Chirping about Twitter

24th April 2009 at 01:00
Everyone from A-list stars to your youngest charge will now be familiar with Twitter. But how can it help in the classroom?

When you saw that this article was about Twitter, did you sigh and shake your head? Maybe even curse the micro-blogging craze that you can't help but hear about every other day? It was no surprise then that when Sir Jim Rose's latest review proposed that schools include it in the primary curriculum, the news was met with a mixture of horror and disdain.

Many teachers have already learnt the hard way that maintaining some kind of online presence on Facebook can have disastrous consequences when they discovered that pupils were able to access half-nakeddrunkenold (delete as appropriate) photos of them that friends had lovingly tagged.

Twitter is often described as a website, but it's really a platform providing a service that allows users to write up to 140-character status updates at any time - hence the term micro-blogging. Egocentric celebrities have been keen to sign up. In Stephen Fry's case, that means sharing pictures and minute-by-minute updates when he's stuck in a lift. But few teachers would be so willing to put their personal lives on display. When it comes to Twitter for pupils, keeping their attention when they are "tweeting" on computers or mobile phones would surely be a challenge.

Josie Fraser (@josiefraser 2982 followers) is a social and educational technologist who was recently in consultation with Becta regarding Twitter's input into the Rose review. "I don't agree with using things just for the sake of it - or because they're trendy," she says in response to critics who think the proposals are jumping on the latest media bandwagon.

"I think educators are in the best position to work out what they want to get out of using a particular tool, and hopefully to be able to evaluate those tools. The outcome of using any software should be about building pupils' confidence in adapting to new tools and to applying those critically."

It is tempting to think of Twitter as a gimmicky social networking site for media darlings, but, as with most technological gimmicks, it's what you do with it that counts.

Ms Fraser has long been a fixture in the world of educational technology, having worked with Childnet International (a charity promoting internet safety for children) and as convener for the Edublog Awards. According to Ms Fraser: "If you want young people to be equipped to meet the needs of any modern kind of workforce requirements, it's impossible to not teach them (the skills). They need to have a set of key skills that they can use web-based technologies to reinforce," Ms Fraser explains.

But rather than teaching Twitter as a subject in its own right, savvy teachers are looking at what it can help themselves and their pupils do.

Digizen, the online resource to help teachers get to grips with social networking, highlights a number of learning objectives, including literacy and communication, along with general online practice, such as self- representation and presentation on the web, learning about data protection and online collaborative groupwork.

As a modern languages teacher, Alex Blagona (@blagona 263 followers) wants his pupils to be aware of their place in a global society and to have a curiosity and enthusiasm for the wider world. Twitter is just one of the tools that Mr Blagona uses to communicate these ideas to his pupils. "Online learning has revolutionised the methods we use to teach pupils," he says, "and key to this is the feeling of being connected to the outside world that the pupils like."

Mr Blagona teaches at Northgate High School in Ipswich, where pupils aged 13 to 18 use educational Wikipedia pages so that they can collaborate and add to a published webpage as they learn. Twitter was recently used to inform parents about what was going on at school when a group of exchange pupils visited, but Mr Blagona thinks that in the future it will have a role in furthering classroom discussion as well as acting as a publisher of school news. "Social networks are ideal for pupils to keep in touch with teachers, but schools and local authorities (with reason) advise against accepting pupils on Facebook.

"Children have emailed work to teachers for a number of years, but Twitter can allow an online conversation to take place on a specially set up account that can be open to all, and yet also continue the learning experience."

The issue of privacy is potentially the most serious problem associated with using Twitter as an educational resource. Some schools have adopted blanket bans on mobile phones, Facebook and MSN to limit cyberbullying and distractions to learning, and so incorporating Twitter into day-to-day school life must seem like a long way off. There is an option of concealing Twitter updates, however many users say that this defeats the purpose of sharing information.

There are other, safer options. Services such as Edmodo (designed specifically for education communities), Yammer and ShoutEm offer closed communities with the advantages of communicating as an online group. These services allow teachers to maintain a separate Twitter account and followers for professional purposes, but pupils can still benefit from online group discussions and continued learning in a safe environment.

A nother way of avoiding issues with pupils' online safety is for teachers to use their own Twitter networks to teach, without needing children to interact directly. Ollie Bray, a former geography teacher, (@olliebray 489 followers) has joined Learning and Teaching Scotland as a national adviser for emerging technologies in learning, and has used Twitter in innovative ways in the classroom.

In one geography lesson in February, the class was discussing the heavy snowfall submerging most of the UK. Mr Bray put out a message on his Twitter account: "Talking with class about the weather - what's it like where you are? Tweet location and weather outside your window. We will plot it in Google Earth."

"I carried on chatting to the class then I checked my phone after about five minutes and I couldn't believe the amount of responses I received," says Ollie. "The class was surprised I had so many friends."

He then asked his followers to upload "tweetpics" (photos) of the weather in their area, and the pupils were then shown how to plot these pictures on Google Maps. Pictures and tweets were plotted on to real-time maps of the weather. "The class picked up on the differences in the amount of snow and this generated a great discussion about why it snows less next to the sea and why it snows more on higher ground."

This creative use of Twitter is a far cry from giving pupils licence to chat to their friends throughout lessons. It wasn't essential to the lesson, but as a resource it added a dynamic and real-time relevancy to pupils' learning. One PowerPoint presentation - "22 interesting ways and tips to use Twitter in the classroom" - is being passed around and added to by teachers online. It cites telling stories - by getting each pupil to add the next sentence - and communicating real-time with experts, as some of the ways to incorporate Twitter into the curriculum.

Mr Bray's lesson depended on his already established network of Twitter followers rather than interacting with his pupils in the classroom. Teachers and other education workers assert a strong presence on Twitter, and there is even an education technology group (you can find it by searching under #Edtech). Laura Walker (@mrslwalker 845 followers), secondary leader for MFL at Westfield Community College in Hertfordshire, has built up a network that provides her with a resource that she believes is "better than Google". By following people who are experts in their field, Twitter users can ask for information on topics and get direct responses or other people's recommended links to relevant articles and blog posts.

Mrs Walker says her pupils like the fact that she knows what she's talking about when it comes to technology. "I've grown up with computers and was always interested in technology, even if my peers tended not to be," she says.

According to Childnet's research into cyberbullying, one of the reasons that children and young people wouldn't tell their teachers about being bullied online was that they did not think staff understood the types of services they used.

But how do teachers find the time to tweet when they are usually in front of a class rather than a computer? "In a way, I've extended my day to use that extra time for professional development," she says. "I can't access Twitter on my school network so I check it a lot out of school hours, and that's when a lot of teachers in the US are online, where they seem to have more access to Twitter during school hours. But it doesn't need you to be constant - I check it while I'm waiting for the kettle to boil or something. I think it's a sign of dedication to the profession that teachers are willing to do that."

Mrs Walker recently showed Twitter to her principal, who was keen to see what the fuss was about. "She was impressed, and after spending about 20 minutes looking into my network, she signed up straight away," she says.

Most of us would think twice before being friends with our boss on Facebook, but Mrs Walker has no problem with her principal "following" her on Twitter: "I use it in a professional capacity anyway. I don't share anything that I wouldn't mind my head knowing."

Thanks to Twitter, we now know that Jonathan Ross @wossy has a "headache from eating the left over Easter eggs just before going to bed". Or that Stephen Fry is "In dressing room. Trousering complimentary shampoos amp; showercaps." But while there's a place for Twitter in sharing information across the curriculum, the days when teachers get regular staffroom updates on their Twitter feed may still be some way off.

Is it trick or tweet?



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