Is professional discourse possible on Twitter?

Recent “conversations” on Twitter have left me excited, annoyed, frustrated, and thrilled. Very much like any other conversation but there have been some fundamental differences in the nature of the Twitter experiences that inspired me to dust off my blog template.

I adore discourse. Fortunately, I married an amateur elocutionist so I get plenty of practice. Theresa and I started this blog so we could engage with others around what we’re reading or wondering about. My motto (after “The Geek Shall Inherit the Earth”, and Wil Wheaton’s philosophy) is “Seek first to understand then to be understood”. I truly do want to understand different perspectives. There is no benefit to walking around ignorant or wrong so I want to engage with people with different perspectives. It’s not their job to convince me I’m wrong, but my job to seek them out and investigate if I am. Within reason, of course. I’m not actively looking for members of the Flat-Earth Society.

Twitter has opened a whole new world of resources. I have four perma-search columns in Tweetdeck and am constantly tagging new sites and resources as a result of the awesome people I follow. In the past few weeks I’ve been purposefully engaging with other educators who have explicitly stated an opinion I disagree or struggle with and many times, find myself more frustrated than ever before. Almost without fail, the frustration comes from the nature of Twitter itself and not the conversation. If we focus on those moments when educators are directly engaging with each other around challenging issues or topics, there may be cause for some concern.

Which leads me back to my guiding question: Is professional discourse possible on Twitter? A few points of evidence for what might be getting in the way.
140 characters is very limiting. When trying to assert your point of view, one of the first things to go are “unnecessary words” such as please, thank you, I was wondering, tell me more, I agree but am curious about…those words that let the other person know you’re not attacking. As a result, a tweet that we mean as curious and inquisitive may come off as brusque and rude. Some educators solve this by referring to blog postings they’ve done on the subject and others disemvowel themselves or truncate their words to a point where it’s hard to interpret their message.

Twitter moves quickly. Even though there are resources for tracking connected Tweets, it’s my sense that most users are doing other things while Tweeting. As a result, someone posts a Tweet with a provocative question, not knowing their partner had to head back to teach, and wonders if they’re being ignored, their question was too forward, or their partner has gotten bored with them. By the time you return and see that question, four hours has passed and whatever point you wanted to make may have slipped away.

We’re talking about big issues. As a result of working with Adam Fletcher, I still feel a tickle when I talk about student engagement without students. I feel that same tickle when we try and tackle big issues on Twitter. When we have an #edchat where most of the Tweeters are on the same page, there is the potential for it turning into an echo chamber. This by itself isn’t a bad thing but I fear it may lead to atrophy of our discourse muscles. On the other hand, trying to talk about this big beautiful thing called learning in snippets seems to border on disrespectful.

It’s very possible that the problem lies entirely with me. I point to the length of this post as one example of how I struggle with character limits. A friend and colleague of mine has done a great deal of work around discourse and presents the following types and it’s interesting to think about what type(s) are possible on Twitter:

Conversation: Talk where the participants take turns talking and listening but little movement occurs. The talk is congenial. (Mark Lipman) Carefree and effortless discourse. (James Dillon)

Dialogue: (Talk where) “members help one another reconsider, reevaluate, and reassemble bits of information they already have, integrating them into a new, more inclusive whole.” … Dialogue encourages mutual respect and insights that lead to new solutions. (Peter Winchell)

Discussion: Alternately serious and playful effort by a group of two or more to share views and engage in mutual and reciprocal critique. The purposes of a discussion are fourfold: 1) to help participants reach a more critically informed understanding about the topic or topics under consideration, 2) to enhance participants’ self-awareness and their capacity for self-critique, 3) to foster an appreciation among participants for the diversity of opinion that invariably emerges when viewpoints are exchanged openly and honestly, and 4) to act as a catalyst to helping people take informed action in the world. (Brookfield and Preskill, p. 7)

Debate: Participants argue opposing sides of a question with emphasis on winning based on reasoned argument. The winner is usually determined by a judge.
Clearly, I am not advocating for limiting Twitter to just sharing resources but a part of me wishes we had a version of “let’s take this outside”. But with slightly less violence. Should we as educators develop an approach that allows us to start a conversation on Twitter and move it elsewhere? What are your thoughts?

On Being Critical....A Response

I didn't intend for this to be a full post - but as I was busy typing away in response to Angela's post I realized it would just be better to link my responses from here!!  Start by reading Angela's original post - go ahead, I can wait!!

Angela makes a pretty powerful case for the alignment of tech tools with what we are teaching/learning.  This has long been a cause of mine - that the technology should serve some sort of pedagogical purpose, not merely be put into a lesson for "fun" or because the district has decided to go with blogs and wikis as a form of PD.  I pushed back in a district recently that asked me to use a particular tool that an administrator had seen, but not used, while working with teachers on differentiated instruction.  I pontificated on my stance (and I don't say that lightly - I know I did it) and made sure they understood that I would not sacrifice the deeper learning about differentiating for the sake of the technology tool.

And at the same time - I was a hypocrite.  The district had also asked me to go virtually paperless in order to model technology integration for teachers.  This was not my first time working with the teachers, they had gone through "the fundamentals" with me and I thought going paperless was a grand idea.  We were going to spend some time on design and the teachers would all have laptops so the electronic content would make things easier for all.

So - I embedded a poll and a WallWisher wall into the website as a pre-assessment tool.  Nothing fancy - just replacing the paper/post-it note activity with one that was virtual.  And while we did not get completely derailed - we certainly slowed a bit as the teachers wanted to learn how to use the tool and ask questions about access.  Did the use of technology align? Yes - to the going paperless objective.  Maybe not to the differentiated instruction.

When the technology gets in the way of the learning - whether because it doesn't work the way we want it to or because it is "dazzling" - learning doesn't happen. Or rather, not the learning we had intended or planned for.

Angela talks about her best work involving a lot of discomfort - I know that I learned a great deal as I developed the website for the teachers and thought about which tools to embed and which to save for another day.  But did my learning and the discomfort of using a tool promote the learning of the teachers?

I had hoped for a relatively presenter-free day - one in which I had created a tool for the teachers to use and explore differentiation as they designed for their classrooms with me there to guide them as needed.  Instead, the website became the powerpoint and we walked through it together.  Was it because I hadn't crafted the experience well enough or was it because after the initial resistance to working on their own, I resorted to "expert" mode?

I have been and continue to struggle with the role that technology should play as I work with teachers.  On one hand, I think the use should be purposeful and meaningful.  Kim Cofino's recent post on Looking for Learning and her observation rubric has me thinking about making the use of technology more transparent and embedded.  Kim Moritz's post on Facebook in schools has me thinking about open conversations with educators about technology that presents both the good and the bad and seeks solutions.  And now, Angela has me thinking about alignment and discomfort and change.

I don't know everything there is to know about technology or technology tools - I only know where they fit in my world.  I try to promote questioning and exploration - but more often than not am not truly successful.  I get a lot of sharing -but not a lot of pushback or discourse. 

How do we change professional learning to embrace this?