NB: “Mutiny in the Open” – the title of this post, is taken from one of Bonnie Stewart’s headlines in her post “Twitter for Teachers: an experiment in openness” as this post is meant as a kind of companion piece to hers. (It would be beneficial for you to read her post first or as well)
In mid-August, when tasked with teaching two sections of Ed 474, I was both entirely excited, yet wary: I hadn’t taught in a while and this would be my first time teaching a full semester course based solely on Technologies in Education. My primary focus over the past few years has been giving workshops and consultations to professors in course design and online engagement, so cueing up to teach a course to Bachelor of Education students seemed both exhilarating and daunting.
When hired for the course, I was paired with friend and colleague Bonnie Stewart. She would teach one section, I would teach two. We were asked to give a fairly consistent experience to students in all sections. Our way of doing so meant that we shared the same 12 primary readings, the same assignment structures (weekly Moodle forum posts, tweets, a panel discussion, and a final presentation) and the same hashtag on Twitter: #ed474. It was this last piece that constantly thrilled, frustrated, and exhausted me throughout the course.
How does one use the Twitters?
If you have a look at my Twitter feed, you will see that I am not prolific, at this point, by any means. Over the past 3 years of usage, I would definitely call myself a lurker and occasional contributor. Not to say I don’t use Twitter everyday, because I have and do, I just mostly use it to keep up with the people I find fascinating in education, art, music, literature, and other areas.
I have also been lucky to be included in a lot of engaging get-togethers, online and in person, with people that have embedded Twitter in their lives. So, I thought I had a very good idea of where and how it worked. My ideas of how to model Twitter participation seemed sound. Then the course started and everything went a little pear shaped.
The 5 Stages of Twitter
Within the course, participants were expected to tweet at least 4 times a week, with an initial tweet summating their Moodle post, and 3 other tweets either addressing classmates or others using the #ed474 hashtag. I had never done anything like this before and, although we went over several pieces before and during the course, what ensued was quite interesting. Over the 9 weeks I saw many of my students transform their opinions about Twitter and its affordances, and through these moments I have loosely defined what I see as 5 stages of Twitter. What follows is a brief explanation of what these stages are, paired with a few factual examples from moments with my class.
To begin I would say safely that at least 10-15% of my students were already Twitter users of some type, but I think none of them really understood its full capabilities for networked learning or participatory education.
Self explanatory – for a variety of reasons, participants REALLY DO NOT want to use Twitter. There were many knee jerk reactions to tweeting – “Tweet this” and such, and early on many participants derailed the idea. A variety of reasons presented themselves in this sphere, although I would say safely that the primary issue was about safety and digital identity. More often than not, I heard people say they didn’t feel comfortable posting things publicly or were concerned that their tweets (or accounts) could be trawled and exploited. Basically, the concept of learning in the open had no capital for them. Despite the modelling, readings, and sharing, they just wouldn’t come out of their eggs (not literally – I made sure everyone hatched in the first week) and try learning in the open.
After some modelling in class and through the first week of class, many of these issues dropped and participants carved out a way they felt comfortable with. Some others grudgingly continued on and ended the course in this phase. They did the bare minimum for the course and treated Twitter like a plug board for accomplishments. Its doubtful to me that these users will continue on with their accounts. A few have already cancelled theirs.
Some reluctant users even turned to derision of the concept of tweeting, but mostly when reminded by the almighty syllabus, they came along as it was a vital part of their mark. There was also a concern about why we had to use Twitter at all. There was a very powerful moment in class where someone stated that they felt they were being forced to use Twitter as a tool, to which we all agreed – Don’t we always force some type of tool usage in classrooms? Doesn’t every tool have different affordances?
I think I would say that this is where most users stayed for part of the course. People had issues with following/controlling/managing their feed. One of the main questions that kept arising was: How do I follow it all? No matter how many times we went over this question, or what kind of modelling happened, people were overwhelmed.
To be honest, there were moments when I was overwhelmed as well. With roughly 70 students tweeting at all hours of the day, it was hard to keep up with who had said what and when. It was very interesting as I often engaged people in Bonnie’s section, and she mine. #ed474 became a space where we had created an open discussion with not only our students, but other people from all over the world. It was confusing, and at points rough, but at the end of the course a majority of the students were not confused. Not to say that moving up meant they liked it or will continue to use it, but they at least see its relevance.
“Ahhhh…I get it.” The first time I heard this out loud in class was week 3. I had told everyone to BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) as we would be live tweeting in class. With the stream flowing behind me and members of class engaging each other as I talked, the real time piece hooked several people in. Whereas before they had been engaged in asynchronous conversations, they finally saw directly into the Twitterverse and one of its strongest points: the live forum!
This was supported when, each week, I promoted live Twitter talks with different hashtags (#PTchat #satchat, etc) that afforded them glimpses into communities with similar interests and goals. Our classes continued to have the live Tweets every week and often people outside class would jump into conversations allowing for ever expanding discussions.
If I could have done it over again I would have modelled this from day one and set up a special hashtag and treated it like an office hour or the like. This would have given them an immediate live environment to see how complex and wonderful Twitter can be with live events.
My guess would be that at least half of us came away from this course accepting the affordances and opportunities of Twitter. What that half will end up doing with it is anyone’s guess. Both sections I taught were Pre-Service teachers with half specialized in early/intermediate years and the other in secondary. With a handful of panel discussions and presentations based on the many uses of Twitter, by the end of course there was little denying its possibilities. Some participants were talking about how they plan to use it in their practicums and future classrooms. Some had started using it for professional development. Most came away from the course with a real feel for what is possible, regardless of what they do with it in the future.
My takeaway here: It was tough to get this far in the 9 weeks. Networked learning doesn’t happen overnight and the “how to” of Twitter is not even close to being a manual of success for engagement. Its a very personal road, and one that is tough to lead down when you yourself have mostly lurked.
V. Engagement (Enthusiasm)
This would be the hardest one to really gauge, although there were some really clear “wins” with some of my students. A few students engaged and entered conversations with some of the authors of articles on our course. Others engaged in discussion with learning networks that they’d never known existed. Yet others were happy that they were retweeted by local celebrities.
The main point here is that they not only felt engaged, but were engaging others in the open.
And then what happened?
The nature and structure of ED 474 (especially the Twitter element) made it a very challenging course to both participate in and facilitate.
While many students walked away with a clear roadmap for how, when, and why to participate (with enthusiasm!), there were still a number who never left reluctance. This is such a strange point. How often in any class does everyone walk away feeling successful? As educators, don’t we always feel like there’s something “better” we could have done for our learners? As learners, how many courses have we been in that we felt the immediate (if ever) impact of?
A lot of the discussion around technology in education is very binary in this way: is tech better than traditional means? Does Twitter work better than ultra-short fiction as an assignment? Through using Twitter I felt that many participants were able to better break down these binary discussions (even if it took more than half the course to do so) and I am sure they are the better for it. In the last few weeks our #ed474 stream showed more and more students challenging this binary approach and offering more complimentary solutions over either/or conversations.
Personally, there were moments when I felt challenged as I’d never been before. Sometimes when I went into the open, I was greeted respectfully and with constructive comments, while others made me feel very vulnerable. The conventional power structures in a class dissolve when you’re in the open. You’re part of a collective. There are players in that collective who like to play power by assuming certain positions at moments that benefit them and you have to be aware of that. It can be a very delicate place to be and not one that is always comfortable. I felt challenged and those challenges led to a lot of growth. My belief is that since I was always very open and fair with my classes, they felt the necessity of being the same. We shared a community. Even if for a short window.
Of great importance is that I got to know the students in ways that I never have before. It was ultimately a very intense and informative experience for me. With these people I watched “Fearless Felix” diving from space, attacks on American embassies, Hurricane Sandy fallout, the American elections, and many other events. We were often online sharing our thoughts on ideas outside #ed474 and the context of our class. Then there were nights when we commented on Louis C.K.’s SNL pieces and other light-hearted moments. Quite a spectrum for a course on Technology in Education.
During the last week of the course, we decided to come up with a new hashtag so that the cohorts can stay in touch through Twitter in the future. We decided on: #edt13. With this hashtag, the sections move out together having braved the 5 Stages together. There is a value they have invested in moving forward with a shared calling card.
If nothing else, at least this group has a way of staying connected with each other, no matter where their learning futures bring them. And for my part, I have a way of staying in touch with people that brought me through a process I found both exciting, and scary.
It was also, at a lot of points, a whole lot of fun.
(THIS WAS ORIGINALLY POST ON NOVEMBER 12, 2012 ON A SITE I DECIDED TO LET GO BECAUSE I DIDN’T WANT TO GIVE ANY MORE MONEY TO GODADDY)