Thursday, June 23, 2011

Twitter Chat with (and without) a Purpose

I just left a long comment over on Bud Hunt's blog and thought it might be worthwhile to duplicate it here. First, please go read his post and considering participating in the #engchat conversation on June 27th.

Then here are the comments I left (first very brief comment, and then the follow-up comment when Bud asked me to say more):
I wonder how this conversation intersects with the idea of “productive eavesdropping” here and here.
 Follow-up comment:
Well, I’m not exactly sure where this #engchat conversation is heading, but my overall sense of it is that some folks may be concerned that there’s a whole lot of talking around the various chats on Twitter (and outside the chats), but that perhaps it’s not all that useful because the talk isn’t very purposeful and doesn’t translate into change. That made me think of your earlier musings around “productive eavesdropping” and perhaps how that has a role to play in this conversation.

I think we need to be careful about insisting on everything having a clear purpose. I’m in favor of purposefulness as much as the next guy, and I agree that sometimes we engage in non-productive behavior (whether in meetings at school or online). But I also think we can learn a lot in situations that don’t have a well-defined purpose; that learning (especially online) can occur serendipitously and often without a fixed, defined plan going in.

It’s awfully hard to tease out what effects my online experiences have had on my own practice, so let me use my wife as an example (with her permission). She got on Twitter about two years ago, initially very much as a lurker but more recently as more of a participant. Twitter, in turn, hooked her up to conversations on blogs and she’s now a very active user of Google Reader and just started her own professional blog. It has definitely impacted her practice and it’s fascinating to watch as she now is helping bring other staff members in her building into these spaces.  The conversations, at least among many in her building, have definitely changed, and they’ve changed at least somewhat due to my wife’s “unpurposeful” (at least initially) use of Twitter. As an even more concrete example, her very experienced Building Resource Teacher decided to attend ISTE this year for the first time (she did not attend last year . . . when it was in Denver), at least partially as the result of these conversations.

I guess I think we need to be careful of dismissing the usefulness of “idle” chatter on Twitter and in other spaces. I think for many of us, we may not always be using it purposefully, yet the accumulated effect of the conversations ends up changing our practices (for the better), sometimes in small ways and sometimes in larger ones. I think that simply being involved in conversations, sometimes as active participants and sometimes as more passive observers, is an important part of the ongoing learning process, even when it doesn’t have a clearly defined purpose. That’s not to say that conversations with purpose are bad; they’re not. But it is to say that we need to be very careful about dismissing the usefulness of things that may not appear to have a purpose to us (in the learning place we’re currently occupying), but may very much have a useful purpose for someone else.
Your thoughts?


  1. Thank you for this! I have had the same experience with Twitter as your wife and many others I am sure. I tend to pop in and out of #chats and idle conversation. It may just be silly stuff sometimes, but thankfully life is full of silly stuff. All that "light" banter often leads to extended conversations and then face to face connections with a diverse group of people. How could that be bad?
    If it weren't for Twitter, I would never have connected with Jill. She recently skyped into my grad class to talk about her experiences as a first grade teacher. She was a tremendous help to me. Oh, and I wouldn't have been able to impress my students by adding that her "famous" husband created that "Did you know?" video. Thanks!

  2. Karl, I agree that we should not dismiss the "idle chatter" on Twitter. These interactions have enhanced my classroom and teaching tremendously. I teach social media at Syracuse University's iSchool, and Twitter is a central part of the course. I use a live Twitter feed on screen at all times while teaching, and the conversations continue via the course hashtag between class meetings as well.

    Aside from the increased student engagement, which is wonderful, I've found that informal conversations emerge which lead to a community atmosphere I had not experienced before incorporating Twitter. Students get to know each other beyond class discussion, and they reach out to me via Twitter as well. These interactions, which may seem like chatter to an outside observer, have produced countless collaborations and learning opportunities that I believe may not have been possible otherwise.

    I have recently begun conducting scheduled twitter chats around my class hashtags (#RotoloClass for the social media course, and #TrekClass for an elective called "Star Trek and the Information Age" -- yes, a Star Trek course!). These chats may not always result in deep understanding of the course content on their own, but they do have other benefits. Aside from the more "social" atmosphere I described, conducting discussion on Twitter allows class to happen in a public space where outside views are invited in. Both classes have built followings on Twitter consisting of professionals, students at other universities and even thought leaders on the topics we discuss. Their participation significantly enhances the discussion.

    - Anthony Rotolo

  3. Spot on, Karl. Without many exceptions, when I share with colleagues a neat new web tool or some other interesting food for thought tidbit discovered through generalized Twitter chat there is only a short pause between ah ah head nodding and, "Well, what would its purpose be?" While that question is valid, the knee-jerk reaction to purpose by so many truly symbolizes the plight of the transformational lethargy still thriving in so many buildings.

    The volume of connections and idea propagation that occur, and their pace, is indeed exponential. To those whose craft it is to understand humans and human learning it seems a slam dunk to embrace the kind of interconnection now available on every conceivable device. The learning curve isn't that steep.

    For those concerned about purpose perhaps the confusion is more about the forest than the trees.