For many years, Twitter just didn't make any sense to me. I understood how it worked at a technical level, but I didn't understand why anyone in the right mind would want to use it. Over the years, I had a few levels of epiphanies, so I thought I would share for anyone who is still on the fence.
Twitter for learning who's out there and what ideas are taking off:
Back in college, I took a leave of absence with five friends to start an EdTech company. One of the things that we really nailed that year was connecting to the pulse of the network of innovative teachers. If you wanted to hear the latest applications of EdTech tools and see how new ideas about learning were being tried daily in classrooms, you needed to follow a handful of teachers on blogs and on Twitter. We never mastered meaningful online engagement with the group, but we know what they were doing, thinking, and frustrated with. We also were able to find them in person at a handful of awesome conferences. As a lurker, it was important.
Twitter for local connections
In 2011, I graduated college and decided to become a teacher. My school's innovation and tech director, @jenhegna, was really into Twitter. She connected with all kinds of people in meaningful ways, but to me, the conversations felt too abstract and disconnected from the kind of work I was doing. Within our district, she started using Twitter to share resources between our digital learning coaches, modeling community amongst a small group. This helped a lot, and I started to use Twitter for this purpose, but it still seemed like an extra medium when I knew everyone's email addresses.
Twitter for connecting to teachers in your content area
Later that year, she brought us up to the TIES tech conference in Minneapolis and introduced me to @rutherfordcasey. He welcomed me to a magical place I had never heard of: the MathTwitterBlogoSphere, or #MTBoS. He showed me both a set of hashtags and introduced me (digitally) to the people that I needed to follow. It was neat to have somebody tweet at me that I didn't know. However, since I didn't have time to watch what everyone was saying on Twitter, and my timeline was so full, I never really know what to say or to whom to say it. Occasionally when I did something that I thought was cool with my Stats class, I would tweet out at the hashtags, but nobody ever seemed to notice. The biggest thing I got out of my connection to the #MTBoS world was awareness of a conference called "Twitter Math Camp" (TMC).
Twitter for following up with people you met once at a conference
Look back on some old posts to see my thoughts on TMC14 in Oklahoma. I met some amazing people and made sure that the TMC15 dates for California were quickly in my calendar. However, I had 12 months before I would be able to meet with these people again, and in the meantime, there were blogs and Twitter that I could use to connect. For the rest of last summer, I was fairly active and kept up with a few discussions. I found myself tweeting directly at people more often. I implemented a number of ideas from other #MTBoS teachers during the following school year.
A few insights that made Twitter a lot more useful
After last school year started, I disappeared from the internet. I hardly blogged until Christmas break and only occasionally tweeted. During this summer at TMC15, I finally figured out that the #MTBoS community utilized their timeline far more than they followed hashtags. I went through and cleared out the noise -- anyone that I followed that talked too much in vague, non-helpful ways was un-followed. I also added many new friends who had great insights and ideas to share. This simple process meant that I could open my general timeline anytime and find a great conversation to watch or engage. Given the lack of great multi-hashtag-following apps (my opinion) like Tweetdeck in the browser, this also made Twitter on my phone a lot more useful.
Another insight was Twitter etiquette: it is not rude to jump into someone else's conversation. In fact, it almost seems encouraged! I became more comfortable jumping in when I had something to share, leading to a few great chats with both people that I knew face to face and those whom I have never met.
My biggest insight: Twitter is a lot more useful when you need something that others have. This summer, I was excited for our new Algebra 1 class. As a result, all of my energy at TMC15 was focused here. It turns out that there are a LOT of people who have taught Algebra 1, far more than non-AP, PBL Stats (where I previously tried to engage online), and there is no shortage of resources, ideas, and opinions out there. After the conference, it was really easy to start conversations directed at some of the people I was working with to seek further advice. These people either responded themselves or amplified the conversation so others could more easily jump in.
A victory story
One of the people who jumped into a discussion was @kathrynfreed. Eventually, we were going back and forth for a few days with all kinds of awesome questions that significantly evolved my class and my thinking. She was even nice enough to offer a lot of detailed feedback on a 8 page Google Doc with the basic course plan. This is the epitome of Twitter facilitating what I consider a meaningful, awesome connection.
The key to making Twitter useful starts with finding the community you want to engage with. In my case, it was other math teachers. Then you need to understand how that community works -- are blogs the main hub? Is there a set of hashtags that everyone is watching? Is there a tight-nit group that all follows each other and @-tweets at each other? You also need to figure out why you are there. The best case is when you are looking to learn something. When you take someone's idea, try it in your classroom, and engage back with that person, now you have a relationship. Eventually you may have something cool to share and there will be others ready to try it. Sometimes, it only takes finding on person who shares a passion for some idea, class, or topic, and that is enough to get very meaningful results out of your time on Twitter. I have a lot yet to learn, but after 8 years of having a Twitter account, I'm finally starting to get it.