- Initial findings of our extensive research on how teachers are interacting with twitter for means of professional development.
- First published in the October 2014 Edition of UKEdMagazine.
- In this updated 2020 version, Colin Hill also explores the changing nature of professional development, and how social media continues to support individual educators.
Rightly or wrongly, social media took a hammering during its early conception into the minds of the mainstream cognisance. Mainly due to ignorance and hyperbolic news reporting, many blamed the start and co-ordination of the London (and UK) riots in 2011, following the police shooting of an unarmed man. People were imprisoned for Facebook, Twitter or Blackberry Messenger (BBM) messages which threatened to riot, looting or any hint of social disorder – and so, the foundations were established in the minds of the population that Social Media sites were evil.
That may still be true to various groups of people, who buy into the stories which distract from the overall and potential good that social networking has to offer. One group of individuals, across the globe, that have taken this networking to a new and sustained level are educators who, according to the Twitter Account Executive Brett Baker, account for 4.2 million tweets from half a billion tweets posted each day. Hashtag conversations, such as #UKEdChat, have sustained continued popularity among the education community, with many other country, subject or regional specific chats continually popping up on timelines.
However, not all teachers who engage on Twitter participate in hashtag conversations. Indeed, many admit to quietly lurk – watching their Twitter feed come up with educational resources, ideas and conversations, which provoke individuals to change an element of their practice within their own classroom.
We are very aware of an engaged, generous and innovative group of educators on Twitter who are desperately keen to share and develop resources and classroom ideas. Whilst many teachers had chance to reflect and relax during the summer, we conceived a research project to explore some of the behaviours of teachers primarily using Twitter as a means of professional development.
As many schools across the globe are seeing their funding and training provisions being cut for their staff, it became clear that individual teachers were personalising their own professional development needs, with their Twitter network central to that requirement.
Five key questions were asked, with over 450 responses received within a two week period. We were not focused on the demographics of one particular group of teachers, so the responses represent teachers across the globe.
Question – What are the main benefits of using Twitter for Professional Development?
Ideas, ideas, ideas! What is clear to see, from the findings, is that the teachers who responded are always wanting to evolve and develop their practice, not wanting to teach the same way year on year. Being stuck within the confines of a classroom and working with the same colleagues each day can be stifling, so gaining perspectives from those outside can be liberating.
One secondary school teacher declared that she could keep, “updated with up-to-the-minute developments, wider ideas, and an exploration of pedagogy” for her own practice. This networking featured regularly in responses, with many enjoying the global element of their networks (lovingly referred to as “Personal Learning Networks” or “PLNs”). Indeed, a Primary School teacher from England asserted, “It’s like having a personalised, very specific and accurate Google search permanently on hand – when there is no budget for going on a course and so all CPD is in house, Twitter provides the crucial missing networking”.
Question – How does Professional Development gained via Twitter compare to traditional means of training that you have received?
The flexibility, lack of cost or time implications, and the high standard of Professional Development gained through Twitter were regular themes with this question. One teacher commented, “My Twitter colleagues seem much more switched on and inspiring than my staffroom colleagues”, although the potentially superficial nature of this was also recognised by a few. Beyond this, the accessibility and relevance are valued, “It’s more to the point – you don’t have to sit through the waffle or parts that are irrelevant to you”, claimed a primary school teacher.
Another teacher responded, “I went on a training course the other day, and I knew everything that they were telling me, due to following the relevant people on Twitter. I’m up-to-date and ahead of the game”. Following relevant people is key, with many people quickly coming and going on Twitter as they don’t know who to follow, so therefore give up. As a starting point, you may wish to advocate the list of UK based educators in the September 2014 issue of UKED Magazine, and get colleagues to build from there.
Disadvantages of Twitter for Professional Development
Don’t get us wrong – everything is not all a bed of roses on Twitter, with plenty of thorns which the survey revealed. One teacher in the USA was concerned about the quantity of information which Twitter can throw out, “There can be too much information (even with hashtags). I feel like I’m always missing something good”. Other declarations of feeling intimidated or overwhelmed were shared, as well as fear of public comments, which can be taken out of context by paranoid school leaders. This was an issue to a few people who declared that this means of professional development was not acknowledged by their school leaders, who dismiss this learning as non-authentic.
“Establishing a PLN is vital,” a USA elementary teacher told us, “Teachers need to know which hashtags are best for them to follow”. There are tweeters who are prominent self-promoters, and this annoys as their comments can go unchecked and loaded with prejudices or stand-points which rally for an argument.
Even though it is 2014, a few declared their frustrations with school network firewalls, which deny access to Twitter whilst on site (although with greater mobile technology availability on internet-enabled mobile devices, one does have to question the relevance of such firewalls).
Fed by paranoia, or due to issues of power and control, we asked teachers if they were aware that their interactions of Twitter are monitored by leaders at their school, or by administrators. Those who declared that their comments are being monitored by ‘leaders’ commented, “Things can easily be misinterpreted online”. Being aware of this Big Brother behaviour can stop some people truly engaging in conversations. One teacher told us, “I have a personal account with no reference to school and don’t follow school. However, retweeted a comical clip from an account with a rude word and the Headteacher came to speak to me about it. I agree that handle [Twitter username] isn’t great but the clip was of footballer slipping. Fair? Right?” Worryingly, another respondent revealed, “I have been told (in a cryptic way) by SLT that they monitor all my social media accounts”! Is there a claim here of online stalking? Debates in this regard need to be openly developed at all levels.
Specific examples of how Twitter has helped develop classroom practice
Collaboration and connecting with classes in other countries which were once inaccessible were some of the specific examples shared, but ideas, strategies and inspiration from other teachers have been implemented in classrooms across the land. Examples include: Developing practice in fixed and growth mindsets; quadblogging; wider range of independent tasks, exit tickets and peer/self-assessment; displays; behaviour management techniques; SOLO taxonomy ideas, all just a few of the list received. One teacher told us, “Whole class guided reading – stemmed from a brief chat online and has completely revolutionised my practice (and impacted hugely on the pupils’ end of year levels).” All these idea and strategies all inspired from teachers on Twitter.
And this is where the conflict lies. Used sensibly and responsibly, Twitter can be a valuable source of inspiration supporting teachers to develop and improve their own classroom practice. But the surveillance and negative viewpoints of online social networking remain a concern. Some leadership teams are completely trusting and respect the private lives of their staff, whereas others are living in a strange world where they feel so concerned about the behaviour of their staff and how online behaviours could reflect badly on the school itself – perhaps this says more about the management than the staff. Our online UKEd Academy course offers advice, policy ideas and resources for schools and teachers interacting with social media. Click here to explore.
If you are concerned about the leadership team cynically watching over your online activity, there are steps you can take to minimise any come-back:
1. Do not reveal your true name/school within your Twitter profile or tweets without clear permission from your school management.
2. Explore the option to protect your account, only allowing for those you give permission to access to your tweets.
3. If you do reveal your identity, have a conversation with your leadership team encouraging them to contribute in conversations.
4. Maintain your integrity, professionalism and respect (Refraining from mixing tweets with alcohol!).
5. Common sense is fundamental, but this cuts both ways. Just be aware if your school leadership team lacks any common sense.
There are many positive aspects for teachers to use Twitter as a means of professional development and these can outweigh the negatives pointed out in this survey.
As time has developed, more social media options became available, and there are very active groups on Facebook, Pinterest and Instagram who actively share resources, classroom pictures and ideas. As teachers globally share their resources, more sites that commercialise resources-as-products have come online, feeding the need for teachers to purchase activities for their classrooms. Questions remain about the quality and value, so considered research (and an exploration of reviews) is necessary to prevent throwing good money for bad.
Interacting with Twitter has changed since the initial research findings were published. Many polarising views became more prominent, as well as API and algorithm changes that seemed to change the way people interacted. Views got shouted down. Silos developed. Egos developed. Divisions were created. Everything became commercialised. Twitter became a victim of its own success, but only reflects the societies of which it serves.
I still maintain that it is still possible to use social media (including Twitter) to support professional development in teaching and school leadership, but you just need to sort through the noise of political polarisation, click-bait and those who shout the loudest. Exploring others viewpoints is interesting, otherwise we enter our very own echo chamber, but if your sole intention is to develop your classroom practice, explore resources and ideas, then be selective who you follow, who you interact with, and who you want to share your own ideas with. At the end of the day, with careful consideration, what you get out of social media will all depend on what you put into it.