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Friday, July 30, 2010

Twitter, The 140-Character Chameleon

Creative Commons photo by Go to
If you've been told that all there is to Twitter is telling people what you had for lunch or following celebrities, you've been mislead. For teachers, Twitter is about connecting with colleagues and sharing ideas, resources and advice.

Call it a chameleon, a shape-shifter, use a pipeline analogy - anything you like - but one thing is for sure, you can't nail Twitter down. Twitter is whatever you want it to be. That's what makes it so hard to explain to people who aren't there - yet so brilliant for those who've taken the plunge.

If you're unfamiliar with Twitter and what all the fuss is about, you're not alone. Consider some of the ways this 140-character chameleon can be used.

Broadcast medium - Twitter is permission-based. Every message you send is broadcast to a group of people who deliberately choose to follow your feed. You do not collect email addresses. You never have to worry that you're sending unsolicited messages (or need to give yours). And whether you're broadcasting from an institution, your classroom, or standing in line at the grocery store, Twitter excels at letting you engage with people who want you to share your ideas, blogs, wikis, videos, and websites with them.

PLN builder - Your Personal Learning Network takes a while to build. This is the one thing you should understand - building that PLN requires real work. But once you do, it can be a great morale booster, invaluable source of advice, and cheering section. You can find thousands of advocates for PLNs, any one of whom could guide you, at a Ning run by Thomas Whitby called the Educator's PLN. Sue Waters has an excellent post on how to get started on your PLN with Twitter.

Professional Development - On Twitter, PD is entirely within your control and available literally anytime. Links to resources, lots of them, are Twitter currency. And colleagues are more than willing to share. This can be a wonderful cultural shift if you're not used to it. None of us knows everything, but all of us know something. Together we're better.

Edchat - You can chat with educators in a true global village through #edchat. It happens twice every Tuesday, but continues throughout the week. It's teachers talking to teachers. Real time PD anywhere, anytime. You won't believe the connections you'll make. Check out details from Tom Whitby and Shelly Terrell.

Virtual conference attendance - Short on PD funds? Just tap into a conference by following people who are tweeting from the event. Seriously, there will usually be someone there. Just search for the event name here, look for a hashtag, and you can monitor and participate in what's happening in that very room in real time.
Live blogging - Send a constant stream of tweets from a particular session or keynote and you'll be providing a wonderful public service to those who are following a conference or other event.

Backchannel - Following the hashtag for a particular conference session lets you communicate with other people in the same session. You can message people across the room, in another session, even those folks who are participating virtually a continent away - in real time. This sounds incredibly disruptive, but can work so well. Sometimes presenters will choose to display the backchannel tweets so they can get real time feedback on what's on the minds of the audience. Backchannels can greatly enrich your conference experience.

Complaints dept. - Get the attention of large companies and other organizations (at the least the smart ones who are listening) by mentioning your problem and including their name in a hashtag. Conscientious organizations will monitor their mentions and will often contact you to see if they can help.

Tech support - Crowd source (from your PLN) support answers to your vexing technical problems. Tell your followers what you're having difficulty with and tap into their expertise.

Subscription service - Whether it's Alfie Kohn, Sarah McLachlan, Lance Armstrong, or Michael Buble, Twitter gives you a glimpse into people's lives and the illusion (or the reality if you're lucky) of proximity to notable personalities. You can follow a author, a movement, a magazine like Fast Company or an organization like the National Education Association or the Canadian Teachers' Federation in real time.

Disaster and emergency tool - The American and Canadian Red Cross, Center for Disease Control, and police departments both stateside and in Canada are using Twitter to alert people to emergencies and send warnings and alerts.

Share your tastes and activities - Remember that tweet what you have for lunch thing? You can do that too, if you r-e-a-l-l-y want to. Some people even tweet pictures of it - ugh!

Real time search - websites are the institutional voices of organizations, tweets are authentic voices of real people. Find out what's happening on any topic under the sun by entering it at Twitter Search. Go ahead, type in anything under the scholastic sun to see what people are saying. You can use this to lurk and see the flood of real-time information on any topic before opening your official account.

News on demand - News from all the major corporate suspects are on Twitter, like the CBC, CNN, the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. But so are thousands of local news outlets - and millions of citizen journalists. If there's an accident on the highway, poor road conditions, plane crash, a dust-up at sporting event, you'll probably hear about it on Twitter before TV, radio and print get it.

Broadcast the revolution - When @cnn couldn't get reporters on the ground during election protests in Iran, citizens in the street tweeted all the drama and fed the world text and video as it happened. Glasnost and perestroika would have happened years earlier if the Polish shipyard workers had Twitter.

Journaling - Your Twitter feed is considered a microblog. But the truth is your tweets will disappear into the ether after a few months. If you want to save them longer than that, check out or You can also send your tweets directly to your Evernote account.

Look at me, look at me! - A bit of shameless self-promotion is expected. So, go ahead and brag about what you or your kids are doing - you're allowed. Don't worry, your PLN will give you props.

Admittedly, there is overlap the categories above. But this list is nowhere near exhaustive. The point is, that Twitter can be a tremendous boon to your personal and professional life. It really is anything you want it to be. Simply put, Twitter puts you in touch with colleagues and great PD, and it makes your world larger.
Skeptical? Read How One Tweet Changed a Teacher's View of Social Media by Irene Tortolini.
If you still have questions or doubts, there are over 4,700 colleagues who can help you back at the Educator's PLN.

If you have questions, comment below and I'll help.


  1. great breakdown...good read (@bf_teach4change)

  2. Great list of what Twitter can do, Ray - things I had not thought of. I will use it in my Ed Tech class when talking about PLNs!

  3. Hey, thanks Mike. Glad you liked. Would love to see you teach one of these days. Maybe you could Ustream a class?

  4. So that's what Twitter is all about! Thanks for a wonderful explanation of the many ways Twitter can be utilized.

    A great addition to my Twitter page:

  5. Thanks so much, Jerry. I really appreciate your comment. It means a lot to me. And thanks so much for posting this on your Twitter page. You are the place to go for educational resources. Don't know how you manage such a rich repository of info, but I'm glad it's there.