Mr. Duncan Goes to Twitter (and you should too)

Last Monday, I, along with many other educators, had the unique opportunity to connect with the US Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan on Twitter. Tom Murray organized the chat via the #edtechchat hashtag. Around 8pm Secretary Duncan made his way into the chat column and the barrage of tweets ensued. For someone trying to break into Twitter, this was probably not the best forum, however; it did show the impact connecting this way can have.

As the chat continued, Secretary Duncan began asking questions using the Q1 – A1 format. Users prefaced their tweets with A1 (based on the question number) and ended each one with the hashtag #edtechchat. Following the chat was nearly impossible in real-time as tweets cruised down the screen in a frenzied manner. Occasionally I tried to retweet a good question or comment someone posted, but overall it was hard to keep pace.

Eventually, I posed a question to Secretary Duncan in which he was kind enough to reply (above photo). Once this happened, I felt pretty cool. I had to explain to several people how we actually connected and that it was legit and that I didn’t actually know Secretary Duncan, but we now shared a brief connection in time. This occurrence also caused me to reflect momentarily on the connections and opportunities that I’ve had since joining Twitter five years ago.

In those five years, I have made great strides in my career. Three years ago I was let go, along with four other teachers and the principal from a charter school in Philadelphia on July 19, 2010. Soon after, I took to my blog, wrote a post announcing my availability for work, and shared it on Twitter. I had comments and suggestions from all over the country. Eventually I connected with Patrick Larkin and started working at Burlington Public Schools a year later as an instructional technology specialist. Two years later I became the Director of Technology for Groton-Dunstable Regional School District. I’m not saying that Twitter is the reason for my all of my recent successes, but getting out there and making and sustaining meaningful connections definitely had a big part in my career path.

I don’t think Twitter is the key ingredient to being a connected educator, nor do I feel it’s required for someone to be a connected educator. My point is that Twitter can be a really great thing and provide many of us with access to opportunities we otherwise may not be privy too. As educators, we should make connections regardless of the medium. EdCamps, conferences (local and national), and learning communities within a district are great ways to connect as well. Jumping into the social media ring will simply heighten those offline connections and broaden the scope of your learning.

If you decide you want to get into Twitter, I will suggest a few steps that I share with anyone who asks me about it.

1. Once you setup your account, encourage a few colleagues to join as well. Develop a “hashtag” for your cohort and share a few things with each other using the hashtag. This will expose you to ways in which you can share, filter, and organize your twitter experience.

2. Download Tweetdeck for Mac or PC. There are a lot of Twitter applications out there, but my preference has always been Tweetdeck. Mobile platforms will be different, but the Twitter app for iPhone is probably the best way to go.

3. Organize. One of the great features about Twitter is that you can tailor it directly to how your liking. Lists are a great way of organizing people (i.e. English Teachers) and what they share online. I’ve created lists and then I can easily browse through those lists whether it’s on the mobile or desktop platforms. Before you tweet, organize!

4. I would suggest limiting your involvement initially in Twitter chats. They can be overkill for even the most experienced user and can sometimes be an echo chamber of pithy platitudes. The key is to organize first and spend a good amount of time listening, lurking, and absorbing what you see. Twitter is a place where you can simply consume, however; it’s always better to share. My suggestion would be to start a small hashtag chat within your school community and then branch out into larger chats like #edchat

5. “Don’t take Twitter too seriously.” This is a great piece of advice from Dean Shareski who has been sharing on Twitter for awhile. Twitter can be a conversation, it can be a resource, and it can be funny. We all need to laugh a little, but must maintain a healthy balance between professionalism and over sharing cat videos. Plus, don’t get caught up with pseudo celebrity Twitter hierarchy of educators. One hundred thousand followers does not always equal credibility. Again, Twitter is most useful when it is organized. Follow people who you have read, connected with in person, or who are simply good at sharing quality information and occasionally funny.

Over the years I’ve learned and gained a lot from connecting on Twitter. It’s a community that allows me the flexibility to ask a question or have a conversation with people all over the world anytime, anywhere. This medium has had an impact on my life, my friends, and my career. The key in all of this is to share what you do and highlight your teaching, your school, and your district whether you are on Twitter or offline with colleagues. My brief connection with Secretary Duncan won’t change or reform educational policy across the country, but it reinforces the power of this medium. Secretary Duncan may not enact or change anything based on the Twitter chat, but it shows us all he is listening. That’s a powerful connection.