ICT - 140 and counting

4th June 2010 at 01:00
Twitter's not just for Stephen Fry. Mike Kielty reports on how teachers are harnessing this free technology to create a 'community of learning' beyond the school gates

By any standards, Thomas Tallis School in London is unusually tech-savvy. This specialist arts college has its own online forum ("Tallis Talk"), its own iPhone application and many blogs showing pupils' work. But it is the school's Twitter feed (@creativetallis) that has been its most effective tool in reaching out to a wider audience. The school has more than 1,000 Twitter followers and regularly updates its feed with links to its pupils' work and to different artists around the world.

For Jon Nicholls, the school's art college manager and main tweeter, the micro-blogging site could lead to a fundamental change in the way pupils study. "It's a great model of learning because the more you learn, the more you invest in it, the more you offer other people, the more you get back," he says. This style of teaching is less top-down and more collaborative, he adds, a way to communicate in new ways, both with pupils and with the world outside the school gates.

Twitter - based on text-based posts of up to 140 characters - has become enormously popular since its creation in 2006, but the benefits for schools have not been clear until now. While many teachers have individual accounts on the site, and some schools have created their own Twitter feeds, there are few examples of how it can be used constructively in the classroom.

All of which makes @creativetallis all the more remarkable. Mr Nicholls believes the main reason for the school's success on Twitter is that it has created a "community of learning".

He interacts with other tweeters interested in creative ways to learn: asking and answering questions about teaching; posting links to other artistic sites; displaying the work of Thomas Tallis pupils. "It's about being part of a conversation on the web, and connecting with people who have mutual interests," he says, making @creativetallis much more than a dry school newsletter.

As well as its official feed, the school is experimenting with Twitter in lessons. One idea was to divide children into groups to market Fair Trade products from different countries. The children practised advertising the products on Twitter, just as many real companies would. "It encourages brevity, accuracy, precision. All the things that we want children to develop as communication skills," Mr Nicholls adds.

Teachers elsewhere are also seeking out new methods to harness this technology. At the end of his lesson, Andrew Luxton, a history teacher at Priory Community School in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset, asks selected pupils to send a tweet to one of his Twitter addresses (@PCSLuxton and @PrioryGCSEHums), describing what they think is the main point they have taken from the lesson.

Other pupils provide feedback and improve the message until both they and Mr Luxton are satisfied. Then he sends it to the whole class, in what he has dubbed a "tweenary", to help the children to focus on and remember the key message of the lesson.

While Mr Luxton is keen to point out that he does not use technology just for the sake of it, he believes that Twitter can be a useful classroom tool. "If Twitter helps some pupils boost their grades or understand something more, then it is worth it," he says. "It is very easy to use, does not consume time or other resources, and is free."

At St Ninian's High School (@stninianshigh) in East Renfrewshire, Kenny O'Donnell, a geography teacher, organised a live tweeting conversation for his class of 13 and 14-year-olds with Alastair Humphreys of the Catlin Arctic Survey (@ArcticSurvey), who was at his camp in the Arctic Circle at the time.

"Twitter is a quick and easy way to get a real person in your classroom," says Mr O'Donnell. He also points out that it is free, a "Godsend" to teachers and schools in the present economic climate.

But not everyone has climbed on board the Twitter bandwagon. Anastasia de Waal, deputy director of the think-tank Civitas, argues that it could distract teachers and schools from more effective, if less fashionable, teaching methods. Twitter might be useful for teachers to exchange ideas with one another, but does not necessarily have a place in the classroom, she says.

"My worry is that there is a feeling schools must be up to date and take on all of the latest technology, and it isn't going to work for everybody. It may be just a distraction."

The use of Twitter in classrooms is still at an experimental stage. It is far more common for teachers to set up personal profiles on Twitter and use them to share ideas with others in the profession.

Laura Doggett (@lauradoggett), a French teacher at Westfield Community Technology College in Hertfordshire, is an e-learning expert who has blogged about how Twitter can be useful for teachers. She has more than 1,600 followers on Twitter, which she uses as a place to talk with other teachers and as a "sounding board" for new ideas.

"It's really great to be able, in one scroll of a page, to move from a fantastic recipe to a great English teaching resource to a brilliant new strategy on using virtual learning environments, to somebody needing some help and being able to contribute," she says.

David Miller (@DavidMiller_UK), an award-winning English teacher at another St Ninian's High, in Kirkintilloch, East Dunbartonshire, has more than 750 Twitter followers. He tweets to other teachers, discussing ideas, but does not allow his pupils to follow him. He says: "I find it an incredibly powerful tool for personal and professional development."

There are risks for teachers using Twitter. Any inappropriate messages could lead to problems at work. Argyll and Bute Council in western Scotland banned its teachers from using Twitter last year, after one was found to have posted around 20 messages a day. Her posts included criticisms of the headteacher and one that read: "Had S3 period 6 for last two years...don't know who least wants to do anything, them or me."

It is difficult to imagine Twitter conversations between teachers and pupils ever becoming a normal part of school lessons. Why tweet a message to someone less than 5m away from you? But the signs are that tweeting will become a more common learning tool, with teachers using it to communicate with their pupils outside the classroom. It is at the forefront of the wave of Web 2.0 technologies that are transforming the way teaching and learning takes place by making it more conversational.

As Jon Nicholls says: "Twitter is the most efficient, fastest, most focused version of that conversation you can have online."

How can schools use Twitter?

- Producing daily tweets about what is going on in the school.

- Sending out administrative messages to parents, pupils and staff.

- Introducing children to the Twitter streams of notable figures outside the classroom.

- Creating "communities of learning": groups of tweeters interested in a specialised area.

- Starting "tweenaries", in which children condense the key message(s) of a class into the length of a tweet.

Top tweeting schools

- @creativetallis - 1,065 followers - Thomas Tallis School, London

- @OrwellHigh - 479 followers - Orwell High School, Felixstowe

- @ClassroomTweets - 475 followers - Year 2 class at Holy Trinity Rosehill CofE Primary School, Stockton

- See also @schoolduggery - 4,037 followers - An independent perspective on education in the UK. Contains numerous lists where you can link to schools and teachers in particular subject areas.

Log on for learning

- Futurelab - a not-for-profit group that researches and helps schools to implement new technology. www.futurelab.org.uk 0117 915 8200

- Green Schools Online - sets up websites for schools, including Twitter feeds. www.greenschoolsonline.co.uk 0844 668 6844

- Edmodo and Learning Landscape for Schools are social networking sites where schools can create private communities so teachers and pupils can exchange messages and ideas without them being made public. www.edmodo.com info@edmodo.com www.ll4schools.co.uk 020 8764 2663.

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