For the past five years, I’ve been on a journey through the world of social media. While many of the lessons I’ve learned have been startling and more provocative than I’ve ever expected, I have to say that the single tool that has surprised me the most is Twitter.
I know, I know … You want to stop reading now, don’t you? You probably already have a scowled look on your face about this superficial, nonsensical method of communicating in 140 characters or less. I’ve heard it before and, honestly, felt the same way two years ago before I began to experience the value of Twitter while attending a conference. When I tried Twitter, I was very reluctant to get involved with yet another social media tool. But I gave it a whirl because I saw other professors and instructional designers at the conference using it, and I was curious.
So, I created Twitter account and did a search for the conference’s hashtag (a brief word or phrase preceded by # that helps to organize tweets into conversations). While attending a session, I kept the conference chat feed open on my laptop, and I quickly realized that Twitter enabled me to experience more than one session at a time. The hashtag search fed me a continuous feed of reflections and links to resources (websites, blog posts, videos, etc.) from conference attendees in concurrent sessions. To me, that was awesome, and it was the hook I needed to keep digging.
Twitter: The Kid with the Bad Rap
In some ways, Twitter reminds me of a high school student with a bad reputation who is judged, ostracized, and misunderstood. And the recent public scandals occuring on the Twitter stage don’t help the matter much. As college educators and leaders, our goal includes contextualizing our disciplines, pulling our students into a critical examination of content, and encouraging them to find paths to understanding their values, beliefs, and perspectives while engaging peers in thoughtful conversation and debate. This process requires students to be able to seek out quality content (in text and video), curate it effectively, and filter out the irrelevant items. These are skills that are fostered through the use of Twitter. So before you write off Twitter as a bad egg, give it a try — a real, serious try — and get to know the dazzling kid lurking beneath the quirky appearance. And think critically about how it could benefit you, your students, your colleagues, and/or your college.
My Customized Professional Development Program
Today, after two years of tweeting, I get it. While I still enjoy using Twitter at conferences, it has also empowered me in my daily life. I continue to connect Twitter users around the world who share my interests. To date, I follow about 300 users. Do I know these people? A few of them, but most of them I have never met nor had a conversation with. Yet still they contribute to my collective, continually evolving understanding of the world of teaching, learning, art, and social media (my interests).
Information Curation: An Essential 21st-Century Skill
In my view, one of the most important and new skills that we, as educators, should be cultivating in our students is “information curation.” All museums and art galleries have curators who are tasked with the important, and often controversial role, of selecting works of art that will be displayed in an exhibition. This requires a contextual understanding of those objects — an ability to critically examine and decipher how each contributes to the aesthetic and critical dialogue of the exhibition. This is not an easy task and the necessary skills are fostered through finding, evaluating, and refining one’s Twitter network.
Like an Easter-Egg Hunt
Sorting through one’s Twitter feed can yield exciting gems of information, as well as dead ends and superfluous content. That’s the nature of the beast. Organizing users into Twitter Lists is a great way to shepherd your content into categories. For example, recently I located museums around the world on Twitter that I now follow as a way of staying current on exhibitions and other art-related news. These users I’ve added to my Visual Arts list. I can pick and choose from the tweets shared in this list’s feed — some of them, I read; most, I don’t. Recently I saw a tweet, for example, shared by @metmuseum that took me to a page from their online collection about Vermeer’s 17th-century painting A Maid Asleep. I immediately saw a terrific discussion topic or blog prompt for a course on Women in Art (exploring the gender relations implied through the “open door” interpretation).
This is an example of how Twitter empowers me, a single user in a world flooded with information, to curate my own flowing river of personalized and relevant content. Reading my Twitter feed is like embarking upon an easter-egg hunt. Some of the tweets are useless for me, but some are filled with little treasures that inspire me to develop new teaching activities, uncover a new tool, go see a new art exhibit, or think about a topic in a different way.
Twitter in the Classroom
Many educators around the world are asking, “How do you use Twitter in the classroom?” There is no concrete answer to this question, of course, but there are many terrific experiments in action that we should be examining and learning from:
- Backchannels. History professor Monica Ranking of the University of Texas at Dallas has shared this Twitter Experiment in which she encouraged students to send out tweets during presentations and discussions to stimulate enhanced dialogue amongst quiet students who typically don’t contribute in a lecture setting. She sees the 140-character limitation as a challenge to students, requiring them to focus on what they are trying to say in a succinct manner.
- Social Presentations. If you lecture, why not try scheduling a few planted tweets that will be sent out from your Twitter account during your presentation? Assign a hashtag to these tweets and encourage your students to either “follow” you via text messaging (easy to do with Twitter) or with a smartphone. Your tweets can provoke replies, share additional links and resources to supplement your presentation, and even act as a type of breadcrumb trail for later review. There are many tools for scheduling tweets. Three that I have used are Twuffer, LaterBro, and HootSuite.
- List Curation. Catherine Hillman of Cuesta College (@cat8canary) has her community-college students engage in a Follow 50 assignment. Students are required to identify and follow 50 Twitter users who share their field of expertise or interest. Then they follow the feed for a week and filter out the “noise,” resulting in a high quality list that is shared with their peers. If you didn’t watch it already, do check out this video in which Catherine explains the activity herself and provides more resources for creating lists.
- Research the Undercurrent of a Tweet. What can we learn about a Twitter user by examining who his/her followers are? Enter a Twitter username into Mentionmap and see an interactive visual blossom.
Getting Acquainted with Twitter
If you are an educator without a Twitter account, create one today. And keep in mind that getting started really isn’t as easy as it sounds. Despite its superficial appearance, it has tremendous depth, and it takes awhile to get comfortable with the interface and all the Twitter jargon. To help you get started, I recommend:
- ProfHacker’s “How to Start Tweeting (And Why You Might Want To)“
- Mashable’s Twitter Guidebook
- Academhack’s “So You Want to Microblog (Twitter) with Your Students” –
an old post, but it offers great tips for using Twitter in a classroom setting
Have a story to share about what you learned from Twitter? Have a great Twitter resource that helped you get started? Step up and share it via the VoiceThread or in the blog comments field.