Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Four P's for Twitter Newbies

This is a guide that has been put together based on personal experiences. While it is targeted at educational minded Twitter newbies, the principles certainly will apply to people from all walks interested in getting started on Twitter. These are the Four P's for Twitter Newbies.

It is rare that someone will understand how Twitter works in their first usage. Instead, newbies should be patient with themselves and with Twitter and take in advice from different websites and from users they trust. While there is no right way to use Twitter, there are certainly pitfalls and things to avoid. If you want to get something out of Twitter, spend at least three months actively reading about Twitter, discovering educational sites that tout the strengths of Twitter, and, most importantly, being an active participant on Twitter.

The people you follow will lead you to topics of interest, to follow more people, and to read blogs and websites of interest. Therefor, you will want to choose wisely. Don't be afraid to follow a lot of people and then unfollow people who don't tweet much, or who tweet things that annoy you. Are they tweeting more about breakfast than world languages? Unfollow. Are they tweeting every minute with bits of info that are unhelpful to you? Unfollow. While there are artificial ways to get lots of followers, you will not get value unless the people you follow and the people who follow you will further the discussions you are interested in. Some good ways to get new followers include:
  • Follow people who are tweeting frequently on topics that are of interest to you
  • Click on people you follow to see who they follow (and follow those that interest you)
  • Leave your account public - you can always boot people you don't want to have following you
  • Be interesting in your tweets and true to yourself and your interests
Getting involved in Twitter can be well worth the time investment. Increase your participation by tweeting at least once a day. Increase this number every couple of weeks until it feels natural for you to want to tweet about things you read and experience. Participation will be one of the top ways you can gain followers and get the most out of Twitter. Including hashtags and links to topics that interest you will draw people into your circle who are interested in similar topics.

You will also find that joining in on Twitter discussions can be a great way to participate. Every weekday there are multiple educational chats that take place on topics of all types. Topics range from discipline specific, to age level, to pedagogy and general interests. You can find the entire list  of topics on Jerry Blumengarten's (a.k.a. Cybraryman) website as well as a calendar with scheduled chats.

Finally, you can also participate by being social. After all, this is a social network. Be social by...
  • Following people and occasionally retweeting what they have tweeted (if you really like it)
  • Replying to other's tweets...if they say something interesting, you hit reply and make a comment
  • Sending direct messages to followers, and thanking people who follow you
  • Recognizing anyone who retweets you or mentions you in a way that you appreciate
Remember to use @ when mentioning someone by their Twitter name.

Increasing the probability of your tweets being read will increase the number of followers you have and the more followers you have the more influence your voice will have. Improve the probability of Twitter working for you by increasing your interactions on Twitter. The probability of any one of your tweets being read is completely dependent on three factors:
  1. How many followers you have
  2. How well your words and hashtags are chosen and
  3. The time at which you tweet
Get more followers in ways that are legitimate to your interests. This will provide the most professional value to you. Read above for ideas on how to get more followers.

People who know how to use Twitter to gain information also know how to search Twitter. This can be done through hashtags and any words included in tweets. Therefor, when people are searching, they will find your tweets if you are including appropriate hashtags and key words or phrases relevant to your topic of interest.

Timing your tweets can be an art-form. In general, if you are including hashtags or you have several followers, people will see your tweets. Knowing your followers will allow you to improve your odds with timing. In education that can mean tweeting during the school day. I find tweets that land in the mid-morning are more frequently read because there are less tweets at that hour. Therefore, whatever I have to say may stay in search results longer. The lunch hour is also a predictable time that all teachers will have at least 20 minutes to be on Twitter and more than you can imagine, actually are. You will have to practice this and get a sense of what works best in your area of interests.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Teachable Moment: Being Inappropriate on Collaborative Documents

This blog entry was inspired by a class I run in which I recently introduced using a collaborative Google Doc. While the intention and ultimate success of the document has met my expectations, the trip could have easily gone down a different path. The views expressed in this blog are completely my own. I respect and appreciate those with similar views or different views who are able to express them in a respectful manner. 

Having students working online, I am constantly confronted by teachable moments. I feel it is my job to teach within the moment, instead of snapping to conclusions and handing out punishments for momentary lapses in judgement on the part of my students. Facing this choice recently, I was reminded of the importance of my job. While my students are of the cyber-generation, they do not yet have the years of experience that we, as teachers, have.

It all happened in an instant. One moment I was demonstrating to the students how we would be utilizing a shared Google Document for our classroom bibliography on the current project. The next moment I was restricting student access, shaking my head, and reassessing what we would be doing next. It was in my reassessment that I was able to see the teachable moment.

Just after I had introduced the Google Doc, three students decided to use the document inappropriately. Beside the names of their classmates, they were adding descriptors that were offensive and completely inappropriate for the classroom setting. They had a good laugh and quickly erased their transgressions. Almost immediately, I restricted their access and told them to knock it off. Had I left it at that, there would have been no teaching. Had I chosen to punish them by giving a detention or by sending them to the office, I would have missed the moment. Here is what I did.

After gathering my thoughts for a couple of minutes and sitting at my desk contemplating my next move, I chose what I felt was the only course of action that would really have an impact on student behavior. I shared with the class how the Internet works. "Everything you ever do online is recorded on multiple computers instantly. Facebook, email, Edmodo, Twitter, etc." I said. "When you decide to be silly or stupid or offensive and put something online that you may later regret, you have lost the opportunity to change your mind. It already exists, permanently." In their minds they were feeling skeptical about what I was saying, so I showed them the proof.

I asked all of the students to open our shared Google Document. I returned the user status to 'can edit' for my offenders. Then I had all students go to File > Revision History. They instantly got it. Even before finding their offensive edits that they thought had been erased, they knew I was telling the truth. It was in that moment that the teachable moment was captured, utilized and had its impact.

I concluded by telling the students "What Google has done here with your Google Document, every website is doing on the Internet whether you want it to or not. Your words, your postings, your actions are being recorded. What will you choose to do next time?"

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Google Apps Changed Our Culture

In 2009 our school officially adopted the Google Apps for Education platform. It was our second major change in about three years. The reception at first was luke-warm at best. Now, three years later, there is a clear shift in the culture of our school system. More teachers and administrators have websites, email usage is through the roof and tools like Google Docs are helping to shift the norm from teacher centric to student centric classrooms.

Google has turned out (with a little time and patience) to be everything our previous platform, FirstClass, wanted to be and much more. Most importantly, it is easily accessible anywhere and that coincides nicely with the expansion of hotspots, mobile technology and a variety of online Web 2.0 tools. Unlike previous rollouts of email and web development tools in our district, the Google Apps rollout was met with much less resistance and a faster rate of adoption among teachers.

The culture shifted away from naysayers and into action. Communication was at the center of it. Easy email organization, simple to create and edit websites, documents that could be posted to websites and shared with parents. The culture revolution was on.

In the three years of implementation, our training has evolved from how to use the tools, to how to effectively integrate the tools into the curriculum. This shift signifies a change in culture. We are getting away from being scared of using the tools and into a place of curiosity and possibility. While the fears are never eliminated, mainly because the technology never stays static, the fact that teachers are signing up for professional development that focus on developing a 21st Century Classroom, says that we have come a long way.

Today we see Google Apps used for a variety of purposes in classrooms, main offices, and for communication with families and the greater community. Our district administrators participate in a weekly blog, many teachers have at least one website/wiki, if not multiple, and we use Google Docs unendingly to create lessons, collaborative activities, and whatever other things we need. No printing, no files lost on thumb drives, and no excuses.

Teachers are now creating lessons and units that require online interaction with Google Docs, or wiki style websites. Teachers are flipping their classrooms and showing others how to take baby-steps forward. Teachers are trying to develop ways to interact with the global community, not just the local one. While not all of the credit should go to Google Apps, the timing of our emergence is not just coincidence.

Next, we will bring the students fully on board with the teachers. All students (grades 6-12) have accounts as of this year. Now, they can create just as easily as the teachers. In many ways, we know the students can lead the way for us. Collaboration can take on a whole new level of partnership from student to teacher, student to student, and student to world.

Not everything is perfect. There are always features that teachers would like to see, and no one loves how frequently they have to adjust to a new Google layout, but the key here is that the teachers do adapt and the community thrives. It took us the right tool at the right time, and now the culture at our school is one waiting to try new things and find that next tool that fits just right in the educators toolbox.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Participating in Online Discussions on Time

As an avid moderator and participant of online discussions for both "traditional" classes and online professional development, I am often faced with the question: "Is it too late to post?" My response: "If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a noise?" Or, in relation to our discussions, if a participant submits a response a week after everyone else has left the discussion, is there any value in the post?
discussionconsideration of a question in an open and usually informal debate  (source)
I love to read what participants have to say, even when they are late, but the truth is that the point of an online discussion is missed when participants post after the end of the discussion. The debate has ended.

Why do participants think it is OK to (chronically) miss the discussion?
Everyone can make excuses for missing a discussion, but the truth is that everyone in the discussion usually has a busy life with lots of good reasons to be doing something else. The majority are still able to participate on-time. What is missing for the chronically late participant? The missing ingredient is the sense of urgency that should be present in his or her participation. The late participant gets to read what everyone else said and still gets to say something. The big deal is that online discussion is not just about reading thoughts and posting a thought, it is a two-way street, or more often it is a ten-way street with lots of people posting lots of thoughts, providing critical feedback to each other, furthering understanding, and knocking down the walls of old limitations. This all takes place in the immediate aftermath of the discussion getting started. It lasts until the end. Then everyone moves on to the next topic.

The second culprit of the late participant is poor management by the moderator. This comes in the form of not having well-stated expectations. It also comes in the form of not following through on those expectations. Troubles arise too when the moderator is too distant and is not actually aware of who is and who is not participating. These factors can make a huge difference in increasing on-time participation and, more importantly, increasing the value of return for all the participants.

Why is showing up well into the discussion different from being late?
It is one thing to show up well after the discussion has started or halfway through the dance. These participants may have missed the early meaty debate, but they also have an opportunity to stoke the fire anew. Their participation can renew and refresh the conversation with a different take, leading the entire group down a path less taken. They can be truly, fashionably late. But, missing the dance entirely is a bummer. Showing up in a newly purchased three piece suit with the most amazing thoughts and insights will be completely wasted if a person arrives when everyone else has left to attend the next party.

How can we better foster on-time participation?
The moderator can take control of participation in a discussion by following two steps:

  1. Set and follow strict expectations that do not give credit for participation after a discussion has ended. Each moderator can decide what this window is, perhaps even allowing for a day or two of overlap with the new discussion.
  2. Be in communication with participants on an ongoing basis regarding their participation. This can be done through grading, comments, and direct messaging via email or other methods.

It would be inaccurate to tell the late participant that their post will have no value. If she or he has done research, put together a meaningful post, and wants to share it, at least the participant, likely has gained something. Yet this person needs also to understand that the post cannot be considered part of a discussion because, by that point, the discussion has ended.

If creating valuable online discussions is important to a class, then the leaders have to take a stand for full participation in a timely manner. The online discussion is not a throw-away portion of a course; it is potentially the heart of the course, the source of inspiration and the nexus of what comes next.