Reflecting on education Twitter chats

How to tune the voices on the airwaves?

How to tune the voices on the airwaves?

Chats can fall prey to … a lack of meaningful connections (with people or ideas), superficial conversations, and a lack of some sort of closure.

If mismanaged, preplanned chats can sometimes feel contrived. Better planned and executed, they might have the feel of a productive town hall meeting.

But like a town hall meeting, people can shout, speak without actually having conversations, or be lost in a crowd. You leave such a meeting asking yourself what just happened or if anything useful took place.

Sometimes the best conversations are the ones that are neither fast or slow. They are spontaneous and come from a place of honesty or concern.

Dr Ashley Tan in his September 2014 blog post

In the education world of Twitter, hashtag chats are ubiquitous and, for many, an important way to connect with other educators. I’ve talked before about how Twitter is a kind of writing and thinking practice, helping me to distil and crystallise my thinking. I participate in Twitter chats for a few reasons. In these forums, people interested in things I’m interested in are likely to be on the airwaves at the same time; I can find a tribe of sorts. I can connect with new and familiar voices in the Twitterverse.

Many chats are scheduled weekly, and happen over the course of an hour, with either one question, or more usually, a series of questions scheduled throughout the hour. There are also ‘slow chats’ which pose one question and allow those from different time zones to engage in discussion across a day or a week. I approach different chats in different ways. Sometimes I immerse myself in the chat. Sometimes I dip in and out. Sometimes I end up in a side chat having tangential conversations with people whose thinking is coalescing with mine in that moment.

You can find a schedule of the global range of education Twitter hashtag chats here.

As Greg Ashman notes in his post today, Twitter chats can connect us with fellow geeks, even when we’re feeling isolated in our own contexts. He also points out that chats often don’t allow participants to engage in the assumptions underlying their questions. In a chat we were both lightly engaged in today, there were, for instance, attempts by some participants to explore the situated, nuanced nature of the topic. There didn’t seem to me to be a clear understanding of what participants meant by the topic, or why or in what ways they felt it was important. At times it felt like people putting sticky notes up on a wall; comments were being placed alongside each other, but they were disparate and not based in the same conversation or on a foundation of common understanding.

I’d agree that often chats deal with complex concepts and unclarified terms, and sometimes they can descend into a superficial cacophony of noise where people are talking but not listening, learning or questioning. Sometimes when I have questioned the use of a term or the premise of a chat question, I’ve been engaged with by others, but I’ve also been ignored or dismissed.

Sometimes, Twitter chats can produce an echo chamber of like-minded people high-fiving each other. In some ways, this feels good, as Twitter is a place many find solidarity and support. In my participation in the PhD Twitter community, it is often moral support that I’ve sought out in times of academic struggle or isolation. But while dissent is hard in 140 characters – and can easily come across as abrasive or attacking, rather than gently provocative or inquiringly questioning – I hope for robust, rather than cursory or jargonistic, discussion from educators. Yet difficult in 140 characters.

Personally, I’ve found a solution of sorts in this blog. I use it to expand my thinking and explain it to others in more depth than even a series of tweets would allow. Blogging opens up the education conversations we have, widening and deepening debate. We can disagree more gracefully if we have more words in which to do it. I’ve really enjoyed those times in which I’ve been engaged in a conversation with other bloggers, as we build on and respond to each other.

More recently, I’ve experienced Twitter chats from the organiser side. A couple of months ago, Chris Munro, Corinne Campbell, Jon Andrews and I launched the monthly #educoachOC chat, one intended to start a conversation around coaching in education at an Oceanic-friendly timezone. My co-moderators are educators I initially met on Twitter, and now our common interests have developed into this collaboration.

After collaborating using tools such as email, Google docs, Voxer, Twitter messaging and Trillo, we planned our approach and our questions for the first chat. We also launched a blog as a home base; we wanted to make our approach clear and our thinking explicit.

The #educoachOC team learned a lot from our first chat. We reflected on how we found the chat as moderators, how we felt the conversation went between participants, and also used a Google survey to allow participants to give us feedback. In that first go, we had too many questions, which left it feeling a little disjointed at times as people jumped off interesting threads of conversation to answer the next question. One participant said they felt as though they had been coached through the chat; that we had modelled coaching through our questioning and format. One said that most contributors were pulling in the same direction and that it would be interesting if opponents of the approach challenged one another. A major reflection from that first chat was around the clarity of terms. We found participants were all talking about coaching, but seemed to have different understandings of what that meant.

In our second chat, we reduced the amount of questions and focused the chat around clarifying the group’s understanding of coaching. We were keen to build a shared understanding amongst this online community. We prefaced the chat with a blog post outlining the contestations and confusions, and some useful resources. It worked better, we reflected, and we’ll continue to collaborate and refine our approach and format. In that second chat (there’s only been two so far), we were trending in Australia, at the same time as #qanda. While we certainly didn’t intend to be a trending hashtag, that was a reflection of the level of discussion and participants’ engagement in the topic and with each other. It felt much more like a conversation which allowed us to deeply explore a topic and some of its complexities.

I think the education Twitter community does wonderful, exciting things, including through Twitter chats, in which I am immersed. But I do think we can be reflective and critical about how we run these chats, how we participate in them and how we use other media such as blogs, podcasts, Periscope and Voxer to take our conversations further, deeper and towards rigorous and elegant debate.

Tweet, blog or dissertate? On being a writer.

Good evening, ladies and gentleman. My name is Orson Welles. I am an actor. I am a writer. I am a producer. I am a director. I am a magician. I appear onstage and on the radio. Why are there so many of me and so few of you? ~ Orson Welles

book, by @debsnet

Our splintered, kaleidoscopic identities are wonderfully expressed by Orson Welles in the above quotation. Mine include writer, reader, researcher, teacher, leader, learner, mother, partner.

Do you feel like a writer? Does blogging make you a writer? Does micro-blogging? Does being a researcher automatically make you a writer? Professor Pat Thomson has written about ‘being writerly’ and practices which help you to see yourself as a writer. I tried to channel my writerly self in my 2015 – the year of writing dangerously post. I suppose this post is more about Pat’s idea of ‘being writerly‘ rather than ‘being a writer’. If you feel and behave like a writer does that make you one?

From micro to macro, this post focuses on how I use and interact with writing, including writing for purpose and audience. I wonder, are there different keystrokes (or pencil scribblings) that work for different folks? While I’m sure some people prefer tweeting or blogging, or article writing, or putting together a visual or numerical representations of their understanding (interpretative dance, anyone?), I think each platform and tool depends on our purpose for writing and audience to whom and for whom we are writing; each has its usefulness.

Below, I reflect on the platforms and tools I engage with, and what I get out of each.

Tweeting as a writing practice

I find that Tweeting, especially in a Twitter chat, is a kind of speed writing and speed thinking. Graham Wegner recently reflected that a busy Twitter chat can feel like a stampede of groupthinking sheep. Yet it is the torrential speed of Twitter chat tweets that sometimes helps me to clarify my ideas. Being pressured to aphoristically express an idea or viewpoint in a 140-character nutshell often forces me to distil and crystallise my thinking down into its essence, without agonising over it. I have previously called micro-blogging ‘therapy for the verbose’ as it is the antidote to my tendency to say things using too many words. Even my PhD thesis is over its word limit and will need trimming, streamlining and distilling. I have found Tweeting is a writing medium that helps me to most succinctly channel my thinking and keep tangents at bay.

That said, I also like the potentially tangential nature of Twitter chats. Rather than having a fear of missing what’s been said as the tweets roar by, I tend to engage with what I can, and with what peaks my interest. This often means that I spend much of a Twitter chat off to the side in a peripheral discussion, but I tend to prefer this kind of more extended conversation to the one-liner answers to a series of questions. That’s why I like the format of broader chats like #sunchat which work with one question for the hour and allow the conversation to take organic shape depending on the participants. Without the interruptions of regular questions, conversations can be deeper.

Blogging as a writing practice

As I discussed here, blogging has been personally transformative and about global collaboration. I am relatively new to blogging, having started this blog less than a year ago. In that I time I have published 55 posts on my blog, which has been viewed more than 10,000 times in more than 80 countries. Wow! I know that these numbers don’t compare with the superstar bloggers out there, but I am surprised and delighted to have a readership, and more than that, people to whom I’ve connected as a result of my writing, their reading, and our subsequent online, face to face, and voice to voice, conversations.

More than that, blogging has allowed me to take my thinking further than micro-blogging will allow, but more freely and conversationally than academic writing. For instance, I find Twitter a difficult platform to discuss issues of ethics, equity and social justice. Sometimes the subject seems too big for the platform. Some of my blog posts have emerged out of conversations on Twitter in which I have felt too restricted by space to say what I want to say; in these instances a blog can provide the complexity of thought, especially around tricky or contentious issues, which can be lost in the pithy-one-liner nature of tweeting.

PhDing and other academic writing

My PhD is a different writing beast all together, a 300 page monstrosity of a work which I am currently whittling, sculpting and (re)building into a cohesive document. The PhD can feel like a gigantic quilt which threatens to suffocate its maker; it is beautiful, creative, borrowing fabrics and threads from elsewhere while creating something new. The threads of reading and writing overlay and weave together in complex ways which have to come together in a holistic totality, while also working at the level of the small square, each vignette perfectly stitched, formed and embellished.

I recently popped my 110,000 word thesis draft into wordle.net, a website which takes text and distils it down to a visual representation of its most frequently used words. It looked like this:

my thesis wordle

my thesis wordle

I did this to see if my key themes emerged, but was subsequently more interested by words I did not expect to see there: “rather”, “just”, “really” and “something”. This led to an edit of my thesis looking for these words. I discovered that most of them were to be found in my participants’ language, but I did find that many of the “something”s belonged to me, and proceeded to weed them out of the document, replacing them with more precise or concise language. So, even turning words into a visual turned me back into my writing with a new understanding.

Academic writing such as abstracts, journals, conference papers and even the Three Minute Thesis, are others forms again. They require more laser-like focus than the big PhD book, and a clarity of structure and point. While trying to write smaller, more focused texts from the PhD can be a challenge, it is a good exercise in refining and clarifying thinking, while finding different ways to communicate important ideas.

Each of these writing platforms encourages different thinking and writing practices. Writing for different purposes and audiences allows us to layer, appliqué and augment our wordsmithery and our ways of communicating to others and to ourselves.

Every secret to a writer’s soul, every experience of his life, every quality of his mind is written large in his works. ~ Virginia Woolf

Writing, by @debsnet