In a blog post last November I set off on a one month trial of Twitter, mostly to see what all of the hype was about but also to look for any practical use for classroom teachers. This post is a second follow up on that venture to describe a little of the huge impact Twitter and other social networking applications have had on my “shifting landscape of professional learning.” While I’m still not convinced our too often over stressed and isolated classroom teachers have time to add this on, I’m also starting to believe that making the time might be the best way of beginning to reduce stress and creating connections to change thinking and alter classroom learning. For me this foray into the world of social networking has caused a significant shift in my personal and professional learning networks. And, while the shift is mostly for the better there is also a down side to it all.
One needs to understand that I am a relatively shy person. It isn’t easy for me to “cold call” people. I’m not the type to walk up and introduce myself easily. And when I do, I have trouble following up with the requisite small talk. Yet I’m social in that I love good conversations, I am comfortable being part of groups, and I enjoy listening to others discuss and debate when I can get myself in there. So like the quiet student in the classroom, or the isolated teacher behind the classroom door, the use of Twitter and Facebook has moved me into some new and different spaces in ways that it wasn’t easy for me to be a part of before. As I reported in my Dec 17 post “[b]y far the most exciting result for me has been the fun I’ve had getting up the courage to participate in the interaction. Twitter offers a kind of light weight connection, if you will.”
Mostly I use Twitter for my professional network and Facebook for my more personal family and friends network, although the boundary between the two blurs as family and friends have begun to find and follow me on Twitter while colleagues “friend” me and invite me to groups from their Facebook accounts. For my own clarity I maintain the boundary more by separating the use of the tools than the people by keeping my tweets generally about education and work and my Facebook updates of a more social nature. I open Twitter while working and save Facebook for other times of the day. The colleagues I choose to “follow” are generally those who use Twitter to tweet about topics that are of interest to me professionally.
By having Twitter on in the background while I work, I’m alerted to and reminded of the digital network of colleagues around me. When I suddenly don’t know how to do something, find something new and interesting or just need to pause and be inspired I flip to Tweetdeck where I can tweet and/or scroll back through any one of several columns that I have running. Generally I have an “all friends” column beside a “local friends group” column as well as up to five or six for any current gatherings or topics of interest at the time. Today I’m following #celc2009, the hash tag for the Canadian eLearning Conference (and ETUG workshop) as well #necc2009, #iranelection and #education. I find other hashtags to follow often by watching those that my colleagues are posting to. Through those topics I find other colleagues to follow because of the tweets they post, and on and on it goes. As I come across tweets from respected colleague with suggested sites to check out and/or questions to ponder, I reply with tweets and allow myself bits of time to check out new tools, sites or posts.
Which of course leads to the downside: how to constrain those “bits of time”? First off, it is important to let Twitter posts go by. I often hear new twitter users ask how one can possibly keep up. The answer is simply that one can’t. But with all that I read, and the sites and tidbits that are of interest, Diigo is helpful because it allows me to bookmark, tag and organize sites without needing to fully explore everything I wander into. I can mark things as read or unread and can write notes and comments about the site to myself as a way of knowing what to come back to if and when it might be a useful thing to explore more fully. I have yet to really learn to use Diigo to its full potential, but as I use it more and more I see that it too allows for social networking potential on a much larger scale than Del.icio.us. Getting to know it better is my next challenge.
The number of people I’ve come to know since first signing on to Twitter is quite frankly, for a shy person like me, staggering. I can easily divide the 256 people that I follow into a few simple categories: 1) Bloggers and thinkers whose writing/work I follow, 2) Known colleagues with whom I interact in person and/or online, and 3) People who have chosen to follow me and have represented themselves on their Twitter page in a way that makes me curious about what I will learn from having them in my network. Once that follow and following connection is struck, the playing field levels out and I view them all as my colleagues regardless of how they may choose to read my posts. I allow myself to freely “tweet” to them all as I would any colleague and similarly I reply to their posts from that same perspective of being on equal ground. In my mind, that opens up the room for dialog and sharing that makes this all so valuable. Similarly, replying and commenting in Twitter, which is referred to as microblogging, is not that different from using an RSS reader to “follow”, read and respond to blogs. Both create a similar shift in one’s learning landscape in terms of the people connections that are built.
The challenge to my thinking:
In a school, college or university where the working space is limited by the physical space, it is all too easy to close doors and physically distance oneself from differing views and opinions. For me one of the greatest advantages in networking via blogs, tweets and online social networks has been the ease with which I am finding that exposure to other perspectives and ways of thinking. In an easy and fluid way this forces me to keep a critical mind. Because I am interacting with individuals with whom I may not yet know well I am challenged to listen, to think and to enter into discussions especially when silence might be seen as agreement. In my opinion this discomfort and unfamiliarity is clearly the most valuable aspect of social networking for developing professional learning networks.