they follow because they are just interested in following people they know personally… or that the number of conversations can become overwhelming and too distracting. Those are valid perceptions, of course, but for me at this point I’m finding Twitter to be most valuable when everyone who wants to monitor the conversation (be a follower) is followed as well. That empowers back and forth dialog using the Twitter platform, which is its most powerful feature. It’s interesting to hear what people are doing during their day, and certainly does build a very real sense of connectedness, but that sense is amplified many times by the real-time interactions “follower of follower” communities in Twitter permit.

I really like it when people share links via Twitter, generally using a free URL shortening services like TinyURL or URLtea. Multiple times over the past couple of months, I’ve followed a link, read a blog post, commented on that post, and written later my own post based on ideas which were stimulated or deepened by that initial Twitter link.

In many ways, conversations and idea exchanges empowered by read/write web technologies and other digital communication technologies like Twitter and Skype continue to make our “flat world” a much more personal and meaningful world because of the connections they support. I am frequently struck by how important it is that we enable other learners (both students and teachers) to directly experience the power and benefit of these connections. Students frequently characterized as “digital natives” ARE experiencing the power of these connections much more frequently than many older adults, via multi-player console games played over the Internet, social networking sites, IM, SMS, and just their cell phone conversations. I’ve observed that for many older adults now using digital social networking environments as well as collaborative digital tools regularly, there are transformative experiences they seem to have which really solidify their understanding of the value of these tools as well as their ongoing desire to use them. At a negative extreme I suppose, this can lead to addictive behaviors. This can be true for playing multiplayer online console games or for using an interactive web environment like Flickr. I’d like to read more thoughts of others as well as research in this area, because I think this could inform “best practices” for professional development with educators (including administrators) in very concrete ways.

I am becoming increasingly convinced that in formal professional development settings with educators focused on issues relating to digital literacy development, effective technology integration, and more broadly– pedagogic changes in assessment and learning roles in the classroom, the best thing a professional development leader can do is offer other educators the opportunity to have REAL EXPERIENCES and make REAL CONNECTIONS during the class rather than just offering information. It is very easy to to just share information with others, whether that audience is a group of teachers gathered for professional development or a classroom of high school students gathered for their daily class. It is much harder to craft a learning opportunity that can be defined as a true “experience.”

Let me share an example to further detail what I’m attempting to explain. About a month ago, I had an opportunity to spend the day with a wonderful group of educators in Goodland, Kansas. Goodland, as you may or may not be aware, is located in extreme western Kansas on Interstate 70. Goodland is closer to Denver and Colorado Springs than Kansas City, and most of the other major cities in Kansas. Isolation from major population centers does not limit the vision of leaders or the transformative approaches which school leaders take to the challenges latent in public Schools, however, and Goodland provides an excellent example of this. About fifty teachers in Goodland public schools are participating, as volunteers, in a teacher laptop initiative focused on helping them develop and refine their abilities to use digital technologies to support instruction and learning. The volunteer, co-hort based model they are following is an excellent one. Yes, ideally all the teachers in a school district need to learn how to effectively use digital technologies, but the diffusion of innovations research indicates it’s a pipe dream to think everyone will want to follow the same path, at the same rate, when it comes to learning and using new technologies.

I started that day of professional development with Goodland teachers with an all-district keynote address, but followed that up with morning and afternoon workshop time just with the teachers involved in their laptop initiative. A few weeks before, I had spent a day with teachers in Irving ISD (Dallas area) but had taken a different approach. In Irving, I shared a morning workshop about digital storytelling, and an afternoon workshop about Google and Yahoo tools for collaboration. I considered those sessions to be more informational at an “awareness” level, rather than experiential. True, since all the teachers in Irving had laptops, they were able to explore websites, launch software applications, register for accounts, and do other things which were truly INTERACTIVE during the course of the workshops. That was good. But I think the workshops in Goodland were potentially more beneficial and worthwhile because they were more experiential.

In Goodland, rather than sharing 100 different read/write web tools with teachers in six hours, we focused on one tool: social bookmarking. We explored the environment, used a common login to save website favorites together, experienced the value of “tagging” using common tags, answered questions and spent the time focused on essentially a single tool and a single goal: Using social bookmarking to both find and save “good Internet websites” and then share those “finds” with others. I think that workshop experience was more potentially beneficial because it involved more EXTENDED EXPERIENCES on the part of the teachers actually using the tool we were learning about. We spent less time talking ABOUT the tool, and more time USING it to create and share knowledge together. That is a powerful formula. That experience, incidentally, motivated me to wrote my most recent TechEdge article (for the fall 2007 quarterly issue) on “Social Bookmarking 101.” (I don’t have that online yet, but when I do I’ll come back and link it here.)

The second reason that workshop experience was potentially more powerful in Goodland was the fact that Bob Sprankle videoconferenced into our afternoon session for about fifteen minutes using iChat. Of the fifty or so teachers participating in our hands-on workshops that day, I think less than ten had previously experienced a live, interactive videoconference before. Having a “live,” interactive conversation with someone who is hundreds of miles away is an EXPERIENCE, not simply an exchange of information. Videoconferencing technologies have been around awhile, but the accessibility to which everyday, “regular” classroom teachers now have to videoconferencing experiences via desktop software like iChat and Skype is really extraordinary.

I have a received some feedback from the workshops in Goodland, and one of the clear messages was, “The videoconference with Bob Sprankle was amazing. That just blew us away.” Now, I don’t think it’s helpful to “blow someone away” with any type of technology use or demonstration if that experience leaves them feeling more overwhelmed, fearful, or otherwise resistant to try utilizing those technologies themselves later. If, however, individuals emerge from that EXPERIENCE energized by the very real possibility that YES, they, as well as their students, can experience a similar charge of electrical learning excitement by synchronously connecting with other learners around the planet to discuss issues of common interest– then I consider that to be a success. Hopefully this latter perception was experienced by many of the teachers in Goodland.

Personally speaking, I continue to have experiences using collaborative, digital technologies from time to time which energize and amaze me. That videoconference with Bob Sprankle from Goodland, Kansas, is a recent example. Participating in my first international skype conference with Darren Kuropatwa, Ewan McIntosh, and Miguel Guhlin two summers ago certainly also makes that list. Receiving a comment from Kobus van Wyk in South Africa this past Spring on a post I wrote about The Forgiveness Project also makes the list. I could go on.

The point I’m trying to make is that we should consider carefully the ways we choose to spend our heartbeats during professional development. Yes, information is all around us in overwhelming quantities, but it is generally NOT constructive to simply immerse ourselves in that information and the available tools so that we encourage others (and even ourselves) to become more overwhelmed and therefore more resistant to personal learning growth. I think we need to regularly utilize videoconferencing technologies in our professional development workshops for several reasons, but a primary one is that this can be a POWERFUL EXPERIENCE for teachers to understand the accessibility as well as potential of interactive conferencing for learning. The “virtual speed dating” activity which Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach facilitated for teachers in New York with other educators scattered around the globe and connected via Gizmo (a program similar to Skype) this past summer personified this approach. For more complete details on those activities, see Sheryl’s post on the TechLearning blog for “PD 2.0: It’s All about Building Community.”

As Richard Baraniuk shared in his outstanding 2006 TED talk about the future of textbook publishing in the digital age (“Goodbye, textbooks; hello, open-source learning”), the heart of education and learning really is THE CONNECTIONS we make to other ideas. In the 21st century, part of the redefinition of teachers and teaching should focus on this role of being CONNECTORS for students: Connecting students to ideas, connecting students to experts, connecting students to others in the world outside the classroom, and connecting students to each other.

“Best practices” for Twitter? I’m not sure I have the answers, but I know I have some insights. The same goes for educator professional development. The reason I have insights is the fact that I have ONGOING EXPERIENCES with professional development for teachers which continues to shape my own perceptions. The more we empower learners to connect to ideas and other people, the more opportunities we can have for meaningful conversations and learning.

Welcome to the 21st century classroom. I’m thrilled to be a co-learner here with you. I’m sitting on the front row, and if you want, I’ll jump up and help teach your students as well as learn alongside them. How can we realize that dream? With the powerful tools arrayed before us which permit connections and conversations. The digital, velvet (nonviolent) revolution is just beginning. The ideas are admittedly disruptive, but that’s because they have the power to change the basic fabric of the learning landscape around our planet.

Let’s get to stitching!

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3 Responses to Stitching transformative social networking experiences and impactful professional development

  1. but following EVERYONE would make Twitter too noisy to follow. I can only follow about 60 people before I can’t keep up with it. And there are about 190 people following me, for some unknown reason (some are friend accumulators, but many are real people). There’s simply no way I could follow 190 people in Twitter.

  2. jimc137 says:

    I think therapy groups like anger management that some of my students attend could use twitter. Techniques could be discussed in group and the members could twitter when they used the skill or should have used the skill. They could also twitter for help from other group members.

  3. Wes, anytime I get to hang out with you, it’s an unforgettable experience! (laughing)

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