• November 22, 2014

Using Twitter to Talk About Teaching

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Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

My first experience with Twitter came when a friend revealed that one of my older daughters had posted something inappropriate to her Twitter account. It was nothing that offensive—it simply reflected the naïveté of a teenager unaware of how to draw the boundaries between what she kept private and what belonged in the public arena.

Nevertheless, that didn't stop me from overreacting. I marched my daughter upstairs and stood next to her while she deleted her account. A week later, I allowed her to open another, after issuing many dire warnings about the consequences of transgressing that fuzzy borderline again.

Based on that experience, and the few tweets of hers I had read while she was deleting the account, I wrote off Twitter as a poor man's version of Facebook, one that winnowed away features like photographs and event invitations for the brevity of the pure status update. As far as I could tell, Twitter was a self-indulgent site on which people posted the minutia of their daily lives.

Derek Bruff said my initial reaction to Twitter was not unusual. He is director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, where he has built a national reputation for his work in exploring and promoting educational technologies. I wrote to request his help in explaining to readers the role that Twitter can play in helping academics keep track of new developments in teaching and learning.

"At first," Bruff told me in an e-mail interview, "I was under the misconception, like many, that Twitter was mostly people sharing what they had for breakfast."

But in February 2009, Bruff attended a conference on the uses of mobile devices in education. Participants who did not already have smartphones could receive loaners and were encouraged to use them during the conference talks. That experience opened Bruff's eyes to the educational potential of Twitter—not for students, but for himself.

"During one of the keynotes," he explained, "I found myself really wanting to hear what others at the conference thought about the speaker's ideas, so I visited Twitter on my loaner device to do just that. I found that there was a rich back-channel conversation going on there, so I created a Twitter account for myself and jumped in."

"It wasn't until that moment," he says, "that I realized that Twitter could be a medium for smart, engaging conversations, too. I've been an active user ever since."

Last year I saw my way clear of my initial misconceptions and opened a Twitter account of my own at @LangOnCourse. What enticed me was the increasing awareness that folks in the teaching and learning world, like Bruff, were using Twitter to keep one another informed about new pedagogical tools, new print and multimedia resources, upcoming conferences or deadlines, and more. It seemed like I was missing out on a vibrant conversation, and I wanted to join in.

What I quickly discovered—after following many familiar names in the field, as well as the Twitter accounts of a few dozen teaching and learning centers—was the potential for Twitter to enhance and inform what Bruff has described as my "personal learning network."

"We all have personal learning networks," Bruff explains, "although we don't all use that term to describe them. ... The 'personal' refers to the fact that each of us has our own unique network. Think about the colleagues you have at your own institutions, as well as those at other institutions with whom you regularly (or sporadically) communicate. Think about the journals you read, the conferences you attend, and the radio shows and podcasts you listen to. These are all part of your personal learning network."

Twitter can be a vital part of your network. Following Twitter users whose work is of interest to you "can be an easy way to expose yourself to new ideas and perspectives on a regular basis," Bruff said. "It's a bit like the chit-chat that occurs in the lobby at a good conference: You never know what interesting thing someone will share."

I loved that analogy, which struck me as especially apt in light of the way that even the most professionally oriented Twitter accounts will tweet about everyday life or drop a joke in from time to time. For the most part, though, I have kept my Twitter account linked to professionals who share my teaching interests, and who post about relevant research and events. If I want to know what my friends had for breakfast, I can always turn to Facebook; if I want to learn about the most current research findings in teaching and learning, I now turn to Twitter.

Of course, even limiting your Twitter account to professional colleagues, you may find, as I have, that you have to set some boundaries. I follow about 150 other users, which easily translates into a new tweet popping up in my feed every minute or two during the day.

Bruff suggests that the "distraction potential of Twitter" can be managed, though.

It can be tempting, Bruff said, "to try to read every tweet from everyone we follow, but that's often impractical. Just dipping into the 'stream' every now and then is still very useful. And once you start following a good number of people, you might use Twitter's list tools to manage your Twitter experience."

Those tools allow you to create Twitter feeds from designated groups of users, or feeds that relate to specific topics. So a faculty member might have one list of tweets about her specific disciplinary interests, and a separate feed for tweets on general teaching and learning issues—and perhaps another, if she chooses, that follows her favorite celebrities. I follow exactly two celebrities myself, both favorite comedians of mine (Steve Martin and Albert Brooks), which means that every few hours a pretty funny tweet appears in my feed.

If you want to get started on using Twitter for teaching and learning, I will finish here by suggesting a few accounts to follow. Readers can visit my Web site to find a more complete list of accounts that were recommended to me by Derek Bruff, which should give you a better picture of the diverse nature of Twitter's offerings in this area.

But start by following Bruff's own account: @DerekBruff. You'll see frequent tweets on a wide variety of subjects, but most especially on new educational technologies and on conferences or events devoted to teaching and learning.

Naturally faithful readers of The Chronicle will want to stay up to date with the day's news at @Chronicle; British readers can follow the Times Higher Education Supplement at @TimesHigherEd. You'll also find that many writers and reporters from both publications have separate Twitter accounts. For example, you can find Jason Jones, a founding editor of The Chronicle's ProfHacker blog at @jbj, or Casting Out Nines blogger Robert Talbert at @RobertTalbert. My own Twitter account is @LangOnCourse.

I follow several dozen accounts from teaching and learning centers in the United States, Canada, and Britain, the best of which regularly post resources for faculty members at their home institution and elsewhere. My favorites include:

  • The Center for Teaching Excellence at George Mason University (@MasonCTE),
  • The Center for Teaching and Learning at Brigham Young University (@byuctl),
  • Dillard University's Center for Teaching, Learning, and Academic Technology (@DU_CTLAT); and
  • The Georgian College Centre for Teaching and Learning (@GeorgianCTL).

You'll find plenty of people doing interesting work in teaching and learning once you have followed your first few users and see whose research they are referencing and retweeting. You should also find that the accounts you follow, and the ones who follow you in return, build up quickly. In no time at all, you will have expanded your personal learning network in ways that might lead your teaching, your research—and yes, maybe even your breakfast menu or comic timing, if you so choose—in exciting new directions.

James M. Lang is an associate professor of English at Assumption College and author of "On Course: A Week-by-Week Guide to Your First Semester of College Teaching" (Harvard University Press, 2008). He writes about teaching in higher education, and his Web site is http://www.jamesmlang.com. He welcomes reader mail directed to his attention at careers@chronicle.com.

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