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 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.


What’s not to MOOC?

The two-week break in the #change11 MOOC has given me an opportunity to catch up a bit, and to reflect on the experience so far. It’s now sixteen weeks since the start of the course, which has included thirteen weeks of content, a week of introduction, and a two-week winter break. According to Stephen Downes, the course has 2,000 registered participants. The course web site has had 38,000 visits. There have been 1300 blog posts tracked with the #change11 tag, and there have been 2500 tweets with the same tag.

On a personal level, I’ve spent about 25 hours on the course, I’ve blogged about it four times, and I’ve tweeted about it, umm, more than once (I think).  I’ve read or consumed more than 70 posts, documents, videos, and web conferences related to the course, and I’ve commented on about 10% of them. My notes are more than 16 pages long and are summarized in the Wordle image on this post (click on it for a better view).

Mostly, I’ve kept up by reading the daily email that comes from the course, which lists the upcoming events, recent blog posts, and tweets that use the #change11 course tag. I also set up a newspaper using the #change11 course tag. This gives me an overview of the links posted via Twitter related to the Change course, all formatted as a daily newspaper. Admittedly, I haven’t always been faithful about using the tag, and I’m sure others have been doing the same thing. So the numbers cited above are probably estimates on the low side.

I’ve been trying to keep track of my level of engagement because I’m participating in a pilot project involving graduate workshop credit for MOOC participation. We’re trying to figure out how to make this authentic learning experience fit into the framework of formal continuing education workshops. Why shouldn’t work in a MOOC count toward teacher licensure renewal or salary advancement? Some would argue that participation is a MOOC is more relevant than taking a graduate workshop at a university. But the challenges are many. We have to find a way to ensure that people are really participating, that they’re really engaging with the content and other participants, and that they’re finding a way to make it relevant to their own professional lives. Plus. the regents like to see things like contact hours and some sort of tangible product that can be assessed.

In my case, then, a typical week consists of about 107 minutes of engagement. I read about 5 web resources. I take just over a page of notes. I make a comment on a blog post about every two weeks, and I post on my blog about the course roughly once a month. That’s well below my expected level of engagement, which called for about 30% more consumption of others’ content, and about double the contributions from me.

But none of this counts the related non-change11 stuff I’ve been doing. I bought and read Chris Lehmman’s new book on Web 2.0 tools and Will Richardson’s book on Personal Learning Networks. I passed them around among our administrative leadership team, and we’ve had many conversations about the future of schools. I attended a 21st Century Learning summit with my superintendent, and we spent a lot of time talking about how to reinvent our successful public school to continue to meet the needs of our students. And because my professional learning network is already in tune with many of the topics in the Change11 course, the same ideas keep coming up over and over in the normal conversation flow through those networks. That happens with or without the course tag. For most, that’s just lifelong learning. It’s great that my personal professional development is so embedded in my professional life and my online identity. But in this case, because I’m trying to track it, it’s a little messy.

The challenges for me, moving forward, are to increase my level of engagement with the other MOOC participants, and to bring some of these conversations down to the local level. I need to be engaging my teachers, my administrators, and my community members in these ideas about what next generation learning looks like. I hope to use several different strategies to accomplish this. Without using the terminology and structure, we may be bringing some of the elements of the MOOC into our school district as a professional development model.

2012 is going to be an exciting year.

OK, Now What?

It was a message on Twitter from one of our administrators:

@schinker ok now what?

He had signed up for a Twitter account because he wants to connect to the community. He realizes that there’s a conversation happening online, using (but not about) social media tools. How is education changing? How are schools adapting to meet new challenges and increased demands with fewer resources? He wants to engage in the “big picture” questions that often get lost in the immediacy of managing a school district. So he plugged in. But he hasn’t yet tuned in.

Now what?

How do you build a personal learning network from scratch? For me, it started with blogging and podcasts. It took years to build and curate my network. Much of that work happened before Twitter even existed. But he doesn’t have that kind of time. So, here are my tips for getting started with Twitter:

Find some people to follow
Twitter is pretty boring if you’re not following anyone. The hardest part of peeling an orange is getting it started. The same is true for Twitter. If you start with a few really good people to follow, it gets much easier to find more. If you already know someone on Twitter, see who they are following. If you’re interested in education and technology, you can even start with the list of people I follow. Add a few of them. Don’t overdo it.

Twitter is not personal. If I’m not getting value from someone’s tweets, I stop following them. Some people are really smart, have wonderful ideas, but are annoying on Twitter. There are some fairly well known speakers in my field that I don’t follow, because they’re frequently doing workshops and “showing Twitter off” to a group of teachers. “Tell me where you are and why you use Twitter.” I don’t have time for that. Others have great ideas, and their tweets are valuable to me. But they’re so prolific that they overwhelm my Twitter stream. So they get unfollowed.

For the people I find really valuable, I take a look at who they’re following. If I have a lot of respect for someone on Twitter, I’ll start following some of the people they follow. It’s kind of like a recommendation system. I follow easily. If I find, after a few days, that the new person isn’t meeting my needs, they get unfollowed pretty quickly.

You have to manage your follow list to produce the volume you want. Follow too many people, and it can be overwhelming. Follow too few, and it’s boring.

Don’t follow back
All good teachers are lifelong learners, and most would say that they learn a lot from their students. But most teachers are not going to have their professional development needs met by following their students on Twitter. Some people find the things I post on Twitter to be useful, entertaining, or somehow helpful (I know; I don’t understand why either). That’s great. I’m glad they’re getting some use out of the things I’m posting. But that does NOT mean that I will find the things THEY are posting to be valuable.

On Facebook, if you’re my friend then I’m automatically also your friend. On Twitter, it doesn’t work like that. The link is not reciprocal. I might follow you, but that doesn’t mean you have to follow me. No hard feelings. It’s not personal. Don’t feel bad about not following people back. And don’t feel offended when people don’t follow you back.

Stay away from celebrities
There are lots of celebrities on Twitter. They have thousands of followers. Most of their accounts are manged by their publicists or their agents or someone who is working to craft their brand. That’s noise. There are a few celebrities that I follow because I’m entertained by them and I’m pretty sure it’s really them. Drew Carey is one. Craig Ferguson is hilarious but rarely school-appropriate. But these are distractions. Use sparingly.

This social media thing is a two-way street. It works because people have things to share, and they use tools like Twitter to share them. When we learn something new, we typically want to share it. Maybe you saw something on TV, or you were listening to the radio and a news story caught your ear. Or you were having a conversation with a colleague who pointed out something you hadn’t noticed before. Or you may have been on a web site and you saw an interesting study or blog post or discussion or news item. You want to share that with people. So use Twitter to do it.

If people find the stuff you have to say to be valuable, they’ll follow you. Congratulations. You’re published. And you’re helping people. You’re teaching. You’re giving back. You’re part of the conversation.

Don’t drink the fire hose
Do you have cable TV? How much do you pay for that? How many channels do you get? Let’s say you pay $75 per month, and you get 150 channels.  You’re paying a lot of money to have access to that programming. Do you watch it all? Of course not. Do you even watch one of the 150 channels all the time? Probably not. Do you read every word on every page of that newspaper or magazine? Not unless it’s an awesome publication like Wired. Don’t feel like you have to read everything in your stream. Pay attention to it when you have time. When you don’t, skip it. You don’t spend hours in your car in the driveway listening to the radio so you don’t miss anything. You’re going to miss some things. Let them go.

If you’re overwhelmed, consider a tool like Sign up for a free account, and it’ll look at your Twitter stream and collect all of the links from everyone you follow. Then, it’ll divide them into categories and format them like a newspaper. Every day, it’ll re-generate itself based on the new stuff that people tweet. Plus, you can share your personal newspaper. What to see mine? It’s right here.

Twitter is a great tool for sharing information and connecting with a community. Once you get started, it can be a great way to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s happening in your field. What other advice do you have for new Twitter users?

Image credit: TPorter2006 on Flickr.