ICT - Those who can, tweet

Blogs and social networking sites connect lone teachers with the wider world, providing a chance to share ideas with educationalists, improve lessons and widen their job prospects. Sara Parker reports

Sara Parker

Disillusioned with his job, David Mitchell nearly left teaching a couple of years ago. But then he decided to set up a class blog with a "particularly challenging group of Year 6 pupils", write his own personal blog and sign up to Twitter to share resources, ideas and experiences.

The impact on his career has been overwhelmingly positive. "I have learnt more in the past two years about teaching, classroom strategies, educational theories and practical ideas, than in 13 years in the profession," he says. His school blogs often receive as many as 30,000 hits a month and, recently, a pupil video was "clip of the week" on the Department for Education intranet. National TV coverage of the effect the school's blogging has had on pupils boosted his 2,200-strong Twitter following by a few hundred. Not bad for the deputy head of Heathfield Primary - a small, one-form entry school in Bolton.

David (@DeputyMitchell) also uses Twitter to make contact with teachers and educationalists that he would never otherwise have met. He has even had a Twitter conversation with previous education secretary Ed Balls.

He still organises traditional career and professional development for his staff through annual conferences, twilight sessions and weekly meetings, but now, with 50 per cent of them on Twitter and being encouraged to post their own blogs, his team can access continuing professional development (CPD) at any time. He says this offers them opportunities to enhance their classroom teaching and learn from shared successes and failures, as well as building their confidence in themselves.

Using social networking for CPD in teaching has gained such ground that now there is even a professional development programme delivered through the Open University to help teachers use new technologies in the classroom. Art and technology teacher Alasdair Douglas (@hairysporran) met Vital leader Steve Bunce (@stevebunce) on Twitter, and their initial conversations developed into their presenting together at various events, including this year's BETT show, about his success in using gaming technologies to improve literacy among boys.

Now on a dynamic leadership programme, Mr Douglas has also become actively involved in Teachmeet events, where teachers arrange informal meet-ups to exchange ideas, and believes such contributions have made him realise he is "better than I thought I was". He now feels less isolated and part of a network that is both supportive and inspirational.

As Vital manager in the North East, Steve Bunce is constantly encouraging the use of social networking and blogging in CPD. He recognises, however, that some teachers are worried by scare stories and the necessary but rigorous e-safety training from schools. Some authorities even block teachers' professional access to social networking altogether.

To avoid blurring the boundaries, many teachers who use social networking professionally advocate using Twitter for work and Facebook for personal life.

That said, one school found Facebook to be a lifeline after the school burnt down 18 months ago. Campsmount Technology College in Doncaster lost everything, but used Facebook as a means of communicating updates. Twitter, meanwhile, gave teachers a virtual space to share resources and ideas such as "100 ways to start a lesson when your school has been destroyed by fire". Appeals for resources and laptops brought in donations from other schools, individuals and businesses across the country - and even the world.

On a less dramatic scale, Dan Roberts (@chickensaltash), deputy head at Saltash Community School in Cornwall, finds closed Facebook groups useful for staff to share ideas and resources prior to an event such as a conference, or for older pupils such as an A-level group studying a particular topic.

Mr Roberts also writes a blog (see link, below) and, while it takes time, he says it is a reflective process for him and a useful means of getting training information out to staff, which he would have to write anyway. "I know some teachers think they don't have the time, but I have a good work-life balance ... having a blog and using Twitter, having my finger on the pulse, has made me better at what I do."

Twitter's brevity - each message can be no more than 140 characters - helps focus the mind and is an immediate way of communicating ideas and finding answers to problems. Some aficionados say they would use Twitter over a search engine. "Last week, a teacher came and asked me for help with something they were doing," says Mr Roberts. "I put out a request on Twitter and, within five minutes, a number of useful responses came back." Twitter also helped him kickstart a project during the World Cup that ended up involving 55 schools in 11 countries, and a video conference of 3,000.

There are drawbacks, however. If you have lots of followers on Twitter (Mr Roberts has more than 3,000), you may not have time to read everyone's Tweets. But it is possible to sort messages by topic or interest group - using a hash symbol before you search for something can help dig out tweets related to that topic, for example. Programs such as TweetDeck or HootSuite can also sort Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn into streams of information.

A good place to start might be to join a group on Twitter such as #UKEdchat, which for an hour every Thursday evening hosts discussions about different aspects of education. There are also subject-specific groups, such as @TESEnglish, where English teachers can share resources and ideas. Michael Harrison, an English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) teacher at Bromley College in Kent, has found #ELTchat, which runs discussions every week, particularly helpful. He also has found work with the British Council through being a Twitter follower.

When Jodie Collins (@jodieworld) first signed up, it seemed little more than a harmless diversion. Now ICT co-ordinator at South Rise Primary school in south London, Ms Collins blogs and uses Twitter "to make contact with other ICT co-ordinators I wouldn't otherwise know existed, in primary and secondary. It's easy for those in a small village school to forget what it's like in a school like mine where we have 40 different languages," she says.

After winning a BECTA 2010 Teaching Award, Ms Collins attracted new followers interested in what she is doing in the classroom. She has also contacted ICT companies on Twitter. After a query about a training video, for example, she was asked to speak at technology show BETT in return for some free software.

Sharing ideas and development materials is all well and good, but some teachers even credit online social networks with furthering their career. Laura Doggett (@lauradoggett), head of modern languages at independent Berkhamsted School in Hertfordshire, believes using Twitter and writing blogs has helped raise her profile and even helped her land her current job. She also used Twitter and her blog to develop a relationship with the school before she got the job. Another MFL teacher, Lisa Stevens, who works part-time at Whitehouse Common Primary in Sutton Coldfield, now runs a consultancy business and is involved in various television projects, while her blog is viewed by as many as 100 people a day.

The initial stages of building your online network can be hard work. Finding the "right" people to follow on Twitter can be time consuming, for example, but worth the pay-off when you end up with a useful stream of information you can use not only to improve your lessons, but perhaps your job prospects as well


Dan Roberts: http:chickensaltash.edublogs.org

Lisa Stevens http:lisibo.co.uk

Steve BunceVital: www.vital.ac.uk

David Mitchell - www.asksir.co.uk


- Give it time - every friendship and relationship takes time and effort.

- Use a Twitter client - a piece of software that displays the information in a more manageable way - TweetDeck is a good example.

- Find someone sharing interesting educational ideas and links - for example, @tombarrett and @timrylands.

- Look at what they are saying - does it interest you?

- Follow at least 100 people to get a steady stream of ideas.

- Don't feel you need to read everything. Watch, lurk and wait till you feel comfortable to contribute.

- Look out for 'hashtags' (a '#' symbol before a search term) These can show the tweets from an event and help you see what's going on.

- Share a bit of yourself - when you talk with people, it doesn't always have to be about work.

- Enjoy being part of a learning community that you can ask questions of and get practical support from.

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Sara Parker

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