Twitter is not Professional Development

Teachers sometimes describe twitter as an excellent professional development tool and sometimes say that twitter is the best CPD they have ever had…

I think this is deeply problematic and here’s why.

Twitter is not professional development. It has neither the scope nor the flexibility to be anything other than a cute way of sharing stuff. And sharing things is not the same as thinking hard about your practice as a teacher and evolving new ways of working.  If you heard on the news that heart surgeons were taking to twitter to share tips about the latest operating techniques, what would you think? Chances are, like me, you’d be amused and horrified in equal measure. Amused that something as serious as heart surgery could be atomised into 140 character soundbites, and horrified that practitioners of such a complex scientific method could call such a truncated random process professional development. Heart surgeons may well be using twitter to find fellow practitioners, and to share links, but their strategy for CPD will not be built on twitter alone, of that I am pretty sure.

The people you follow on Twitter are not your Personal Learning Network (PLN), they are just people you follow on twitter. Some are amusing, some are random, a few may be inspirational. They may sometimes tweet interesting thoughts and links and so on; but you can’t rely on that to happen, or if they do you may just miss it.  Twitter is the epitome of random. If you are serious about professional development you need to move beyond twitter and engage in some structured activities to improve your practice as a teacher.  Get a book on educational theory or a related topic, read it, then critique it; enrol on a masters course; start writing a blog which deals with substantial educational issues;  or undertake some action research in your classroom and share these results. These forms of extended activity are real CPD. You may well want to take twitter to share what you have found out, to ask questions and seek help, and if you do this, then you will be using the real power of twitter as a social network, but it will be part of a wider overall strategy through which you develop your professionalism.

Twitter alone is not professional development.  Michael Gove does not believe teachers are professionals, many of his policies are designed to whittle away the professional status of teachers in England so his reforms won’t be held up by a well organised group of professionals who can argue their case with eloquence.  News reaching him that twitter *counts* as professional development will gladden his heart as the teaching profession play right into his hands and sign their own death-warrant of deskilling. Twitter may be very important to you in terms of connecting you with other educators, but think about the symbolism of raising this activity and labelling it ‘the best professional development’.  Gove believes that teachers in free schools and academies don’t need to be qualified (http://bbc.in/X9ZyMh), and has enacted laws to this effect.  The bus driver driving the kids to school needs to pass a specialised test before he is allowed to drive the bus.  Once through the school gates, if the management of the academy so choose, then they can let unqualified people loose with the education of young people.  This sends a very strong message that there is no professional basis to teaching; that there is no specific basis of skill and understanding developed by teachers as a direct result of their practice and through sustained reflection on that practice over many thousands of hours. Gove thinks that anyone who can talk, stand up for a bit, and sling a few bits of clip-art onto a PowerPoint presentation will make a great teacher.  We need to set the bar higher for entry into the community of practice of teachers, which means evolving CPD strategies which are a little more advanced than just mucking around on twitter (nice though that is sometimes).

Education, and the professional status of teachers is now politicised more than ever. If you think this politicisation is a shame, then recall that the Hobbits felt it was a bit of a shame when Sauron began the wars of Middle Earth and decided to wage war on ‘men’. But the Hobbits had to overcome their naturally reticent nature and come out and fight, and teachers need to do this too, finding as many ways as possible to show politicians, the media and everyone else that teaching is a highly specialised skill, requiring dedication, vision and application. The skills and dispositions of teaching are not learned overnight, nor are you borne with these or somehow magically possess them as a result of ‘rich life experiences’ or being charismatic or interesting.  You won’t become a brilliant teacher just because you shot at someone in a pointless war thousands of miles away (http://huff.to/YcTOm4). Teachers need to undertake professional development which signals clearly how seriously they take the responsibility of education young people, and in such a way which lifts their practice above the ‘honest journeyman’ nonsense peddled by Gove as he seeks to dismantle the professional basis for teachers and shred the state school system into a fragmented and chaotic pattern of provision.

Twitter alone is not professional development.

**Please share this blog post on twitter**

Making a hash of hashtags

I go to a lot of conferences, and they all have hashtags associated with them. Organisers have realised that enlisting tweeters to help them publicise the event, and also to generate a buzz about is, is a great way to get very cheap PR.

Hashtags are important on twitter.  They used to be crucial, as they were the only way of finding who else had tweeted about a particular topic. Now you can simply search twitter by free text, so if you know your keyword you can type that in and get a set of results back. So tagging in twitter now technically does not need the hash part of the tag.

But hashtags are persistent as they are part of the culture of twitter and the # at the front of a tag signifies to people that this is a keyword to help others find what you are tweeting about. So they are not going away anytime soon. In fact like the @ in email addresses which shares a common lineage in being a little used ASCII character press-ganged into a form of digital national service, they may last forever.

But the selection of the specific hashtag is crucial, and that’s where a mini rant kicks in here.  All too often the hashtags selected by conference organisers are too long.  The hashtag needs to be long enough to be unique, but then no longer than that as it eats into the 140 characters needed to tweet.  If the conference you were at was BDR (this is an arbitrary acronym I made up for illustration purposes), then #BDR12 is a pretty good tag as it is short and sweet and the 12 bit at the end neatly sums up in two characters that this is an annual event. #BDRannual12 is a #fail as the ‘annual’ part is redundant, and #BDRannualconference12 is a spectacular because it’s too long and too clumsy to be usable.

So people, select your hashtags carefully, remember that tweeters have only 140 characters to play with. If you are a marketing type person who is not sure about this, then ask the people coming to the conference on twitter what the hashtag should be.  They’ll come back with a crowdsourced answer for the best (AND SHORTEST) solution.

arguing on twitter… like jousting with bendy straws

I noticed quite a few arguments and disagreements happening on Twitter this week, it seemed there were more than usual, and earlier in the week I found myself in a few tussles.  Maybe I just got sensitised to online conflict and the amount of argy-bargy was no higher than usual, but I had to conclude that arguing on twitter is like jousting with bendy straws. It’s a kind of futile and ultimately unenjoyable exercise. Far better to put the straw into the drink and take some refreshment.

Allow me to expand. Twitter is a great social network/platform for certain things. For sharing links, connecting with people and connecting yourself to the zeitgeist, it cannot be beaten which is why it storms onwards to ever higher levels of usage. Twitter’s enforced brevity, a kind of haiku like discipline of 140 characters is probably a key to its success.  People can’t go on rants or extended ramblings as they can on other platforms and this ensures the messages are short and punchy. The twitter timeline may flow faster than an English river in July, but users know what they are getting, and once attuned to the communicational specificities of the platform the timeline of your followers rarely disappoints.

But what about when a disagreement breaks out? What to do when you tweet an opinion and someone comes right back at you with a contrary point? My instinct has always been to go right back at the challenge, like a yappy Jack Russell who miraculously learned to touch-type. This happened earlier in the week when I tweeted about Niall Ferguson’s hijacking of the Reith lectures for political ends and his unquestioning praise for academies and free schools. Somebody outwith my following dared (dared I say) to challenge my opinion which resulted in an interesting exchange:

Although twitter can display what it euphemistically calls a ‘conversation’ (ideological dogfight would be a better term here), it’s hard to follow the exchange here. But basically my sparring partner opined (not captured above) that academies work because they can innovate. I then asked him to name an area where an academy can innovate where a state school can’t (this is known in the trade as a bear trap!); he then countered that he couldn’t answer but nor could I (which made me see a little bit of pink mist), to which I replied that state schools can innovate, (3 words here: Cramlington Learning Village..) the answer then comes back that academy status won’t guarantee anything which of course is exactly the opposite of what Niall Ferguson was arguing in his lecture where he blithely swallowed the Gove line that the increased autonomy of academies is a silver bullet to educational improvement. LIke a master Kung-Fu fighter I was well on my way to a glorious victory using the weight of my opponent to throw him to the canvas. The exchange continued for a while but ultimately it was just ‘meh!’ what is the point of this, and what am I doing, what am I proving, WTF am I doing arguing on twitter?

So I return to my original point, any victories you gain arguing with people on Twitter are pyrrhic (they cost more than you gain from them). It’s not the platform for a long argument, it’s just poking with bendy straws. My policy now is to state my point, if people disagree I can have one shot back at them (L’esprit de Twittier as the French would say), and after that I resist the desire to go back at them again in a tit-for-tat 140 txt battle. This will no doubt necessitate me taking large amounts of duct tape and binding my hands to the my desk as the sailors did to Ulysses as his boat passed within ear shot of the Sirens.

And if you want to argue with that, there’s a comment box below…

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Image is creative commons, by quinn.anya on Flickr. Original available here

Views are strictly my own . .

“These views are all my own and not my employers”

Many people have this statement or variations of it in their twitter biography. And it’s very easy to see why. Twitter is a great tool for both professional networking, and personal socialisation. It is possible to set up multiple twitter accounts, but most people have just the one and use it for both of these activities, tweeting sometimes socially, sometimes professionally and very often in a hybrid format which combines the professional and social in the same way as a coffeebreak at a conference.

This rider about personal views seems quite comforting at first. It appears to set up a buffer between your absolute professional self (the one which gets up and goes to work and is focused on what needs doing and expects a paycheck rather than a P45 at the end of each month), and your private persona who may be a bit feister, a bit more feckless, a bit more knockabout, a bit more random or whatever else you are when you are not ‘working’.  The quasi-legalistic phrase thus functions as a kind of mantra or prayer in the biography of the twitter user, an offering to the gods of social media to ensure that what happens on twitter stays on twitter.

The only flaw with this is…the whole thing.  First off, just because something sounds impressive and a bit legal does not make it so. Secondly how many employers, faced with an employee who brought them into disrepute through their tweets would get scared off by reading ‘tweets are all my own views. not my employers’? In other words, do these words offer any real protection or are they just comforting but ultimately useless.

If you used your twitter account only for personal tweets you may stand a chance of defending yourself, but if you are in that very common space where personal and professional are intermingled so closely that it is not clear where one stops and the other starts, then it would be very easy for your employer to argue that you have used your professional standing to build your network of followers and therefore the same rules on professional conduct should apply to this as to your engagements in real (non social media) life. Lee Davies argues here  in an excellent posting, that personal and professional identities go beyond dichotomy or trichotomy and are multichotomous, that is we construct and present many versions of our selves using social media, and the more selves we have, the more likely we are going to run into problems as Blackadder did in the episode where he tried to have a riotous drinking competition in one room and have his puritan aunt and uncle to dinner in another (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=krgUVduKFL4)

I won’t go into the many very real problems which professionals (including teachers) have got into using twitter. Suffice to say that balancing a social media identity for someone working in a school is very hard as public perception of their ‘teaching persona’ will inevitably govern judgements about how they behave on social media.

The issue here is that social media is a phenomenon of the 21st century.  Social networks can be seen as an embodied form of postmodern theory which states that there is no such thing as a single identity, but rather people are created from a constantly overlapping myriad of identities where very little is stable. These identities are rooted not in the tangible physical world, but rather in the slippier world of language, where the discursive structures we create do far more to define us than our physical characteristics. But your employer is not a post modernist, they are still very much of the 20th century and likely to judge your tweets as belonging to a single coherent self, a single coherent self having to account for why you sent particular tweets which have not gone down well with HR.  You could try a Lacanian defence if you do end up in hot water, but you probably won’t get very far.

So I conclude, twitter is like russian roulette.  Somewhere there’s a particular combination of 140 characters that you are going to tweet and seconds later your torso will slump on your computer keyboard as you realise you’ve just pulled the trigger on a live round and shot yourself in the head.  Protecting your tweets is not a solution either, you should still assume with protected tweets that everyone can read them all the time as they can be copied, screen-shotted, RTed and so on despite the protection. The only genuinely safe use of twitter is to never tweet.  The network is so public, so ‘out there’, so resistant to erasure, so difficult to stop, pause or control. Tweets take seconds on the keyboard, but an ill judged one may live with you for years.

Image courtesy of Flickr from cinnamon_girl.  Licenced under creative commons, original is available here.

Twitter as a professional development tool. Love it or hate it?

This week I attended a conference about professional development in Scotland.  The participants were Community Learning and Development workers (CLD). I was there to show how the various ways in which a SMARTboard could be used for teaching, training and groupwork. There was also a focus on the use of ‘social media’ as a professional development tool and a way of engaging with individuals.

What struck me most forcefully is the way in which ‘social media’ (mostly defined as Facebook and Twitter), polarised the audience, with strong emotions on both sides. Many were strongly in favour of these engagements, but others felt ‘social media’ is more of a force for harm than good. Many of the debates were about using social media to connect with young and vulnerable people, a topic which does require sensitivity, and which is not the focus of this blog post. Instead I choose to focus on social media as a tool of professional development, an aspect which I think the conference neglected.

During the debate, I chatted to a participant who said: ‘you don’t do that twitter, do you?’  I felt a bit like the man who was asked ‘when did you stop beating your wife?’.  The question felt very leading, and the questioner was fully expecting me to confirm that whilst ‘cruelty to animals’, ‘being a Jedward fan’ and ‘parking in disabled spaces’ were all little vices of mine I was happy to admit to, I would not be caught dead sending a tweet. Awkward.  I shrugged and admitted that I did go on a twitter ‘a little bit’, which got me a very disappointed look.

But I can totally understand hostility to twitter, especially when its use is brought up within the context of a professional community with a vague but palpable notion lurking in the background that people should really get an account and start tweeting.

Twitter is opaque in the extreme to the outsider; a welter of unfathomable terms and a clique of weird rituals.  Evoking religious metaphors is not completely out of place here.  Just as believers wrap themselves in a cloak of flim-flammery which makes it hard for neophytes to penetrate, so twitter users appear as a ‘cult of the initiated’ in which newcomers are bound to make fools of themselves.  And twitter is very like Marmite, most people have a sufficient taste of it and declare themselves to love it or hate it.  Paradoxically for the social network which appears the most ephemeral (140 characters shot out into the ether), twitter requires hard-work and a strange dedication for it to work, and this contributes to the ‘love it, or hate it’ vibe.

Twitter can be a fantastic professional development tool though. I can think of no other way to find people working in your own area so quickly and have such a direct contact with them. They will tweet links and articles and thoughts which will be immediately useful to you. It’s like duplicating yourself many times over. The slight time penalty of checking your timeline should be more than paid off with your enhanced view of what is happening in your area right now. And the paradox is that you can do this without ever sending a single tweet. Simply follow people who tweet about stuff you are interested in and these benefits will accrue immediately.  Some will follow you back, some won’t.  But you get to earwig the conversation like a bystander at a cocktail party. Once you start to tweet, your following should increase quickly and you’ll be drawn into the virtuous circle of sharing, debating and conversation which is twitter at its best.

But explaining the power of twitter to those who have not tweeted is a little like forcing toast and marmite into the mouths of your breakfast companions whilst shouting: ‘taste this you bastard, it’s bloody gorgeous!’

In other words, not the done thing.

Inspector Knacker turns off twitter . . .

It’s Monday 8th August and London, the capital of England is in a state of uproar as gangs of looters smash shop windows and help themselves to the shiny goods inside.  Senior figures within the Metropolitan Police Force are convinced that Twitter is to blame for all of this, so in an attempt to restore law and order, Inspector Knacker of the Yard is given the job of talking to a senior figure within Twitter on the telephone to get him to shut twitter down.  Here is how the conversation went.

@bizrock: Hi Inspector Knacker, you are through to the offices of Twitter how can I help you?

Inspector Knacker:  it’s this twitter thing, it’s out of control, we need it shutting down now.

@bizrock: seriously, you dudes from the Syrian government never give up do you?We’ve told you we are not shutting twitter down 4 times already today, what bit of ‘No’ don’t you understand?

Inspector Knacker: What are you talking about? I’m from England, the United Kingdom, I represent the forces of law and order in the capital city of London.

@bizrock: oh, sorry, a case of mistaken identity; it’s just that most calls we get asking us to shutdown are from dictatorial Middle Eastern Governments, oh and some from North Korea…We used to get them from China, but they’re too busy spending American money to worry that much about a few status updates about what people have been eating for breakfast.

Inspector Knacker: cut the bull Sonny Jim. Just shut down twitter now and we’ll tell you when you can put it back on, probably about 9 tomorrow morning.

@bizrock: sorry Sir, I can’t do that, millions of people rely on twitter, we rely on it here to make us millions in revenue, we are not going to shut it down!

Inspector Knacker: But the youth are revolting, they are organising the riots on twitter and my officers are flat footed and leaden heeled trying to respond to the next flashpoint of violence and looting

@bizrock: We won’t switch Twitter off Sir, that is my final answer.

Inspector Knacker: right, you’ve asked for it now sonny, I’m sending a squad car of my toughest officers to arrest you, the ones I use on the G20 protests.  So what street are your offices in? Expect a knock on your door very very soon. And don’t think about putting the kettle on, they’ll be bringing their own kettling with them and no mistake . .

@bizrock: We have our headquarters in Fulsom Street, Sir.

Inspector Knacker: right I’ve despatched a car straight away, they are going to come round your office and if you don’t unplug that bloody twitter computer, they’ll unplug it for you.

@bizrock:  Dude, seriously, that’s some funny shit you are saying there, we handle millions of tweets per day; the times of using a single computer are long gone, we now use optimised intelligent dynamic virtualised server mapping to coordinate our service from banks of servers all across the country, if you did unplug one, it would be no big deal.  The DCVIT system would simply rebalance the server load, various RAIDs in multiple locations would immediately back data up. You’d probably get like a few thousand fail whales for about 20 seconds. But then it would be game back on..normal service resumed…

Inspector Knacker: You just stop all that fancy pants social media bullshit right now, what the heck has this got to do with Whales, you’re not one of those bloody environmentalists too are you? ….  Hang on, my officers are having trouble finding Fulsom Street, which area of London is that in?

@bizrock: LOL at that, we’re not based in London dude…

Inspector Knacker: not based in London? What kind of an outfit are you?  Ah, I see you’ve moved your operation up North, where are you now Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow?

@bizrock: none of those places…sir…

Inspector Knacker: ok, you moved further West then; I’ve heard about that Celtic Tiger thingy, they were mad for computers a few years back, you in Ireland then?

@bizrock: considerably further West Sir, we are in California in the United States of America. That means you have no jurisdiction over me or my company so your kind offer of arrest and threat of shut down is unlikely to be fulfilled.  You can of course start extradition proceedings, but that could take months, especially as your Home Secretary is still on holiday and she’d need to look at the paperwork.  We’ve just been looking at these riots on Sky News and one of the programmers has calculated that at the current rate of looting and burning, by next Wednesday at 5.47 pm the only thing left in London will be a slightly singed blonde wig once belonging to your mayor.  Even if you did get the paperwork sorted, the US is hardly going to close Twitter down on the say-so of a foreign government is it?  We have a great written constitution over here which sets out the rights which US citizens can enjoy, and a First Amendment which enshrines the right to free speech in law. Shutting down free speech on the whim of a state agency or a government could only happen in a country which did not enjoy a written constitution and whose people were therefore vulnerable to attacks from politicians keen to erode freedoms in order to make political points, keep the population in a semi-muzzled state, or stem dissent.  The same programmer has also been modelling the riots as we speak, and he suggests an alternative course of action. It is a revolutionary policing tactic I know, but he is saying the computer is telling him that arresting the people breaking into the shops will stop the looting much quicker than agonised and poorly informed hand wringing over social media’s involvement.

Inspector Knacker: [nearly crying now] but you are social media, we ALWAYS blame social media when things go wrong. It is the fount of all evil in the civilised world, everyone knows that and it’s true because the Daily Mail write stories about it every day and they are hardly likely to make things up are they?

@bizrock:  tell you what. I can see your predicament. You want to appear tough on Social Media so the politicians can in their turn be tough on social media and you get a good scapegoat for the whole rioting and looting thing. Let me have user names of people you believe are actively involved in rioting and we will suspend their accounts immediately..

Inspector Knacker: user names? How the sod are we going to get those? . .  and whilst we’re on this, one of my boys tells me you have created a hash tag called #londonriots on your site. You should block that immediately.

@bizrock: [sighs] oh Inspector Knacker, you still have much to learn about social media. Hashtags are user generated, no single person owns them, they are just a way for users of our service to create easy to use meta data allowing topics and themes to emerge from the general stream of tweets. Even if we did block a particular hashtag people would just start a new one.

Inspector Knacker: hang on, my officers have been doing some work and we have a user name for you; this bad boy has been causing chaos all around London and in the provinces, his name is @tom_watson

@bizrock: OK, we’ll check out what he’s been tweeting and suspend his account.

Inspector Knacker:  You better do sonny, I didn’t get where I was today by putting up with lip from your sort.  Now while you’re on, put me through to your Blackberry Department..

@bizrock: beg your pardon sir, what do you mean Blackberry department?

Inspector Knacker: well your social media aren’t you? Put me through the department which looks after Blackberries.  Turns out these noughty kids have been using something called Blackberry Messenger as well as Twitter to coordinate their looting behaviour.

@bizrock: sorry sir, Blackberrry is the name of a suite of handsets produced by RIM (Research in Motion), and whilst they have been aggressively marketed to business users, many young people are customers as BBM allows them to send unlimited messages free of charge to anyone else with a Blackberry.

Inspector Knacker: a likely story, just go next door and tell them to shut the sodding Blackberries off this minute.

@bizrock: I can’t do that for reasons I have given previously. Oh and one other thing sir… this @tom_watson you wanted banned from Twitter? Well we looked at his account and we can’t see any connection with looting and violence in London. From what we can make out from his tweets, his website and his wikipedia page, he is a Labour BackBencher who has been fearlessly pursuing the News of the World Phone Hacking Scandal; a scandal which has already cost your force the resignation of its two most senior officers.

…Line goes dead . . .