Thursday, January 24, 2013

Getting to grips with Twitter as I enhance my PLN

To those who think that Twitter is a piece of cake, let me tell you that sometimes the simplest thing is the most difficult one to understand and eventually master. Believe it or not, I signed up for a Twitter account about two years ago – yes, you read it well: two years ago! – but I started to tweet last week. I’d been a by-stander all that time. Why did I take so long to have a go at it?

Cat watching bird in cage ca. 1880
George Eastman House Collection
I know what you may be thinking; "Oh, dear, you're just like the silly pussycat on the photo. You've just been watching the bird twittering." Me? No, no at all. Keep on reading and you´ll see there are other more powerful reasons.

Actually, I suppose two misconceptions were at play. First, I thought that Twitter was meant to follow showbiz people and that kind of stuff. Plain ignorance here, you see. Then, every time I tried to use the Twitter web application, I felt alienated by how fast an overwhelming number of tweets were posted. I just couldn’t keep up reading.

It felt like as if I were trying to have a conversation on a noisy, crowded dance floor in which I was surrounded by pogo dancers jumping up and down. Do you get the picture? That’s why I didn’t dare to use the Twitter application on my mobile.

What I find quite awkward about Twitter is that you’re deprived of all the non-linguistic, or paralinguistic, elements that play a key role in a face-to-face conversation. That is, there are no body language, gestures or intonation which you can infer meaning from. Sure, you can still use some symbols to show your mood to your interlocutors. Yet I don’t think there’s much more than this.

Moreover, I think the purpose of Twitter and its design introduce some extraneous elements in human conversation: the issue of brevity, the immediacy of exchanging messages, the disruption of the conversation turns and the skill to encode and decode the messages fast and as they are intended.

In other words, you’ve got to think fast, come straight to the point and type in your thought, fast. No wonder you’re prone to make some unintended typos or other kinds of mistakes (Maybe, this could be turned into an educational purpose). Finally, you’ve got to be able to spot the replies to your tweets in an ocean of unwanted tweets in order to follow your thread.

I just wonder whether there are some linguistics researchers doing conversational analysis on Twitter. They should. I think it could be interesting to learn about how Twitter affects the patterns of social interaction and literacy.

Coming back to the point, all these nuisances make it very easy to misunderstand the meaning of the messages, or give others a wrong impression. What I mean is that, most probably, the sender takes for granted too much shared background knowledge between them and you as the recipient. So some things are left unsaid because it’s assumed that you will be able to infer the intended message almost automatically. This includes recognising any mistakes for what they are.

So, for a beginner Twitterer like me, it’s not being as easy as I thought it would be to get familiar with this tool. I wonder if anyone else doing etmooc is also feeling this way.

Anyway, despite my initial prejudices, I started tweeting all the same. Then about two days ago, after watching Michelle Franz’s BBC again and re-reading Sue WatersThe Twitteraholic’s Ultimate Guide to tweets, hashtags, and all things Twitterarticle, I learnt how to set up my account and send tweets to specific contacts.

I also downloaded and installed the TweetDeck on my desktop. This application made it easier to filter out unwanted tweets. I’ve learnt that you can tweet directly from there and manage your Facebook messages as well. It also allows you to add or remove followers and manage your lists.

Just a few minutes ago, I had one of the most enriching experiences on Twitter. I logged in from my TweetDeck and started tweeting with the tag #etmooc. The thing is that my tweets were getting nowhere because I wasn’t using the tags #etmchat and @etmooc.

In no time, two advanced twitterers, Laurie Renton and Jess Henze, helped me out and I was able to tweet the right way. But then, I got another problem: I couldn’t read the tweets that weren’t addressed at me. I was missing most of the tweets because I hadn’t added a specific column for the chatroom on my TweetDeck.

Again, the same experienced twitterers, together with Sue Waters, gave me a hand. The three of them were very positive, supportive and encouraging. I felt they took care of me. They didn’t need to, but they chose to do it.

By sharing their time and expertise with me, they prompted me to move further in my learning curve. I had to read their tweets and get what they were aiming at quickly. Then, I had to perform some actions to solve the problem quickly. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be able to keep the conversation going. All this process resulted in both learning something specific and creating new connexions with more able peers.

I won’t bother you with theories of learning in this post (good overviews on video are Diego Leal Fonseca’s Conectivismo y Aprendizaje en Red and George Simens’ Connectivism: Socializing Open Learning). I just want to say that I think my PLN got broadened tonight. It expanded not because of the actual number of connexions but because of the quality of those connexions. I think I’ll remember very well what I learnt tonight. Most importantly, I’ll remember who I learnt with.

Now, as an educator, I can see the potential of Twitter as a microblogging tool. This application lets you spread relevant news (for your audience, not necessarily for you) in very few words and fast so that you can reach a broad audience.

A tweet, in a way, is like the headline in the front page of a newspaper; if it catches your attention, you go to the page where the whole story is printed. That is, a tweet is meant to start social interaction and maybe develop conversation in few turns.

However, I still think that if you need to say something wordy or more complex, you’d better use Skype, go to talk over the phone or meet the person face-to-face.

So how can I ‘exploit’ this tool in my PLN?

At this very moment in my own learning path, I wouldn’t use it with (secondary) students. I wonder…
Would I tweet them reminders of deadlines?
Would I tweet them about the topics I know they find interesting?
Would I set a chat room and have them talk over these topics?
Would they feel confident and comfortable enough? (They’re mainly elementary-to-pre-intermediate learners of English)

Would it be appropriate to use Twitter within my teaching context? (In the province of Buenos Aires, in 2006, DGCyE issued a ban Resolución No. 1728/06 on using mobiles at schools)

How would the school community react?

I’ve got too many questions on my mind but not a single answer yet. That’s why I think I need to try out Twitter a little bit more with my peers until I get confident enough to move on.

I’ve just started to use it to ‘spread the word’ about topics and other stuff I know my co-workers find relevant and I got only one reply. I know, I know; I’ve got to be patient. After all, on this side of the world, we, teachers are on summer holidays, you see.

Anyway, I’ll keep experimenting with this tool to ‘find out’ what else can be done with it. I mean what educational purposes and uses can be implemented in my teaching context.

Beware people; now, you’ll see me more often on Twitter ;)