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Twitter for professional development in education

Having been an active user of Twitter for some time now, I have come to see the power of this platform to aid my professional development and grow my thinking. Michael Fullan, Andy Hargreaves and many others, have demonstrated the power, and necessity,  of 'focused collaboration' to school and professional development. Twitter is another way that educators can extend that collaboration beyond the daily physical limitations of where they work and live, and the colleagues they meet, and work with, face to face. That is not to say it is without its faults and issues, just as there will be issues in your day to day interactions with the people you collaborate or work with. But, for me, the advantages of adding another layer of collaboration through Twitter, far outweigh the disadvantages. As with any actions or interactions you need to engage critically, reflectively and thoughtfully. I am seeing more and more new colleagues dipping their toes in the waters of Twitter, and it is to these that I want to say 'welcome!' and offer one or two pieces of advice.

If you have joined Twitter to help develop your thinking and improve your practice, great! You can do this through collaboration of all kinds, but to collaborate you need to engage. After all, Twitter is a social media platform, and for it to be 'social' it needs people, and it needs those people to engage with each other. Creating an account and starting to follow people is just the very beginning of that process. When you create your account you need to think about a few things, in order to get the most out of your Twitter experience. The first is your name. Most people are quite happy to use their own name, though you may have to change things slightly if there is someone with the same name as you already with an account. I have to reverse my own to @gilchristgeorge as there was already a George Gilchrist registered. You can also add a number to  identify you e.g. georgegilchrist10, or you can add something that is unique to you to help identify the real you e.g. georgegilchristheadteacher. Whatever you choose, it needs to be something linked and easily recognisable as you.

Some people choose to remain anonymous on Twitter and use some sort of name that is designed to keep their identity hidden. There are many reasons why you may choose to do this, sometimes it is a parody account, such as @thebadheadteacher, designed to poke fun and raise issues that the creator may struggle to do using their real identity. Whatever the reason people choose for remaining anonymous, I think it reduces their ability to engage and collaborate if other users don't know who it is they are speaking to. As with everything, its your decision though. Another early decision is whether to make your account a 'locked' one or an 'open' one. If you have an 'open' account it means anyone can request to follow you and immediately see all your tweets. In a 'locked' account, anyone wanting to follow you and see your tweets, has to request to be allowed to do so from yourself, then wait until this is approved, or not. I have always used an 'open' account, because I want people to be able to follow me easily and I wanted to build up my collaborative network quickly. I think a lot of people who have created 'locked' accounts do so because they are afraid they are going to get people following them who they would prefer not to. But even with an 'open' account you can stop this from happening by 'blocking' or 'muting' them, so they can't follow you, or see your tweets. I have always looked to be open with people, however I might be working with or collaborating with them, and I apply the same principle to Twitter. During my seven years of using Twitter I have rarely had to block anyone, though I have had 'follow' requests from people I have not followed back, but whom I don't mind if they are seeing my tweets. Generally, I will follow back any other educators, or researchers, unless they are trying to sell me something. Some people will DM (Direct Mail ) you as soon as you follow them, to get you to look at their Facebook site or some resource they are promoting. Not cool, and I usually unfollow them pretty quickly.You will have to decide your own filter in these respects.

Two other early considerations you need to make are about your profile. The first is, are you going to include your photograph? I do, but many don't and they will use avatars or cartoons in their profile. I have used these in the past too, but I prefer a photo, so people can see who they are interacting with, if they have never met me. This helps make the connection more real in my eyes. I know a lot of people are uncomfortable putting their photo out there, but at least it shows you are a real person, and it can be interesting changing them from time to time to show something of yourself and your life. Its another way to help people to get to know you as well. I have lost count of the number of times people have come up to me at conferences and said, 'are you George Gilchrist?' because they knew me from Twitter, but recognised me from the photo in my profile. Adding a background image, and refreshing this from time to time, also keeps your profile fresh and interestiing The second consideration is the description you write of yourself in  your profile. The first rule is write one, because, if you want to collaborate and interact with people, they need to know a little about you and your interests. So, just a little (you are limited anyway by Twitter) description of your role and interests will suffice and tells people a little bit about you. This really does help you build up contacts and collaborators. A lot of people add something to the effect that 'all views are my own' so that people understand they are expressing their own views and not their employers, and it can help them remember that themselves too!

Once you have created your account, and sorted out your profile, you are ready to go. You may have in mind  people you already know that you want to follow, these might be friends and colleagues who are already on Twitter. It might be worth considering here the main purpose of your account. Is it for developing professional contacts and promotion of collaboration? Is it personal and just that? Or, is it a mix of both? Whatever you have decided, this will probably point you in the direction of people you might like to follow. Twitter will start sending you suggestions of who you might like to follow as well, once you are active and they can see the types of things you are interested in. When I first set up my account, it was mainly to connect with people interested in leadership, education and learning, and still is. I also tweet some personal stuff (see this weekend's tweets re the Eurovision Song Contest) but none of it really controversial. You have to remember whatever you tweet all your followers can see.

Start following people and they will probably start following you back, especially if they know you already. It can also help just putting out an initial tweet saying something like, 'Hi, have just joined Twitter and hoping to connect with people interested in keeping learning interesting', or something like, remembering the character limits. This will often get you your first followers who you don't already directly know. One thing is for certain, you have to tweet. I see so many accounts where people have started and built up a hundred or so followers, and who are obviously interested in education, but who have sent out no tweets. 'Use it or lose it' might be a good maxim. If you are here to collaborate then you need to do that and start speaking to people. Is no good just lurking in the background and watching what is going on. That is not collaboration and helps no-one. Its like the person who signs up for a course or conference and then decides not to contribute. What's the point? Get your feet wet and start making real contacts with real people, that's what you are here for.

Now you are underway, you may want to build up your followers and the number of people you are following. The more of both, the greater the range of interactions and the greater the opportunity to develop your thinking and practice further, and the busier your timeline becomes. You do this through engagement. Reply to people's tweets and join in with conversations when they are happening, or later if you can't do this in real time. That is one of the joys of twitter for professional development, you access it when you want, not when you are told. As you contribute to conversations, you will find more followers, as the people you are engaging with have their followers, and they will see your tweets too. Another great way to build followers and contacts is by taking part in some of the 'chats' that happen almost every day on Twitter. These normally have hashtags (#), which you have to use to join in the discusions and sharing of practice. Some examples are #SLTchat on a Sunday evening, for those interested in school leadership issues, #PrimaryRocks on a Monday night for those interested in primary education, #EdChatUK on a Thursday night, which looks at all education. These are good starters for educators in the UK. There are also many secondary subject chats that happen throughout the week, and specialist chats like Early Years, Support for Learning, Additional Needs, NQTs, and so on. There are also chats that are international in nature. There  is #IncludEDau and #aussieEdChat which happen on a Sunday morning and are great chats about education and will help you build up contacts in Australia. There are similar chats in other countries and all of them encourage people to participate from wherever they are. I have taken part in chats from USA, Germany, Holland, Ireland and New Zealand and have made some super contacts and collaborations as a result.

The key to building up your presence on Twitter is active engagement. You need to be aware of some issues though. Bots are a bit of a nightmare. These are not real accounts, with real people, they are designed to send out messages, spam and sometimes porn, via Twitter. If you detect them you can block them, but if they take over your account you need to inform Twitter and change your password. You will get people contacting you offering to sell you thousands of Twitter followers. These people usually only have a few followers themselves, and why would you? Unless you're a business of some sort, possibly. As in any group of people, you will find some you don't really like or get on with. Debate and discussion is fine, but personal abuse is never acceptable. if you are subjected to any of this, I suggest you report and block. Some people will never change their minds or their views about anything and they can resort to online bullying. Life's too short to worry about them, so just block and move on.

As I said at the start the advantages for educators of being on Twitter far outweigh the disadvantages. Like any tool or resource, it is only as useful or as good as the person using it. My advice is to use it, critically engage, build links and contacts who can help and support you, and vice versa, to develop and grow your thinking and practice. Twitter should be a place for all the contribute to the discourse around schools and education and, like a lot of learning, it needs to be fun and enjoyable too. We can all contribute to that. What Twitter can do is give you a voice in the discourse that might otherwise not be heard. I have always believed the practitioner's voice needs to be raise and listened to, Twitter helps with that.

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