Islands in the stream …

I remember my first crush – it wasn’t on a celebrity, or a boy at school. It was Laurie in Little Women, who was soon joined by Gilbert in Anne of Green Gables. I was drawn to their playfulness, loyalty, and long-suffering love for Jo and Anne, and was heart-broken when their romantic overtures were rejected.

As I moved into my teen years, I would save my babysitting money to buy copies of Tiger Beat magazine. My friends and I would memorize every detail about Shaun Cassidy, Leif Garrett, and Scott Baio. I plastered their pictures on my walls and created elaborate fantasies of how we would someday meet. When we saw them on television, we screamed.

At our Book Fair last month, young girls lined up in droves to order extra copies of Justin Beiber books and posters. They had every detail memorized about his interests, background, and goals. Their dedication to Justin is no different than what I felt, but what is different is the immediacy of access to information about him. I had to wait for the next magazine to be published; now, there is a constant stream of information, discussion and debate taking place online that is accessible with the click of a button.

Twitter has not only become the gateway for information and discussion, it has become a source for those love-struck girls as many celebrities are on Twitter (or at least, have an assistant or public relations person tweeting on their behalf). “Celebrity tweeting has been equated with the assertion of the authentic celebrity voice; celebrity tweets are regularly cited in newspaper articles and blogs as “official” statements from the celebrity him/herself. With so many mediated voices attempting to “speak” the meaning of the star, the Twitter account emerges as the privileged channel to the star him/herself.” (Muntean and Petersen, 2009).

There is a sense of relationship felt by the followers of celebrity tweets; a feeling of direct access to the celebrity. When disparaging or negative comments are made about that celebrity, the response online is swift and vehement. Justin Bieber is often a highly trending topic, along with Robert Pattison and anything Twilight related. This artificial sense of intimacy is fed by that 24/7 access, and celebrity lives are discussed, scrutinized, and critiqued in real-time. Tiger Woods, Michael Jackson, Mel Gibson are all recent scandals fed by the Twitterverse and blogosphere.

My personal learning process with Twitter

This was my impression of Twitter when I first heard about it – a place for narcissistic people to share all the mundane details of their lives. Although the media began reporting heavily on the trend, I felt it was not meant for me. However, I first signed up for a Twitter account over a year ago when I heard that Stephen Colbert was tweeting. I started by following him, and really had no intention of going much further. Soon enough, I started seeing other tweets that interested me, and ran across a retweet from S#*$ My Dad Says, where a man who was living at home again with his elderly father tweeted the crusty and hilarious comments his dad made. I laughed out loud and immediately began to follow his tweets as well. Who knew that in a year’s time, they would be offered a sitcom starring William Shatner based on this series of tweets?!

Things began to change when I learned about searching using hashtags. On a particularly blizzardy day when I was leaving work, the radio was not giving me a timely update and I was trying to determine the best route home. I had remembered hearing about a #yegtraffic search on the news, and when I searched I found a number of posts in real-time letting me know where the major traffic issues were. I could now see how Twitter could be used to access information, and I began searching for other local updates that I could access.

The Twitter website describes it as “the best way to discover what’s new in your world. Twitter is a real-time information network that connects you to the latest information about what you find interesting. Simply find the public streams you find most compelling and follow the conversations.”

As I started to follow a number of writers and bloggers active in teacher-librarianship, technology and education, I began to see how Twitter was becoming far more than answering the question of “What are you doing?”  I found that there was an endless source of interesting ideas being shared, with links to the original sites so that I could explore further. However, I was becoming overwhelmed quickly by the sheer volume (do these people ever sleep?!) and the format on Twitter meant that everything was mixed together and not easy to follow.

Klingensmith (2009) said, “You’ll hear people talking about the Twitter “stream”.  This is derived from a beautiful metaphor in which the tweets people send out can be considered drops of water in a stream.  You’re standing on the bank, enjoying the stream as it passes, but you can’t worry about enjoying every drop of water that’s there. Don’t worry about the tweets you missed – I promise that there are always, currently, very interesting things to read.”

An overview of Twitter in 60 Seconds:

What I realized is that I needed a way to locate those drops of water in the stream, to create my island where I could have them come to me. Creating lists to organize tweets by topic was the first step to helping me sort through the noise. I was now able to click on a list and see only those tweets related to that topic. I could also click on one person and see only their posts. This was making more sense to me, but I still found the switching back and forth made things confusing.

Enter Tweetdeck and Hootsuite. I found two different social media tools that provided the solution I required. Tweetdeck was a free download onto my computer that required me to log in using my Twitter account. Once I started, I could see a number of default columns already set up for me that allowed me to track incoming tweets, my own tweeting, and twitterers that might be of interest to me. Once I logged in, a pop-up and chime would indicate incoming tweets, so that I could continue working on something else and still be notified when tweets were coming in.

I then figured out how to import my individual lists from Twitter into Tweetdeck, so that I could look at them side-by-side.

I also tried Hootsuite which is a web-based application that also allows me to create columns from my individual Twitter lists, and I can check it from anywhere. I can also add my Facebook and WordPress blog, which should be quite useful when I begin working with my library’s online presence.

Now that I had a more effective means of following tweets, I then turned to the idea of tweeting. I did not have a reason to tweet – my friends and family are not on Twitter, and it is blocked at work. I felt like I should just continue to lurk and follow the great ideas being shared.  I was unsure about how to begin and whether I might just be shouting into the wind. The 140 character limit felt challenging, as I do like to write, and I worried about being superficial. As I looked at the tweets that have been useful or interesting to me, they all had a direct purpose in communicating information, often by sharing a link to another site. Knowing that there are only 140 characters, I knew that I would have to explore sites that allowed me to create a tiny url to be pasted into a tweet. Two options that I found were:

  • TinyURL – if you want to tweet a link, but it’s very long, this will shorten it to 25 characters.
  • – this also shortens a link, and it allows you to specify part of the new URL.  If you sign up for an account, you can track how many clicks your shortened URLs get.

I first tried retweeting which was easy to do, but did not allow me to add a reason for the retweet which I would have liked to do, so I tweeted again to add a little context. I also wanted to see how I could share photos using Twitpic, and found that it was quite easy to do.

Click on image to go to page

I have only dipped my toe in the stream as it is fast-moving and I want to ensure I understand my purpose before diving in and becoming part of the flow.

Twitter in my own personal life and learning

When I first heard about Twitter, I envisioned it as all these people shouting at each other with no real conversation happening. After all, how meaningful can a conversation be when it is limited to 140 characters?  I had no interest until I started to follow humour writers, which introduced me to the entertainment value of Twitter.

When I worked as a consultant, I followed the daily Twitter updates for a small soup shop downtown so I would know what was being served that day. Alberta Education has a Twitter feed for the work being done across the province to revamp the education system from K-12, and I was following that as well for my work. Other than that, I wasn’t really doing much with it.

As @melaniemcbride said: “Following smart people on Twitter is like a mental shot of espresso” (in Walker, 2009). From following the links in tweets shared, I have read articles, learned about new tools and strategies, and found other interesting people to follow. Twitter is now becoming my first stop for my professional learning, along with my RSS feeds. I can quickly scan a list on HootSuite and find interesting links, and it is much quicker than going into blogs and reading a post.

Walker goes on to share:

“Drew Buddie (@digitalmaverick) has mentioned several times that he believes his network to be more powerful than Google, and I am beginning to see why. Once your Twitter network grows past a critical mass, you can ask them detailed questions and get higher quality information back than a bog-standard Google search would generally provide, with the inbuilt assurance that it is a respected member of your network providing the information. On a broader scale, Twitter searching provides information about time-linked trending topics that Google cannot.” Nine Great Reasons Why Teachers Should Use Twitter

Another way to become involved in an active social network on Twitter is to participate in weekly conversations that are searchable using a hashtag, such as #edchat and #tlchat. These take place at a certain time and educators with a Twitter account can join in the conversation. Before starting, it is a good idea to review some etiquette around participating, and to also have TweetDeck or HootSuite as the conversations can go by rather quickly. #edchat Hashtag Do\’s and Don\’ts

What I am finding useful is to be able to view the links shared via the #edchat Daily and #tlchat Daily where they are compiled in a newspaper format that I find much easier to read. For example, today I found some potential solutions to a problem I have been having with Wallwisher:

Click image to go to page

Click on image to go to website

In order to make your personal learning network more effective, it is important to cultivate those connections. An active social network requires participation beyond simply retweeting the posts of others. Vincenzini (2010) outlines 40 useful things you can share on twitter besides blog posts, and Tolisano (2009) talks about the importance of cultivating a strong personal network as it support you in gaining an audience for those student project and provides them with “global awareness, increased motivation, and the value a network can have as a source of information and resources.”

Twitter to support teaching and learning

Twitter is not currently being actively used by teachers in our district, and therefore a first step would be to introduce them to  the above Wordle and show examples of how it can be used for their personal and/or professional learning. Searching by hashtags, tweeting a question or problem to #edchat, or simply following a particular person may be the first step to showing them how it can be useful in their teaching. The Twitter Handbook for Teachers also provides a helpful overview and tips to guide them through the process of using Twitter as a step towards building their personal learning network.

When I questioned a number of students, they indicated that they don’t see the point of Twitter, as they are already updating their status on Facebook and communicating with their friends via text. This appears to be confirmed by research, and a 2009 study found that only 8% of teens aged 12-17 were on Twitter, with the highest percentage being girls 14-17. When asked why they did not tweet, they responded:

Click on image to go to website

In addition, Twitter is blocked within the district due to the student’s ability to access inappropriate content, and our students under 13 are not allowed to create accounts for social media using their school email address (per our appropriate use agreement).

So could Twitter be used in a K-9 environment? The question perhaps is better reframed not by the tool, but by the purpose of the tool. If micro-blogging has value, perhaps the tool used to micro-blog can be different but the purpose remains the same.

Carta (2008) refers to Edmodo as “Twitter for students and teachers … it’s basically a private micro-blogging service for schools with built-in security features that give teachers privacy controls over their virtual classrooms. One of the nice features is that students don’t even need an email address to join the classroom. All they need is the special sign-up code that the teacher generates when they create the environment.”

Edmodo is a social networking tool for educators. A teacher could set up an Edmodo account and add students, who can then participate in a protected environment while practicing the higher-order thinking of synthesizing their thinking into a 140 character message. Students could micro-blog as they are reading (the thoughts of the main character, key details in expository text), and then view the responses of the entire class. At the junior high level, our students could be on netbooks and be micro-blogging as they view a video or presentation, similar to the back channel of Twitter.

But how might we actually use Twitter in the classroom? The Twitter for Education Wiki shares a list of ideas to start with:

  1. Project brainstorming
  2. Sharing online resources
  3. Connecting to others around the world
  4. Publishing or sharing links to published work
  5. Publicity for important events, blog posts, podcasts
  6. Twitter can serve as a resource to get help
  7. Twitter can serve as your support group when struggling with a difficult taks
  8. Twitter provides a way to virtually attend conferences, workshops
  9. Back channel during lecture (using event specific hashtags)
  10. Back channel during videos/slideshows
  11. Back channel during student presentations

The use of Twitter as a resource could be done through a teacher account, with questions posed to the Twitter community using a hashtag. Then, the teacher could view those responses for appropriateness before sharing them with the class. This allows for Twitter to be used in a safe manner and shows students how it can be utilized as a resource for information or problem solving.

There are also a number of ideas shared in the following presentation that could be adapted by classroom teachers:

Click to go to presentation

Concluding questions to ponder

“If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” This is a question long debated. From a scientific perspective, a sound wave must be heard in order to be considered sound; from a philosophical perspective, the question becomes whether something can exist without being perceived.

If one is not followed, do they make a sound? Do they exist? When it comes to Twitter, there is a risk that your tweets will not be heard. Dembo recommends that you “need to follow/be followed by about 100 people at the least for Twitter to begin to be valuable. ”  He continues to say, “Of course, the best solution in the long term is to build up your own community. The only real way to do that is to maintain your own presence, to reach out to others, and to follow people and give them the chance to follow you.”

And if that tree falls in the forest, can it make a big enough noise to bring people to it and use it as an island to cross the stream together?



About shelljob

I am an educator and life-long learner, exploring new adventures as a teacher-librarian and graduate student. This blog is part of a course on Web 2.0 that I am taking. I am also the parent of a philosopher, a velcro dog and two independent cats. They all manage to keep me humble and grounded!
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One Response to Islands in the stream …

  1. tlkirsten says:

    This is a great post and I love the Klingensmith quote.

    And I’m thinking further now about the 140 character limit and your worries about being superficial – another concern that I do have with Twitter is that a lot of statements that come out about e.g. education appear very black and white. This can be good, but it can also be bad I think. It can make it look like you don’t think about the various perspectives, sides of an issue, extenuating circumstances etc. That said, you can always send out a tweet with a link to a blog post that better reflects thoughtfulness on a tweeters part.

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