Twitter Worth Watching

I faded away from Twitter a couple years ago. Looking back, I seem to tweet when I’m at conferences, when I’m on vacation, and when I publish a new blog post. That’s mostly it. I read Twitter even less often. It’s not that I don’t like the people, or that there aren’t worthwhile conversations going on. It’s just that the fire hose can be overwhelming, and it’s increasingly difficult to find content that’s relevant to me..

Twitter TVI used to compare Twitter to cable TV. If you have cable, then you can turn on the TV and have lots of options for what to watch. But sometimes, you turn the TV off and do something else. You don’t feel guilty about not watching ALL of the shows. And you certainly don’t try to watch all of the channels at the same time. Twitter is there. It’s an endless stream of content. So when you want to watch something, you turn on the TV.

Last month, we spent a week in a house with cable TV. It’s been a long time since we cut the cord, and there was some excitement around all of the TV options we suddenly had. That excitement faded quickly, though. After scrolling through the directory a few times, it was clear we weren’t missing much. We could watch cooking shows or celebrity gossip shows or reality TV. There were sports shows and talk shows and sports talk shows. We had plenty of opportunities to buy premium content, or to buy products from several channels selling things we don’t want or need. There were lots of channels showing reruns of shows that were horrible the first time around. Eventually, we ended up watching Jurassic Park III. Three times. And that’s not even one of the good Jurassic Park movies.

Maybe the same is true with Twitter. There’s plenty of political commentary, but nothing that’s actually going to convince people to change their opinions. There are lots of tweets extolling the virtues of teachers, and just as many from teachers who are compelled to remind us that they’re not working this month. There are the usual trite observations on testing and Common Core and how the government is ruining the schools. And there are links. Links to the latest tool, or the latest meme. Links to photos and videos. People sitting around tables at conferences. Bare feet in front of the beach or the pool. Kids doing crazy or adorable things. And that’s all fine. It’s entertaining, I guess. It’s certainly better than cable TV.

But to say this is the most valuable professional development experience I’ve ever had is going a bit far. Sure, we can connect to other people all over the world who share our goals, frustrations, challenges, and successes. We can work collaboratively to improve learning for thousands of kids. But given the choice, most of us would rather watch the video of the baby elephant taking a bath. I’m including myself here. I stopped writing this so I could go watch that video again.

Maybe curation is the key. I need to be able to filter the conversations so I only see the stuff that’s relevant for me. That’s hard to do, and I think it’s a big reason why I don’t engage more. I’ve moved past the “hey isn’t this cool; look at me talking to people all over the world” phase. I’m pretty much done with “we need to stop preparing our students for the industrial age” conversation, because learning in our schools really has changed in the last few years. I also don’t have much patience for the “common core / testing / NCLB / accountability is the worst thing to happen to public education in a generation” argument, which is entirely counterproductive and mostly false. And I’m so done with the whiny “look at how hard I work as a teacher / why don’t you treat me like a professional / is it summer yet?” conversations.

So these days, I’m back to using aggregators. My Twitter account feeds Flipboard and Paper.li. When I want to check in, I go there. It’s a mix of content from many sources. It gives me the best of the content that’s being shared among the people I follow. I still do occasionally follow new people and unfollow old ones. And once in a while, if I think I have something worth sharing, I’ll post.  But I’m not really engaging in Twitter directly very often, and I don’t really feel like I’m missing much.

Photo credit: Esther Vargas on Flickr.

 

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Focused Presence

About a week ago, we were having a discussion on Slack about the upcoming state educational technology conference. I’m sitting this year out. A couple members of my personal learning network weren’t happy. The conference isn’t necessarily about learning. It’s more about bringing technology to education than focusing on student-centered learning enhanced and supported by technology. Jeremy said that’s not the point. The conference is about networking. It’s about connecting to your colleagues from around the state, hearing about the success and challenges we’re having, and working together to identify innovative strategies and best practices moving forward. He didn’t exactly put it like that, but I think that’s what he meant.

“Why do we have to be in the same place to network?” I asked. The conversation turned to technology. “Nobody has come close to a digital equivalent of being in the same room,” Jeremy offered. Ryan suggested that the Cisco digital presence technology might be close. I disagreed.

20170127_0902441-1Technology isn’t the problem. You can attend conferences remotely. You can watch webinars all day, and there are more than enough Powerpoint slides on the Internet to put everyone to sleep. We can connect in video conferences for face to face conversations. We can use online tools of various kinds to engage in both public and private conversations, both in real time and asynchronously. We have formal spaces where everyone acts like a professional, and less formal ones where we’re a bit more relaxed. There aren’t many gaps in technology’s ability to replicate all of the kinds of interactions we have at a professional conference.

And yet, here I am at Educon. I missed work for two days and drove 500 miles to get here. I brought five people from my district because I think it’s important for them to engage in these conversations. It’s expensive and time consuming and totally worth it.

We could do this online. All of the sessions are streamed live, and this crowd is more than casually connected. I could stay home and still interact with the people in the room in real time. The technology is there to make it happen.

But the last two years, when I didn’t attend Educon, I didn’t participate at all. I didn’t watch the streams. I didn’t follow the Twitter hash tag. I didn’t read the blog post reflections. I checked out.

Sitting in my office, or on my couch, there are a thousand other things to pull me away from the experience. We’re having a network problem. A student’s account got hacked. Someone is impersonating a board member online. There’s always a “drop everything and take care of this” moment. I’m really bad at turning off the world and focusing on one thing, and it’s even more difficult when the one thing really does require your full attention. We don’t respect focused time. I can’t close the door and say, “I’m at a conference now.” The phone will keep ringing. People will keep knocking. They still need important things.

So we’re here. We’re engaged. I’m immersed in the experience, and can hopefully focus my attention on it for the next two days. We will discuss and explore and debate. We’ll talk to people from many different types of schools with many different perspectives. We’ll try to help others by sharing what we’ve learned over the past few years, and we’ll learn much more from others’ experiences. We’ll leave with a sense of hope and optimism that we are on the right track, and we’ll have a better idea of the next steps and how to reach them.

The emergencies have to wait. I have some learning to do.

Photo credit: Scott Detray.

The Scheduled Unconference

I recently attended EdCamp NEO, hosted in the fantastic new Paradigm facility at Mentor High School. I’ve been to about a dozen EdCamps now. It’s always fun to watch the schedule evolve as the event goes on, and people create the conversations that are most relevant to them.

edcampneoThis event had about 100 people, which is the perfect size for an EdCamp. All of the usual topics were discussed, and people left feeling excited and energized about genius hours and maker spaces and Google tools and learning apps. Most of the participants seemed to get a lot out of the experience.

But they don’t come back. It’s something I first noticed in 2013. In just about every EdCamp I’ve attended, someone asks during the welcome session how many people have never been to an EdCamp before. Usually, about 2/3 of the hands go up. The leader then explains how EdCamps work and encourages people to actively participate in scheduling, facilitating, and participating in sessions.

But if 2/3 of the people are new to EdCamps, and they don’t seem to grow much beyond about 100 people, where is everyone going? Why is it that they leave with a sense that it was time well spent, yet many of them never return to another one? Of the 30 or so veterans, about half of them are the die-hard leaders who go to every EdCamp. These people are engaged in professional learning networks. They engage with others in a variety of online and offline formats. Attending an EdCamp is just one piece of an ongoing dialogue about learning that transcends any particular event.

But that means there are only a handful of people who have been to a few events without fully engaging in a PLN. With the overwhelmingly positive reaction that most EdCamps get from the participants, there should be a lot of people coming back for a second or third time. But there’s a huge gap between the value teachers claim to derive from an unconference and their willingness to repeat the experience.

If I compare that to other conferences I’ve attended, the difference is enormous. The people who attend OETC or the IdeaStream conference or NEOTech seem to go year after year. Sure, there are always new people. But many of those attending have done so repeatedly.

Maybe it’s because it’s free. Nobody has to come. We don’t get time off to attend. Nobody has to pay anything. Once that registration is submitted, there’s no down side to not showing up. I guess that’s part of it. We don’t value the things that we don’t have to pay for.

Maybe it’s that they’re repetitive. We do see the same kinds of conversations, with the same questions, the same responses, and the same roadblocks. Maybe we can’t get beyond that because nobody has good answers to the tough questions. The room is always smarter than the individuals in it, but even the collective intelligence can’t have all of the answers.

Or maybe it’s a lack of faith that participation in a learning community is is actually beneficial. We’re living in an era of standards. We have to be very clear about our instructional goals. We spend an enormous amount of time getting to consensus on what we’re going to teach in every class at every grade level. The structure of education is the organization of content to be covered. That’s a good thing. A student who has successfully completed 7th grade science in Cincinnati should have the same basic skills and knowledge as a student who successfully completed 7th grade science in Ashtabula. So if there’s a professional development event with no clear objectives, it has a diminished value.

Last fall, I attended a one-day conference for school technology professionals organized by ITSCO. Their approach was a hybrid between a traditional conference and an unconference. They had a couple general keynote sessions. Then, there was a series of breakouts. Some of the breakouts were pre-scheduled, with leaders that were selected in advance who were prepared to speak about pre-selected topics. But they also had a few rooms available for unconference sessions. At the opening session, attendees were encouraged to propose ideas for these unconference rooms. This gave the conference the flexibility to adapt to the needs of the audience, without entirely abandoning the concept of pre-planned, organized conference breakouts.

I think we’re going to see more of that as we move along.

Photo credit: Jeremy Shorr, using Vicki Turner’s phone.