A Twitter primer for administrators

How often have you heard, "So what the heck is this Twitter thing, anyway?" or "Why the heck would anyone want to use Twitter?
Written by Christopher Dawson, Contributor

How often have you heard, "So what the heck is this Twitter thing, anyway?" or "Why the heck would anyone want to use Twitter?" To be honest, they're not bad questions. Those of us who are Twitter geeks have to remember that the rest of the world may not be Tweeting with us. In particular, teachers and administrators in our schools are often far removed from social media and struggle to see it as anything more than a time drain or a legal liability.

For those people, I'm creating this Twitter primer. Lots of people have done a "how to Twitter" and I don't need to redo it here. This is directed at the administrator or teacher in your school, district, university, etc., who is curious about Twitter, but either doesn't see the value or doesn't see how it can fit into a school setting. Here goes - feel free to add relevant points in the talkbacks if you've had luck in your own setting with social media tools (or if you are still unconvinced).

Let me start by saying, as I've said before, that Twitter and tools like it (Plurk, for example), are not for everyone. Twitter can be the distraction and time drain some people fear and it can probably introduce a level of liability others aren't willing to accept. That's OK; it doesn't mean these people hate students and want us to go back to teaching 18th Century Skills. Hopefully, though, this primer will give people a better understanding of where us "Tweeps" (yes, that's a real name for Twitter users) are coming from in the scheme of social learning and Web 2.0 communication tools.

Twitter is a "micro-blogging platform." Thus, while many tools exist on the Internet allowing people and organizations to write weblogs or journals of indefinite length, Twitter forces users to write "blogs" in less than or equal to 140 characters (the length of a cellular text message). Just as a standard blog can be informative, news-oriented, humorous, personal, worthless, or fascinating, so can Twitter's mini-blogs range from frivolous to incredibly important.

Essentially, as long as users can "tweet" a message within 140 characters, they can post whatever they want. One interesting example of Twitter's "non-frivolous" potential was individual coverage of the bombings in Mumbai late last year. While traditional news agencies could not get access to or provide immediate coverage of the bombings, average people on the ground were providing rapid updates via Twitter on their cell phones (Twitter can be accessed via the web, by text message, or through any number of computer programs, making it very easy to send updates).

Twitter, however, wouldn't be considered "social media" without a component allowing for interactions between users. If users simply posted a thought, a link, or whatever else they might have to say in 140 characters, then Twitter would simply be a mess of very short, disconnected thoughts (and incredibly narcissistic). However, Twitter uses the idea of "followers" to create a community. If a user is following another user, the follower receives updates of the user's "Twitter Feed," via a message on his/her cell phone (useful in small groups, e.g., a circle of friends or students on a field trip), or via the web. For example, CNN uses its Twitter feed to post new headlines; since I follow CNN, I automatically see the new headlines that get "tweeted."

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Now, suddenly, we're to the point where Twitter just might start making sense in schools. Schools have multiple communities within them (teachers, students, administrators, etc.), many of which might overlap. Schools are also part of a larger community, whether that is a district, a town, a city, educational consortium, etc.

If students follow a teacher's tweets, for example, they could automatically see assignments he/she posts. If parents follow a district's feed, they will automatically see when the district posts new web content or get to read the results of school committee votes if the district "live tweets" a school committee meeting.

Direct communication is also possible among Twitter users. So-called @replies allow users to single each other out and communicate publicly, much like yelling across a crowded room. Since I follow fellow ZDNet blogger, Jason Perlow, I can send a tweet @jperlow and it will be clear that I am speaking to him. However, our conversation stays "on the record" and people following both of us can see the conversation take place. Now imagine a classroom where all students are following each other (and their teacher). Entire conversations can take place among students and teacher and be searchable later on (Twitter includes a tagging function to further allow conversations to be set apart from the potential cacophony of many followers).

Direct messages are also possible; these are like passing a note in class, and take discussions off the record. These aren't as useful for the community, but offer one more method of connecting community members.

Twitter feeds can also be made public without requiring people to follow you. There are many methods for embedding the feed into a separate website. Easy one-way communication is a huge potential use case for Twitter. Need to quickly announce something on the Web? Remember that a tweet can come from a cell phone or the Web, making it easy to update anytime, anywhere. Meeting coverage is a great example, but school closings, sports scores, event reminders, etc., can all be tossed on the web by people with zero knowledge of HTML (or even of a blogging interface).

No, Twitter isn't for everyone. However, this style of fast, easy communication within (and outside of) various communities will become increasingly commonplace. The tool is quick, easy, free, and has a minimal learning curve for most users. I bet most of us can find a really good use for Twitter, even if we decide that its place is not in the classroom.

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