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Twitter and Canadian Educators

An emerging voice is defining what change looks like in the classroom, but are decision-makers ready to listen?

An emerging group of leaders in Canadian education has attracted thousands of followers. They’ve made Twitter an extension of their lives, delivering twenty or more tweets a day that can include, for example, links to media articles, research, new ideas from education bloggers, or to their own, or simply a personal thought. At their best, edu-tweeters are adeptly leveraging Twitter to brand themselves, to reinvent teacher PD, and perhaps to accelerate the transformation of our Canadian education systems. Twitter is being used to extend formal PD conferences beyond their venue to followers on Twitter in real time; it’s facilitating informal discussions (“unconferences”) among educators with common interests; it’s allowing best practices to “go viral” on the Internet; and it’s allowing innovative classroom teachers to challenge the status quo.

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Do you roll your eyes when someone urges you to go on Twitter? It’s too easy to ignore Twitter and to dismiss  EduTweeters (educators who tweet) as a group of ego-driven shit-disturbing techies – with way too much time on their hands – spewing 140-character snippets of “technobabble”. If you’ve already lurked on Twitter to see what all the hubbub is about, you’ve probably scanned a few teacher exchanges of mutual support and encouragement as they rolled down your screen – or maybe you heard about the contents of an edu-tweeter’s sandwich. Avid and casual edu-tweeps (educators who follow  EduTweeters) who are flocking to Twitter are learning to take the good with the inane.

For the uninitiated, Twitter is an information network made up of 140-character messages called Tweets. Messages from users you choose to follow will show up on your home page for you to read. It’s like being delivered a newspaper whose headlines you’ll always find interesting – you can discover news as it’s happening, learn more about topics that are important to you, and get the inside scoop in real time.[1]

Twitter never sleeps, nor do its most prolific Canadian education devotees (see Table 1), an emerging group of leaders in Canadian education who have attracted thousands of followers. They’ve made Twitter an extension of their lives, delivering twenty or more tweets a day that can include, for example, links to media articles, research, new ideas from education bloggers, or simply a personal thought or idea…anywhere, anytime from their smartphones and tablets. While many tweet good ideas and good practice, others use it as a virtual soapbox to deliver a relentless torrent of seething quips against the status quo. At their best,  EduTweeters are adeptly leveraging Twitter to brand themselves, to reinvent teacher PD, and perhaps to accelerate the transformation of our Canadian education systems.

Reinventing PD

The power of Twitter is not Twitter itself; it’s the connections it facilitates. Those connections can break the sense of professional isolation that many teachers feel within the walls of their own schools while reinvigorating their lesson plans by exposing them to a daily global idea exchange.

The power of Twitter is not Twitter itself; it’s the connections it facilitates. Those connections can break the sense of professional isolation that many teachers feel within the walls of their own schools while reinvigorating their lesson plans by exposing them to a daily global idea exchange.

“Like most educators, when I was teaching, I had a filing cabinet, where I would create a lesson, teach the lesson, and throw it back in the cabinet,” says Doug Petersen (@dougpete), a career educator and lecturer at the University of Windsor’s Faculty of Education. “Now, I take a look around the Twitterverse, and it’s amazing how many people just come forth with ideas and resources that go deeper than I would have ever dreamed of going.”

Twitter is also having an impact on traditional face-to-face PD conferences. It’s becoming common practice for event organizers to create a hashtag[2] (i.e. #edcampto) – a keyword system that directs followers to other tweets in the same category, thereby creating a running chronicle of the presentations and discussions for interested participants outside the room. West Vancouver School District Superintendent Chris Kennedy (@chrkennedy) says, “I get to attend lots of great conferences without being there. It’s up on my screen and it runs in the background.”

Twitter hashtags also serve as hubs for scheduled or ongoing exchanges among peers – in Canada (i.e. #CdnEd) and internationally (i.e. #educhat), based on their position within the system (i.e. #cpchat for principals) or their connection to provincially based networks (e.g. #BCed, #Abed, #Mbedu).

It was only a matter of time before the camaraderie and trust developed among educators on Twitter evolved into face-to-face PD gatherings like the EdCamp movement. Organized by teachers for teachers, EdCamp “unconferences” – like the ones held in Toronto,[3] Vancouver, Montreal, Edmonton, Quinte, and Delta – are spreading like wildfire throughout Canada and the U.S. Usually held on Saturdays, EdCamps have no pre-scheduled presentations and no keynote address; the learning experience flows from the kinds of passionate conversations that – at most traditional PD sessions – only happen during coffee breaks.

“When we share best practices, we don’t isolate them to our schools and school divisions anymore,” says George Couros (@gcouros), Division Principal of Innovative Teaching and Learning for the Parkland School Division in Stony Plain, Alberta. Given the sheer volume of information being shared – especially when you follow thousands of fellow educators like Couros does – you’d think it would be difficult to separate the wheat from the chaff. But in fact, he doesn’t worry about catching every tweet that crosses his screen. “The best ideas tend to go viral and find me.”

One of his own ideas illustrates the point. When Couros wrote a blog about his school’s Identity Day – where students had the opportunity to share what makes them who they are in a Science Fair format[4] – his good idea found educators in Texas, North Carolina, British Columbia, Ontario, Chicago, and Brazil emulating the initiative.[5]

A widespread criticism of Twitter Personal Learning Networks (PLNs) is that they’re echo chambers of like-minded innovators drinking their own Kool-Aid. Chris Kennedy begs to differ, claiming that pushing ideas out from his blog, refining them, and gaining a community perspective on them, has opened his mind to viewpoints that he wouldn’t have otherwise contemplated. But he also keeps his enthusiasm for Twitter in check. “It’s my number one form of PD right now, but I’m not falling in love with Twitter, because maybe I won’t be on it in two years.”

Transforming Classrooms

So how deep is the actual learning from this warm and fuzzy online collegiality? Although evidence is so far predominately anecdotal, the Pearson Centre for Policy and Learning, a UK-based research centre, examined how teachers can, and do, use Twitter and other social media for professional development. Its report states that online collaboration that is “sustained over time and supported by specialists results in improvements in teachers’ attitudes and beliefs, teaching strategies used…and students’ attitudes and behaviour, and students’ achievement.”[6] The report also calls for published guidelines and support for teachers and leaders to help them use social media in school.[7] This is in stark contrast to a professional advisory released in Spring 2011 by the Ontario Teachers’ College, warning its members of the dangers and legal implications of the use of social media with students.[8] Rodd Lucier (@thecleversheep), a teacher from Komoka, Ontario blogged about his fear that this warning will grant “reasonable grounds to remain on the social media sidelines.”[9]

Lucier – and other prominent  EduTweeters who had built professional relationships on Twitter – organized Unplugd, a PD retreat for a national group of teachers, principals, faculty of education reps, and parents to explore in depth the changing dynamics between teacher and learner in the digital age. The prevailing philosophy resonating from Unplugd is that transformation is not a matter of simply replicating traditional models of teaching and learning with Smartboards. In fact, technology was barely discussed – it was about pioneering techniques that increased student engagement and motivation; powerful examples of inquiry-based learning; a shared philosophy of teachers relinquishing traditional power dynamics with students in favour of group collaboration and cumulative learning; and above all, how crucial it is to bring back to our education systems the joy in teaching and learning. Their stories, some of which detailed systemic roadblocks to classroom technology integration, were captured in an e-book and videos.[10]

These teaching innovators have hopscotched the “what” and are defining the “how”. Take for example EdCamp Montréal and TEDx organizer Pierre Poulin (@ppoulin) promoting his iClasse[11] 1:1 laptop constructivist program across Montreal’s schools and districts. Based on eight years of research and experimentation in his Grade 6 classroom, he developed a paperless and bookless learning environment where round tables replace traditional desks in rows, students work in teams, and learning goals are introduced each day. With new teaching and staff training methods designed alongside implementation, Poulin is trailblazing a path for younger teachers.

Motivated by a mixture of ego, frustration with the status quo, and sheer political will, educators like Poulin are driving change in the system, despite the system. 

Motivated by a mixture of ego, frustration with the status quo, and sheer political will, educators like Poulin are driving change in the system, despite the system. From classrooms designing iPhone apps, to flipping classroom lectures with homework, to proving that students with special needs can flourish using iPads, they’re not afraid to fail, tweak, and share their experiences with their legions of edu-tweeps.

Taking on the Hierarchy

Activist tweeter Joe Bower (@joe_bower), a teacher from Red Deer, Alberta, started using Twitter to keep his sanity and find like-minded colleagues to vent his frustration with top-down hierarchical decision-making. Like many teachers, Bower is taking advantage of the Twitterverse’s non-hierarchal environment to challenge grading and assessment policies, but few school district leaders are on Twitter to see and respond to it. Among the notable exceptions is Toronto District School Board Director of Education Chris Spence (@ChrisSpence), who uses Twitter to communicate his daily whereabouts, inspirations, and challenges to over 4,000 edu-tweeps. Chris Kennedy of West Vancouver uses social media to maintain decision-making transparency with his school community and is spearheading a district-wide social media strategy.

(N.B. Click anywhere on Table 1 to access to an extended list of influential Canadian EduTweeters)

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“Knowing what a Director is thinking and doing…demonstrates the whole idea of transparency, and that’s the kind of leader we need.” says Zoe Branigan-Pipe (@zbpipe) an elementary teacher and pre-service instructor at Brock University.

Former Superintendent and architect of one of Canada’s first district-wide 1:1 laptop initiatives, Canadian Education Association CEO Ron Canuel (@RonCanuel) feels that it’s essential for EduTweeters to attract more teachers and school district administrators into the exchanges to maximize Twitter’s potential to influence meaningful systemic change. “Without the presence of the mid and late adaptors, successful integration of technology will stay at the periphery of classroom activities and as an add-on in school districts’ Vision Statements.”

Joe Bower lauds Twitter for its ability to create pockets of resistance and real innovation, based on the remarkable networking of the top  EduTweeters to date. But the edu-Tweeter movement is going mainstream.

Joe Bower lauds Twitter for its ability to create pockets of resistance and real innovation, based on the remarkable networking of the top  EduTweeters to date. “Institutions couldn’t pay the George Couros’ to do what they have done for free.” But the edu-Tweeter movement is going mainstream. Couros, his brother Alec Couros (@couros) Professor of Educational Technology University of Regina, and Dean Shareski (@shareski), Digital Learning Consultant for the Prairie South School Division, have parlayed their influential social media brand into more formal paid PD events for school district leaders.[12] This may be a positive sign that the edu-tweeter message is trickling up the line, or an indication that grassroots Twitter activism is in danger of being co-opted, not unlike the torrent of “21st Century Learning” rhetoric that’s omnipresent in conventional PD.

Time will tell if a critical mass of decision-makers will find ways to build teacher-driven classroom innovations to scale, but the clock is ticking and Canadian  EduTweeters aren’t holding their breath. This point is best illustrated by a face-to-face discussion I overheard between two Pierre Poulin disciples during an EdCamp coffee break chat. They were comparing prices on construction materials required to build more do-it-yourself desks that would accommodate the iClasse philosophy. This left no doubt in my mind that all of this edu-tweeting is for the students, driven by a movement of educators that Thompson Manitoba principal Robert Fisher (@RobCFisher) describes as “caring so much that it hurts.”

For a full lexicon of Twitter terminology, please visit: https://support.twitter.com/entries/13920-frequently-asked-questions

Special thanks to Rodd Lucier, Zoe Branigan-Pipe and the organizers and participants of Unplugd 2011, Joe Bower, David Wees, George Couros, Chris Kennedy, Shannon Smith, Chris Wejr, Stephen Hurley and the Toronto EdCamp organizing team, Pierre Poulin and the EdCamp Montréal organizing team, Cailey Crawford, and Ron Canuel for contributing their time, thoughts, and experiences to this article.

EN BREF – Un groupe émergent de chefs de file en éducation canadienne attire des milliers d’adeptes. Twitter fait maintenant partie intégrante de leur vie : ils transmettent vingt micromessages ou plus par jour qui peuvent inclure des liens à des articles, des recherches, de nouvelles idées de blogueurs en éducation ou à leurs propres idées, ou tout simplement une réflexion personnelle. Au mieux, ces édu-microblogueurs tirent habilement parti de Twitter pour se démarquer, pour réinventer le perfectionnement des enseignants et, possiblement, pour accélérer la transformation des systèmes d’éducation canadiens. Twitter sert à étendre les conférences de perfectionnement professionnel aux abonnés en temps réel, facilite les discussions informelles (« déconférences ») entre les éducateurs ayant des intérêts communs, permet la propagation virale sur Internet de pratiques exemplaires et permet aux enseignants de classes innovantes de remettre en question le statu quo.


[1] Retrieved at: https://support.twitter.com/groups/31-twitter-basics/topics/104-welcome-to-twitter-support/articles/215585-twitter-101-how-should-i-get-started-using-twitter

[2] Hashtags are created organically by edu-tweeters as a way to categorize messages. People use the hashtag symbol # before relevant keywords in their Tweet to categorize those Tweets to show more easily in Twitter Search. For educators, hashtags have also become a powerful, simple tool for tracking topics (i.e. #assessment, #effectiveteaching, #resilience, #studentsuccess, etc.).

[3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=zq9KzCCpuo4

[4] http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/791, http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/974,

[5] http://georgecouros.ca/blog/archives/1962

[6] http://pearsoncpl.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Tweeting-for-teachers.pdf, pgs. 18,19

[7] http://pearsoncpl.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/10/Tweeting-for-teachers.pdf

[8] http://www.oct.ca/publications/PDF/Prof_Adv_Soc_Media_EN.pdf

[9] http://thecleversheep.blogspot.com/2011/04/social-media-advisory.html

[10] http://unplugd.ca/page/unplug-d-11-videos

[11] http://www.iclasse.ca/Site/English.html

[12] http://www.abelearn.ca/ABEL_LeadershipSummit2012.aspx

Exciting! I now have a great

Exciting! I now have a great reccommended list. Already following many of these people. Thank you for a detailed discussion. The more we can share skills, understanding and experience the better. Teaching is not a competition but should be a collaborative, constantly evolving process. If we don't move with the times we are doing our students a disservice. Thank you to those teachers sharing their experience and helping us all to grow!