When I started teaching six years ago, having previously been in the corporate world, I was keen to show students, particularly in Business Studies, the real world, beyond the textbook. The students were bemused by my approach of constantly showing via the web how real businesses and other institutions actually operated. The textbook is great for providing neat answers in the structure of the syllabus, particularly for exam preparation, but for real life learning we need to go far beyond the books. Textbooks are ideal for students who are good at memorising and regurgitating information for exams that are merely a passport for the next stage of study in life. Not that this works for all subjects. In Economics I keep telling my students that memorising the textbook will only give them a mark up to 80% because they need to demonstrate analysis and informed opinion to achieve any higher. However, education at all levels should be about learning for life and about life and not be just about final results in the HSC and equivalent ‘finals’.
Real life now involves various forms of social media. I joined Twitter at the start of 2009 but didn’t actually participate until about half way through the year. I also use Facebook but purely as a social network. Twitter is my professional network. At times it is overwhelming due to how much knowledge other educators in the world have about various web applications and how to use them in the classroom, plus the time they have to post about it, not only on Twitter but through blogs too. I often feel guilty that I am merely a Twitter trawler since I retrieve so much information from it while giving very little back. When I do give back, it sometimes feels I am speaking to a void, but not for long.
The biggest impact Twitter has had on my classroom so far is an idea I had to connect students in my Society and Culture class with Vietnamese students to help them with a case study they were doing on various aspects of life in Vietnam. Through the retweets of some of my followers and the consequent passing on of names of teachers in Vietnam I was connected with a teacher in Hanoi. He established a blog where my students and a class within his school introduced themselves to each other before my students asked questions relevant to their case study. It has been very exciting to see the project start to unfold. Two of the Vietnamese students expressed very different opinions about the role of power and authority in both schools and government within Vietnam in response to a question from one of my students. It showed my students different perspectives that they could never learn from a textbook or an official information website. At the moment we are keeping the blog private since the students are still learning about appropriate use of blogs, not that there have been any problems to date. However, it has stalled momentarily due to Australia’s summer holidays. I’m looking forward to the return of school to move it along further. This is the third time I have taught this unit but it is the first time it has sparked a desire in me to visit Vietnam. The personal touch really does have an amazing effect.
The same class also has a public blog to maintain a journal for their Personal Interest Project. It opens up an opportunity for them to receive feedback about their ideas. Again, Twitter has been the means for finding the few people who have provided some very constructive thoughts for my students.
The next exciting project that has come from Twitter was purely by accident in the last few hours. I was merely thinking out loud and feeling silly for posting it at all when I typed in exactly the maximum 140 characters: Thinking about teaching research methodologies by having Yr 12 students film 30 sec demos of each method with target audience of new Yr 11s. Within minutes a teacher from the USA sent me a direct message offering his 14 year old students as a target audience. We have set a date for late February for my students to have the videos ready.
I am constantly astounded by the connections I make and this is despite having fewer than 150 followers, a small number compared to some of the educators I follow with 1000s of followers. Through Twitter I also discover new resources, many of which I won’t ever use but some I will and as a result my students will also expand their learning. I can spend hours every day just reading posts and the weblinks they contain but I need to just opt in and out as I want and not become obsessive about it. I had a few weeks over Christmas where I didn’t do any work for school so I also chose not to touch Twitter either. I came back refreshed. I once showed my Society and Culture students how I use Twitter and one asked, “Do you ever sleep?” I laughed and said I didn’t sleep enough but asked if she reads everything posted on Facebook, her main online social medium. She doesn’t.
Twitter is an amazing resource helping me to create an environment of authentic learning. In just over two weeks I will be back in the classroom after a long summer holiday, armed with new ideas and excited by the prospects they hold. Stay tuned to see how they go.