The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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social media

Teacher Tweets

After a few months of mild annoyance at not being able to access Twitter in schools, I began to search for the reason that BPS blocks it. Ironically, searching for “twitter” on the the BPS website yields only an exhortation at the bottom of a welcome page to follow BPS on Twitter. Googling for it didn’t help either.

I think blocking Twitter in schools is silly. Firstly, students (and teachers) are simply going to access it on their phones anyway. (And if you think cell phone bans work… well, we try.) More importantly, there are a lot of great reasons to be using Twitter in the classroom. I’ll list my top three here:

  • Posting additional enrichment content. I created a separate twitter account for my teaching which I use to post additional content that we couldn’t get to in class, such as videos, articles, podcasts, and more. Sure, I post these on a class page, but that is not enough… if you think students are visiting your class page for anything except checking grades, I’m skeptical. The reason is that the contemporary app-flooded internet has made all information “me-centered”; there is so much information that comes to you (via social media feeds and apps that push content directly to phones) that there is no time or reason for many people to actually actively seek out information. So I think we should play the game; make some of that pushed content our content too. Which brings me to…
  • Communicating with students. Building positive relationships with students means communicating with them in the way they prefer, which is not email or even blogs anymore. It’s through their mobile devices, which every single one of them has. Twitter provides a way to directly reach students, broadly or individually, WITHOUT having to know their phone numbers or giving out yours. (This has been very useful for coordinating The Free Knowledge Stand.) This communication is real time and can include links to information and content around the web. Moreover, Twitter is not just “their” preferred medium of communication.. the new wave of incoming teachers grew up with social media too.
  • Connecting with real world information. With all the teacher buzz I hear about “bringing in real world examples” and “relating science to the lives of our students” it really does seem asinine to have our fingers in our ears about social media in the classroom. Check out my Twitter lists for Science and NASA, for example. You can set up similar lists on any topic or search tag you choose. Which means that Twitter will hand you a real-time, instant, and broad survey of the individuals and institutions discussing ANY TOPIC YOU WANT right now… and its good odds that the best sources among these will be linking to all sorts of information and resources too. Why not include yourself in this discourse? Why not include students in it?

Certainly there are good reasons to block certain information in schools. However, I think Twitter is less likely to be used distractedly (so long as cell phone use remains regulated) for a number of reasons. for example, Twitter is less “social” (in the personal sense) than Facebook, because there are no extensive profiles, albums of photos, lists of interests, time-killing apps, etc. Put another way as I wrote in an earlier post, Twitter is about ideas, not people. And while one certainly can use Twitter for personal communication, there is little difference between doing so and a group text — which is usually more immediate.

Beyond content filtering, there are other challenges. For example, I can see why districts would be uneasy about opening a channel that would allow interaction between teachers and students outside of the clear(er) legal lines of the physical classroom. But the world is changing way too fast to hang onto that fear… the solution could be as simple as a central set of guidelines for use to which teachers agree and a liability waiver.

This year, a Twitter account for my classroom is an experiment. I introduced it late in the year, without a clear plan for what would be on there. As a result, I am not surprised that the engagement is limited to just a few students. However, next year, I plan to incorporate it right from the start with a clear outline of what kinds of information will be posted and why.

I plan to blog the results this fall.

Why I Use Twitter and Not Facebook

I have officially now been asked this question enough that I think it deserves a blog post: “Why do I avoid Facebook and yet use Twitter all the time?” There is an expectation for many that if Facebook is superficial, then Twitter must be even more so. And then I find myself in really long convoluted explanations because I’ve never sat down and sorted it out logically.

So here goes, my reasons why Twitter » Facebook.

  1. Non-reciprocity. On Facebook, you can’t accept a friend request without friending them back. That is, Facebook is a two-way information flow, and attempts to form a relationship between the two people under the presumption that both people actually care about what the other is saying or doing. Twitter makes no such presumption.

    Don’t like the “I’m so high right now lolz” type of tweets? Or the ones that may be erudite and well put-together, but just aren’t relevant to you? Just don’t follow them. Unlike Facebook, there is zero expectation on Twitter that you follow anyone in particular, including people you know or people who follow you. On Facebook this would be rude, since you would have to mute or unfriend someone, and there is all this social diplomacy tied up in friending that leads to a lot of b.s.

    In other words, Twitter acknowledges the difference between 1) people with whom you want to maintain social/diplomatic contact and 2) people who actually post things that interest you or that you want to engage with. There is generally a fair bit of overlap between the two groups of people, but they are not the same thing.

  2. Information and ideas, not people. I would guess that about 80% of the people I follow on Twitter I have never met in my life and probably never will. A significant number are actually not people, but institutions, such as news organizations, educational institutions, nonprofits, or advocacy groups. This is because they post information and observations about things that I actually find interesting or useful. For example: NPR, NASA, various NASA missions, the Smithsonian, Rachael Maddow, Scientific American, Boston Public Schools, BadAstronomer, Neil deGrasse Tyson, Radiolab, Slashdot, the Dalai Lama, etc. The full power of Twitter’s unbelievable information delivery capability gets even better if you make parallel feeds using Lists and standing searches, via a third-party client like TweetDeck. Look for those putting out good tweets. A good tweet stands on its own as insightful, informational, or funny, or it contains a link to something that is, or is about something you directly relate to.

    This ties back to non-reciprocity: I actually know many people who have a Twitter account just to get updates on everything they are interested in, and never actually tweet themselves. This is totally legit on Twitter and actually gets to the core of what Twitter is about, whereas on Facebook this would basically be stalking, because Facebook is more about people than information.

  3. Hashtags. By clicking on a #hashtag, I can pull up all tweets on the subject that are being posted anywhere in the world, by anyone, right now, regardless of whether I know them or not, and without any obligation to make any other connection with them. On Facebook, I would have to search for the person/organization and friend/Like them before seeing the content. Hashtags connect people and ideas that would never cross in real life or on Facebook.
  4. Simplicity. Facebook has evolved a long way from when it first came out during my college years. It is now full of an astounding array of mind-bogglingly inane features. Whereas Facebook seems to add a new creeptastic or needlessly complex feature every few months, Twitter has remained fairly straightforwardly simple and focused on what has always been its core: content.

    There are no profiles. Twitter gives you 1 photo and 160 characters in which to describe yourself. There are no Likes, no long self-absorbed narratives, no photos that aren’t relevant to the present moment/conversation, no boxes to describe everything you do and stand for, no apps to my waste time and leech my personal information, no blanket invites to events in cities I no longer live in, etc, etc. Twitter is not about you, but your content. (Unless you are a pop culture celebrity or sports star, which most people are not.)

So, a lot of this is more due to the the culture of the two social media, especially after a lot of changes that Facebook made in response to Twitter and G+. Yes, I could use Facebook Pages to control one-way information flow and follow ideas and institutions I like. I could sort friends into groups and attempt to control who sees what information. I could mute the people I “have” to stay friends with but who post inane crap, so that their content doesn’t show up on my news feed. I could block apps and invites, take down my personal information, focus only on posting “meaningful” things, and be among that oft-mocked group of digital curmudgeons that use Facebook to complain about Facebook. But in the end… why?

Regardless of whether using Facebook as I would want to use it is possible, the whole culture of the site is structured to emphasize what I don’t like about it and drown out what I do like about it. So especially when there is a social medium for what I do like, that has a sizeable portion of the userbase using it like I do, why not use that one instead?

Things I do use Facebook for:

  • Establishing/maintaining contact with people that I either just met, don’t see very often, or haven’t seen in a long time. It’s great for looking up where people are now, what their current email address or phone number is, and messaging them to get in or get back in touch. That is, Facebook is a great dossier of contacts.
  • Engaging with organizations in which I am a member which use Facebook as their primary means of accomplishing this. For example, the closed/private Facebook group for my residency program’s cohort is the only thing on Facebook right now that sends me notifications. Back when I was running a theatre company, I used Facebook a lot to engage with our fans. Etc.
  • Broadcasting causes or information that I believe a very wide array of people would be interested in knowing or knowing about, and/or that I would like to broadcast to a very wide array of people in a certain area. This is extraordinarily rare. For example, posting what furniture I had for sale from downsizing my house. This could be of interest to many people, regardless of their political or social alignments, and is focused on people living in my geographic area. Twitter does not allow any selection of who receives the message, so Facebook is better at this kind of thing.

I remember a friend saying once “Facebook is great for finding people who were once friends but now mostly aren’t; Twitter is great for finding people who aren’t friends now but we probably would be if we ever met.”

And that’s the thing really.