PART TWO: Twitter as a community of practice for educators
Twitter is a form of microblogging that was launched in July, 2006. It has grown very fast with 94, 000 users within eight months of its launch (Java, p. 1), it now has over a million users with over 200,000 active users per week (Arrington, 2008). As Twitter is a “social networking and micro-blogging site that allows users to post their latest 140-characters-or less-updates… through one of three methods: web form, text message, or instant message” (Arrington, 2008) it is also a means of communication with affordances for forming distributed communities. There are many similar services such as Plurk, Pownce, Jaiku and Identi.ca, but Twitter is the most popular form of microblogging to date (Wikipedia/Micro-blogging)
The reasons that many educators are part of this are the ease with which knowledge can be shared and developed and meanings attributed to situations and experiences common to educators in developed English speaking countries can be negotiated. Educators who have joined twitter join because it is easy and people they already know and trust have joined it. Some may hear about it through workshops and conferences and try it out. There are varying levels of participation – some say it is not for them, they do not have enough time, or is too distracting.
The effects of participating, reading and posting often – from several times a day to all the time they are online through third party applications such as twhirl or twitterific are many (In using third party applications many users hear a chime whenever a tweet from one of their “friends” comes through, much like an alert for an email. As part of the research for this study I put out a question on both twitter and plurk: What has been one effect of your participation in twitter/plurk? (See Table 1: Twitter and Table 2: Plurk) and looked at the verbs present in the replies. Verbs used included: tried, used, accessed, shared, clarified, discovered, linked, was supported, read, demonstrated, taught, collected, upgraded, learned and continue to learn. These are dynamic learning words, speaking to mutuality and identity. Life giving words reminiscent of the practice of participation. Let’s explore some more about this in the terminology of communities of practice.
Table 1: data from Twitter
Can you point to some knowledge that has been created because of microblogging? What has been one effect of your participation in twitter/plurk?
AngelaC @jomcleay Have read a wide variety of blog postings, tried new software, and used apps like voice threads, Ustream and Wordle
annemareemoore @jomcleay access to up to date info, links to what people are blogging, great resources that others share. It’s all good!
etalbert @jomcleay "knowledge created via microblogging" I have accessed online, meetings, conferences etc and not left my house ... too cool!
Skip Zalneraitis @jomcleay Access to many high quality educational blogs
lucybarrow @jomcleay Since joining Twitter, my delicious links have gone through the roof! I have a constant stream of valuable resources from my PLN.
David Noble @jomcleay Significant support in planning, preparation and backchannel around the recent TeachMeet @ Scottish Learning Festival
@jomcleay i have tried new software and activities because of tweets and pln support and clarified ideas because of help ;}
nrwatkins @jomcleay I discovered Wordle and Google forms thru Twitter, though I read blogs too, so probably would have found out about them anyway
I wonder if your workplace or students is/are getting some benefit from you being on plurk/twitter
Amanda @jomcleay I'm benefiting from the global connections & so is my workplace. It's helped me to build connections between teachers & students
@jomcleay workplace is definitely benefitting heaps, students do to a lesser degree
Table 2: data from Plurk
Jo McLeay wonders can you point to some knowledge that has been created because of microblogging? What has been 1 effect of your participation in twitter/plurk?
October 13, 2008 at 09:38 bookjewel Our 'PLN reflections' taught me how to build a slideshow from nothing and demonstrated the potential power of web 2.0 to colleagues!
October 13, 2008 sharon_elin says I've collected a huge wealth of resources that I refer to frequently - from examples to "how to's" to collections of topical information
October 13, 2008 at 10:35 megbg says I have upgraded my wiki and collected a host of web 2.o sites that my students now use
October 13, 2008 at 11:41 kmulford I learned how to embed vokis and glogs into wikis and blogs. (Sounds like Klingon, I know, but it's true!)
October 13, 2008 at 11:58 TeachingMother says I learnt how to put a slideshow into my blog and numerous tips for using my shiny new mac
October 13, 2008 at 12:00 mrichme says I have learned that I'm not alone with my struggles. Another one would be the PD opportunities through ustream, coveritlive, skype, etc.
October 13, 2008 at 12:10 loonyhiker says learned how to use ustream, skype, make wikis, oovoo, voicethread, live conferencing, attend PD online
October 13, 2008 at 12:25 susanvg says thinking about your term created - different from knowledge learned
October 13, 2008 at 12:56 dmcordell says My vision is less local, more global. I feel like part of a community, rather than a voice in the wilderness!
October 13, 2008 at 13:28 KarinBeil says I can continue to learn & share tech knowledge despite being retired.
October 13, 2008 at 13:34 dmcordell says Many of us have shared resources and created projects online.
In Part one, we saw how participation in a joint enterprise is a key attribute of a community of practice. It is clear from the tweets of those in my community that the educators are enthusiastic, passionate teachers. Those I “follow” (300+ people, all of whom are educators) include practitioners from all sectors from kindergarten to university professors, and live in Europe, Great Britain, USA, Canada, New Zealand, South Africa and countries in South America and Asia. But wherever they are and however they feel about it minute by minute they are present in my network because they want better outcomes for their students and their participation in this community is part of this endeavour. Community maintenance is part of this and the community has evolved to include tweets that are greetings, birthday wishes, support in times of bereavement, family illness and work crises, invitations to local face to face meetings when twitterers from out of town are visiting and other live events, virtual or face to face (often both). In plurk, emoticons are an important part of community maintenance and recently twitter, not to be outdone, developed twitterkeys (a way to easily use wingdings such as ♥♣).
The mutual engagement is in the volume of tweets that passes across the screen hour by hour (depending on how many people you follow). The community of practice of microblogging educators works well when there is a diversity of participants, otherwise it would feel like an echo chamber. Twitter is a communication tool that is user friendly and has a low participation barrier. Just like the presence of the claims processors that Wenger wrote about in the office of the insurance company and their ability and being allowed to talk to each other, the platform of twitter and its affordance make mutual engagement possible. The adoption of the @ symbol to create a link directed at a specific person and the ability to search for replies to our tweets with the @ symbol and our username created the opportunities for conversations without which the evolution of a community of practice would have been a lot less likely. This engagement is so satisfying for many participants that they speak of “addiction” to twitter (a quick search of blog posts about twitter attests to this.)
The knowledge, beliefs and suppositions shared by edutwitterers include the discourse of improving students’ experiences of learning, that knowledge is to be shared, not hoarded, the value of discussions on ethics while using the internet, citizenship and the future of schools. There is a conscious value given to the etiquette of respectful discussion and disagreement as well as transparency. These values and beliefs are not limited to educators on twitter or even to educators, but they are noticeably present in the writings of those I follow on twitter. These are a part of the shared repertoire of this community of practice. Twitter specific jargon has developed (see glossary) and this includes collective nouns for the community such as “tweeties”, “tweeple” and “twits”. The community itself is referred to as the “twitterverse” (those on plurk have their own name: “plurkadia”). The shared repertoire includes the custom of wishing others goodnight or good morning when they themselves are going to bed or getting up, often with a wry acknowledgment that it is a different time of day for other participants.
Another custom is that of “shoutouts” when a member is showing twitter to another group who are not familiar with it. It is common to see a tweet “say hello to a group of teachers in (name of place)”. Those who are online at the time will reciprocate and the twitter will have 15 to 20 shoutouts from all over the globe in as many minutes – a powerful way of showing the reach and influence of twitter. Often members will introduce someone new to twitter: “please welcome (name of person) and older members will add them and say hello to them by name as well.
As far as a repository of resources is concerned twitters have made wikis and bookmarked resources and will tweet the link. As noted by Costa microblogging at conferences “enable[es] the spontaneous co-construction of digital artefacts” (Costa and others p. 1). In the last fortnight since I have been working on this topic, two resources: a searchable spreadsheet and a wiki have been made so that educators may more easily find those educators with common interests or areas of work. These resources, and customs are part of the reification mode of twitter which along with participation enables the community of practice to function and evolve.
The way that the edutwittersphere has evolved is dynamic with new tools and functions being added frequently. Conventions such as the use of @ and # have been brought over from IRC (Internet Rely Chat). The @ symbol is very useful as it makes a link. When a person I am following addresses another twitterer I can click on the link, see their contributions, see their photo or avatar and self description. I may then choose to add them to the list of people I am following. The # is used by a program called Twemes to search tweets for topics of interest: “follows public Twitter.com tweets (messages) that have embedded tags that start with a # character.” Twitscoop also searches tweets: “input a twitter username or keywords in the search box to track a conversation, topic or conference. The results will auto-refresh every 20 seconds”. Recently developers have added a tool that enable you to see who has removed you from their network and after which tweet they stopped. Statistics/graphs of twitter use and followers are also available. Work is also happening on a program to help twitters to follow threaded conversations .
The kind of learning that is enabled by being part of the twitter educator community of practice is often called “just in time learning”. A question can be asked and almost immediately the twitterer will have more than one suitable way of solving the problem or links to resources where they could find the answers. Because twitter can be accessed via the mobile phone it is easy, and available anytime, anywhere. Unlike traditional views of learning, which resides in the individual this is distributed learning. I have heard people refer to it as their “outboard brain”. All can learn from anyone else, as there are no teachers and students per se. All members of the community of practice would consider themselves as learners and show the attributes of life long learners. Another kind of learning seen on twitter is serendipitous learning, where just by seeing a tweet addressed to someone else a twitterer can find an answer for a problem they are facing. It is not surprising therefore that when seen as a community of practice, twitter should be “a powerful catalyst for enabling teachers to improve their practice.” (Hildreth, p. x) Another way of learning that educators have found through twitter is the live tweeting of conferences to enable the learning to be distributed to those who are not able to attend, as well as among those present at the conference. See Appendix 2 for an example of the live tweeting of a recent educational technology conference in Canberra. As a result of this, there is currently a discussion of the ethics and etiquette of live tweeting which promises to be quite interesting.
All of the above shows that educators find meaning in their enterprise through twitter and this is linked to their identity in very interesting ways. Advice to new twitterers often includes what to do and not to do as you will appear aloof or unintelligent: “Remember that your personal profile shows a history of all your tweets so if somebody comes to it and it’s just empty, or you only post a mundane update every day or so, why should they bother following you?” from Caroline Middlebrook's twitter guide.
As educators, members of this community of practice will frequently want to be brokers to others in their workplace. But this may be difficult as the site is often blocked at school for being a “dating site”. It can also be seen as a distraction to workers and a waste of time. Alternatively its power can be shown when a question is asked of the twitter network and a useful answer is forthcoming within minutes. In the light of the difficulties of using twitter at work one might be surprised to find that educators do still want to collaborate in this way when so many other intentional online communities of practice have had difficulties. “Effective and successful virtual communities of practice do not happen without attention to their design, launching and support” Kaulbeck, p. 26), and yet twitter was not made for educators and no support is given by schools to the use of twitter. Despite this it is clear from this study that much learning is happening within this community. An explanation of this may possibly be found in a paper by Shumarova (2008), where she discusses the “shadow” collaboration present in informal communities when the formal channels of collaboration may not elicit the same energy and participation.
The twitter community of educators does indeed conform to the understanding of a community of practice. It has the three main attributes: mutual engagement, an emphasis on interaction, conversation and community building in their joint enterprise of improving education for all learners, and over time have evolved a shared repertoire that is apparent in the jargon which provides members of the community with the lexical items they need in order to talk about the subject matter, as well as customs and tools for enhancing the interactions. The learning is clear from the active and dynamic verbs that community members use to talk about the effect that membership of plurk and twitter have had on their work as educators.
There are of course, questions that remain. Given the informal nature of this community of practice, the learning can have no currency in academia, no credit is given and there is no assessment other than that of real life problem solving. Some might say that having a 140 character limit on individual posts may hinder the ability to be reflective about the learning. However, the reflection is often distributed over time and still accessible in the archives. Twitter and microblogging in general cannot be a tool that does everything. Blogs are still important for the longer reflective posts about learning and twitter can inform the community of these posts as they are written. Comments can be made on these blog posts and there is no limit on the length of these. Other more serious concerns are that twitter can be distracting, that it can result in information overload and that it is not suitable for all learning styles (Costa, p. 8). As Costa concludes on the same page: “microblogging does not present us with an ubiquitous learning strategy.” There is an investment of time needed, of that there is no doubt. The information overload is part of living in the 21st century and being part of this community of practice can in fact filter the information overload and point us to great discussions and useful resources. Twitter is the platform of choice for many lifelong learners and, as a community of practice, it presents us with learning opportunities and presents a welcoming way to enter a network.
Microblogging: a form of blogging that allows users to write brief text updates (usually 140 characters) and publish them
Plurk: a free social networking and micro-blogging service that allows users to send updates (otherwise known as plurks) through short messages or links, which can be up to 140 text characters in length. Updates are then shown on the user's home page using a timeline which lists all the updates received in chronological order
Twitter: a social networking and micro-blogging site that allows users to post their latest 140-characters-or less-updates through one of three methods: web form, text message, or instant message
Twits: people who use twitter (see also twitterers, tweeties, tweeple)
Twitterers: collective noun for people who use twitter
Twitterverse: all the people in the twitterer’s network
Tweeties: collective noun for people who use twitter
Tweeple: collective noun for people who use twitter
Tweets: updates by twitterers
Edutwitterers: Twittering and Networking for Learning Professionals
Edutwittersphere: educators who use twitter (from edublogosphere)
twhirl : a desktop client for the Twitter microblogging service based on the new Adobe AIR platform
twitterific: application for Mac that lets you both read and publish posts to twitter. User interface is clean, concise and designed to take up a minimum of space on desktop.
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