Tech Tools for Teams: Collaborate Using Twitter
Bill Ferriter, Solution Tree Associate and sixth-grade classroom teacher, has been working to introduce learning teams and singletons to a range of free products and services that can make collaboration more efficient. This column will be the first in a series titled "Tech Tools for Teams" where Bill will spotlight individual tools that you might be interested in exploring.
Let me start by making an observation based on the past six years that I’ve spent working as a member of a highly motivated professional learning team: Collaboration may be incredibly rewarding and professionally satisfying, but it ain’t easy!
The biggest barrier to collaboration in any professional learning community (PLC)--whether it be a traditional team of teachers working in the same building or a collection of singletons from across several schools who’ve banded together to learn from one another--is simply finding the time to sit down and talk. Teachers working in a PLC really are engaged in powerful conversations with one another and thinking about learning in deep and meaningful ways, but deep thinking can be just plain time-consuming.
This inevitably puts collaborative teachers into the uncomfortable position of wondering whether the benefits of collaboration outweigh the time that it takes to work together. Transaction costs, or the effort necessary just to coordinate the work of groups, must be addressed before collaboration is completely embraced. If we don’t find ways to make collective action more efficient, our organizations are unlikely to ever reach their full potential.
The good news is that we live in an age when new digital tools can be used to "grease the wheels" of collaboration.
One of my favorite tools for increasing the efficiency of teachers and teams is called Twitter. Twitter is essentially a public instant messaging system that allows users to attract "followers" and to "follow" others. As Sheryl Nussbaum Beach so aptly explains, Twitter is a way for people to build a "personal learning network" of colleagues and friends who can provide just-in-time help, resources, and advice about almost anything.
The central element in a Twitter conversation is called a Tweet, which is a short 140-character message that users send through an online forum that looks just like any other instant messaging application. That message immediately appears in the Twitter windows of anyone who is "following" you, and they can respond with help, advice, suggestions, ideas, and/or compassion if they feel so inclined.
To see a recent string of Tweets from my Twitter window, click here.
Each of the icons represents a different person whose messages I am following. All are brilliant educators I’ve come to know in the course of the professional work I’ve done in the past few years. All are also people whose opinions I trust and who I know that I can learn something from.
As a result, I want to know what these guys are talking about! If they’re posting links, the chances are good that the articles they’ve read or written are going to help me in my own work. If they’re asking or answering questions, chances are good that those questions will challenge my thinking, too.
Let me show you how Twitter works. A few weeks ago, I bought my first Blackberry. In the course of getting it up and running, I wanted to know if there was any way that I could use a program called Skype, which allows users to make Internet phone calls, on my Blackberry. Not wanting to spend hours and hours searching for answers online, I sent a message out on Twitter:
"Anyone know if Skype has a Blackberry App? Trying to use it more often."
7 MINUTES LATER one of the people who follow my Twitter messages sent me a link to an article about a program that would do exactly what I wanted it to do.
Amazing, huh? Instead of spending what would have probably been hours sifting through thousands of Google search results looking for a solution to my problem, I turned to my Twitter friends and had a high-quality answer with almost no effort. The time that I saved because I turned to my network of digital friends for help could then be spent doing other things-like planning my next lessons, grading the papers that have been on the corner of my desk for a week, or going to the gym!
Here’s another interesting example: A friend and I are planning to start a new project in our social studies classes using the microloan company Kiva. Basically, our students are going to research a part of the developing world and then, with the help of Kiva, select a businessman or woman in that part of the world to offer a small loan. Knowing that some of the teachers who follow me would be interested in this project, I sent out a Tweet announcing our plans. Later that day, one of my followers (a middle school teacher from St. Louis) posted this reply:
"We are working on a kiva project in our school too. Maybe we can talk about a collaborative endeavor among a few schools?"
Again, with almost no effort I’ve found a partner to work with on our upcoming project. We’ll be able to share resources with each other and brainstorm plans together. If we’re really motivated, we can pair up our students and get them working collectively. All that I needed to do was make a 140-character post in Twitter (which took me something like 10 seconds to write) and I was off and running. Imagine how long it would have taken me to find a partner for this project the old-fashioned way. Honestly, I’m not even sure I would know where to begin, and because there is no guarantee that I could have found someone to work with, I probably wouldn’t have even tried. I would have looked at the costs of trying to coordinate my work with others, determined that the costs didn’t outweigh the potential rewards, and ended up working alone.
My favorite example: While writing this article, I needed a bit of help. I knew that there was a list of teachers using Twitter somewhere online. I’d seen it a few times but never bookmarked it. Knowing that someone in my network of followers would have the link at the tip of their fingers, I sent out a Tweet:
"Hey Guys: What’s the name of that wiki that has a list of educators who are on Twitter? I’m writing and want to use it in my article."
TWO MINUTES later I got a reply connecting me directly to the resource that I needed but couldn’t find on my own.
So how can you make Twitter work for you?
Try these tips:
Sign up and jump in. Strangely enough, one of the hardest parts of getting teachers to Twitter is convincing them that it is worth giving a try! The idea of public instant messaging and "followers" is a 21st-century stretch that many of us are unwilling to make. So my first suggestion is a simple one: Go and get a Twitter account! They’re free. What have you got to lose?
Follow your colleagues. The reason that Twitter works so well for me is that I’m following the messages of (and being followed by) other educators who share similar interests. Some are middle school teachers, so when I’m looking for resources on the developmental needs of tweens, they’ve got my back. Others are into educational technology, so when I’m looking for examples of good blogs for my students to read, they know just the right place.
Consider joining Twitter with the members of your grade level or department if you’re working in a traditional learning community. If you’re a singleton, reach out to teachers in the same content area at other schools. Call your state’s Department of Public Instruction and ask for the contact information of other teachers like you, and then invite them to test the Twitter waters. If you’re a principal, talk with the other principals in your district or professional associations about starting Twitter groups with the isolated teachers in your building so they can collaborate, too.
By starting with a handful of colleagues you know are working in the same content area or grade level, you’ll be setting yourself up for some early Twitter successes. The more early success you have with a new digital tool, the more likely you are to keep using it. When you post a great resource that you’ve found, you’ll be helping someone else. When you ask a question, you’ll be asking people who are bound to have the best answers. When your followers need a hand, you’ll have ready expertise to lend.
Find some new digital friends. Even if you struggle to find colleagues in your school or district to take the Twitter plunge, there are literally hundreds of teachers Tweeting with each other from every corner of the globe that you can start learning from today! Don’t believe me? Visit the Twitter for Teachers website, where you can find the Twitter usernames for teachers working in almost every grade level and content area.
There are entire pages of Twitter teachers working in subjects ranging from art and business to music and middle school. There are lists of principals and preservice people who are Twittering alongside lists for people interested in 21st-century learning and Foreign Languages. Counselors, librarians, and Family and Consumer Science teachers all have their own pages at Twitter for Teachers.
With a bit of browsing, you’ll find a collection of digital friends to learn from in no time!
Feel no pressure. Whenever I introduce Twitter to my friends, they almost always recoil in absolute horror. "I don’t have time to read a thousand silly instant messages a day!" they’ll say. "You’re nuts, Bill. Nuts." The mistake they make is believing that every Twitter user absolutely MUST read and reply to every message that is posted by every person they are following!
Remember, I’m looking to save time with digital tools, not create something else to do. In reality, most users spend very little time swimming through the digital soup of their Twitter windows. They make a committed effort to stopping by at least once or twice a week to see if they can help anyone they are following and try to remember to post the best resources they come across in their work, knowing that others are likely to be interested in what they’ve found.
But none of us live online! In fact, I probably spend about five minutes a day in Twitter either helping someone out or looking for help. Some days, I might send out four messages and other days, none. There’s no rule that a Twitter user has to read and respond to every message, and because Tweets never come to your email inbox, you’re never buried under piles of unwanted communication.
Twitter is just a place to turn for quick help in a pinch.
Remember it’s public. While there’s no pressure to reply to every message that is posted in your Twitter timeline, it is important to remember that everything you do post is public and can be seen by anyone who follows you! That means you’ve got to remember to keep your conversations professional. Twitter’s not a place for your deepest reflections on life or your complaints about your boss. Not only does that kind of conversation turn off followers, it can put you in some uncomfortable positions when people you know read what you have written!
In the end, Twitter is a tool that has changed the way I collaborate. I get trusted answers instantly from a collection of colleagues, most of whom live and work in other states and countries. Twitter has become the place I turn to when looking for new resources or for new challenges to my own thinking.
I’m more efficient than ever because I can count on almost 300 Twitter friends to help me find what I’m looking for.