Research: Twitter in Education; another case for the PLN

John Dewey (1950) discussed the importance of social experiences when looking at the growth of knowledge.
With the introduction of the Internet and the new social media networking tools that have become available, how educators collaborate and interact with each other in professional learning communities has changed significantly. Evidence of collaboration as a result of Twitter was further discovered as participants responded to a survey question asking if connections made on Twitter developed into intentional collaboration in other forums. The data show that 100% of the participants had taken connections made on Twitter to another forum.

Teachers need to be able to engage in dialogue with others who can give support and advice so they can try new and different techniques.

As professionals collaborate and construct knowledge together, communities of practice are formed (Wenger, 1991, 1998: Wenger, White, Smith, & Rowe, 2005),
Socio-cultural theories of learning (e.g., Vygotsky, 1978, 1987) view knowledge construction as a result of individuals interacting in social environments over time. These experiences in turn allow for knowledge growth and for a person’s cognitive schema to assimilate and change.

For example, Participant 9 had this to say about those with whom she networks: “I think that about 90% of those I network with are related to my job in some way. I really don’t use Twitter for my personal life.”

In various online settings such as Twitter (in the form of short 140 character interactions) members ask questions, formulate responses, or make statements, which instantaneously allows for the end of isolation, even as a teacher sits alone in a classroom, which is viewed as a valuable practice that supports professional learning and development.

Six participants also described how they are able to receive support in a variety of ways from their Twitter network. Participants explained that they were able to “blow off steam” to understanding colleagues, receive technical and pedagogical support, identify new job opportunities, and receive encouragement.

Participant 4 states, “My practice benefits from my involvement on Twitter because I am more confident in my ability, have many more resources, have a PLN [professional / personal learning network] I can turn to for instant response to a problem or encouragement when I’m in need of it.“

Participant 9 explains, “I am the only biology teacher at my school. Collaboration is a bit difficult when others don’t know the subject or don’t understand the content because of the level that I teach…Twitter has provided me the means to connect with others and help me find answers that I would have trouble obtaining otherwise.“

Many people believe that Twitter is simply a social opportunity; however, is it possible that Twitter may be more than just social and allows those in a profession such as education to develop a professional learning network? To examine this question, the study looked at the same 2000 tweets from the 10 participants to decipher the types of tweeting that was occurring.

Nine of the ten participants specifically described increased access to practical resources and ideas as a benefit. For example, Participant 8 stated, “I have been able to implement ideas from others in my own classroom, and share my own ideas which people have helped me improve.” Similarly, Participant 2 wrote, “It’s great to be able to connect with people who are useful resources. They can point me to activities, lessons, etc. that will directly impact my students. I follow many teachers who are science/ biology/marine science teachers, educators, or other sources of such information because it pertains for my job.”

From the researchers’ analyses, it is evident that these ten teachers are effectively using Twitter for professional networking and growth. Additionally, Richardson (1997) suggests that the main objective of professional development should be to foster changes in teachers’ knowledge, beliefs, and attitudes because these components of teacher cognition are closely tied to teaching practice. Evidence from this study suggests that interactions through Twitter can lead to these results.

Darling-Hammond and McLaughlin (1995) state that teachers need professional development that extends far beyond the one-shot workshop. They need opportunities to learn how to question, analyze and change instruction to teach challenging content. Loucks-Horsley and colleagues (Loucks-Horsley, Love, Stiles, Mundry, & Hewson, 2003) argue that effective professional development should:

  • provide opportunities for teachers to build content and pedagogical content knowledge;
  • be research based and engages teachers in the learning approaches they will use with their students;
  • provide opportunities for teachers to collaborate; supports teachers to serve in leadership roles, links with other parts of the education system and;
  • is based on student data and is continuously evaluated.

Professional learning networks created through social networking, like Twitter, can provide these opportunities.
In addition to looking for professional contacts, five of the participants also explained that the accounts they follow must add substance to their network. For example, Participant 2 wrote, “If their tweets seem to be of interest – providing ideas or resources, as opposed to just opinion – I will network with them.”

The K-12 educators in this study engaged in true dialogue, where evidence of actual conversation occurred in Twitter over 61% of the time. Additionally, over 82% of the time, the educators in this study chose to follow other educators or content experts related to their field of teaching so they were able to create a personal learning network meaningful to their professional needs.
Analysis of data shows that a majority of tweets were educationally focused and were primarily in the categories of practice/philosophy, questions, and sharing of resources.
Without a doubt, the social aspect of Twitter is very important. In this study, participants tweeted with issues related to education approximately 54% of the time while engaging in social tweets 43% of the time. These social tweets covered a variety of topics, from medical issues to weather to what their family was doing on the weekend.

The survey asked the participants to describe what they saw as their purpose for using Twitter. All of them responded that Twitter allows them to build connections with educators beyond those in their immediate vicinity. These connections are purposefully made as a way to find and share resources and to provide and receive support.

Four participants also described how using Twitter gives them a voice and confidence in educational discussions. Participant 4 stated, “Twitter is my forum for my ideas on social reform, school reformation, education, ability/disability, and more.” Participant 1 adds, “Twitter has helped me to build a strong professional reputation. Because the content that I share is seen as valuable by a large number of followers, my voice is recognized and respected. That ability to develop a reputation as an expert is something that many teachers working with traditional tools in traditional classrooms don’t ever have. I’ve always known that I was the intellectual equal to those working beyond the classroom. Twitter gives me the chance to publicly prove that.”