I'm fortunate enough to be able to go to quite a few face-to-face conferences every year, generally as a speaker, though I also attend as many sessions as I can at each event - there's always something to learn from any speaker, no matter how experienced they are. This year I've seen some great speakers, not just some of the more famous people in ELT, but a wide variety of teachers talking about what they do with great passion, and sharing their experiences and teaching ideas. In fact, these types of events are my favourite kind of professional development, combining - as they do - the talks, plenaries and workshops with fun social activities and occasionally some sightseeing.
But of course not everybody is lucky enough to be able to go to these events very often, and have to rely on local development opportunities such as workshops or in-school training. And, at least in my experience, this is actually relatively rare too. In all my travels this year I've met hundreds of teachers who receive no professional development each year. It's as if they've simple been forgotten about... Now they're in place and teaching, there's no need to develop them any further or help them widen their repertoire, at least that is what seems to me happens in many schools. So what is a teacher to do in that kind of situation?
Well, there are books and magazines, of course - if you can get hold of them. And you could always organise your own get-togethers with other teachers in the same town as you, but really, opportunities are quite limited. Again, I think that technology (where it's available) can play a part in this process.
If you've been following my posts over the past two weeks you'll have seen me mention a couple of free online conferences that happened last week, one of which I 'attended' and spoke at. In fact these are becoming more and more common and there are plenty of opportunities for professional development online if you know where to look, and if you have the equipment and the connection. But how do you find out about these events?
Well, here is where Twitter comes in.
Now you've probably heard of Twitter, and you may - like many - have dismissed it as a lot of semi-famous people telling the world what they had for breakfast, or which fabulous restaurant they're having dinner in. In fact, when I first started using it myself, almost three years ago, I felt very much the same. All I seemed to be able to find were a lot of people sharing what they had for breakfast and talking about their shopping trips. I almost abandoned it after a few weeks, but I didn't - and I'm now very glad I didn't for the simple fact that Twitter has become my primary source of teacher development on a daily basis. So, let's start at the beginning for those of you who may not have heard of it.
Twitter is what's known as a micro-blogging platform - basically a webpage that allows you to send out short (micro) updates (blog postings) about what you're doing, reading, listening to or working on.
To get started you'll need to open a free account with Twitter (http://twitter.com/ ). You then need to build your own network of contacts - this is known as 'following' people. The easiest way to do this is to start following someone you know on Twitter (you can find me @dudeneyge) and see who they are following. The theory goes that if you and I share an interest (say, teaching with technology) then the people I follow on Twitter are likely to share that interest and, consequently, will be of interest to you! Think of it like going to a party - you know one person there and you rely on them to introduce you to other like-minded people. As you get introduced to more people, your circle of contacts expands and you have more interesting conversations, and learn more.
Once you've built a small network of people you're following, the next thing to do is to post your first 'update' or short message. The basic idea behind Twitter is to answer the question 'what are you doing?'. Each message can be a maximum of 140 characters long – in this sense it is similar to SMS text messaging, as one needs to be brief. You might tell people about a great website you've found, or a book you're reading, an interesting video on YouTube, perhaps share a quick class idea or even just post a simple social message. Anything is possible and you'll find a great mix of messages coming to you as you follow people, and they follow you back.
When you send your message from the Twitter page, it immediately goes out to the people in your network and you will get responses appearing on your computer screen immediately, depending on who is online and tweeting (as it were). You can also have ‘tweets’ (Twitter messages) sent to your mobile phone – handy for when you’re running late or for keeping in touch with a group of friends without sending individual text messages from your phone. It's like a constant stream of mini-conversations.
Because Twitter is text-based, and available on mobile phones, it's one of the more 'democratic' of today's technologies because you don't need a fast Net connection to use it, and it's mobile enough to reach countries where mobile penetration is much higher than Net penetration. In short, it's a relatively cheap, quick and easy way of staying in contact with the wider world of teaching.
And perhaps it is this facet – of contact with a network of like-minded professionals from around the world, and being able to tap into that pool of knowledge and experience within seconds – that makes tools such as Twitter so useful for professionals of any field. We can get instant answers to any questions, problems or issues that we may have.
I've been using Twitter for almost three years and my network is quite large: I follow 915 people and 1,325 people follow me. In that time I've posted 3,945 tweets and received a lot more than that. During a typical day Twitter delivers me links to websites which can be used in class, links to articles which help with research for articles I write (and conference presentations), news and information about face-to-face and online events and conferences, updates from publishers, news from a variety of sources such as the BBC and the Guardian, etc.
But perhaps one of the most useful sides of Twitter is being able to get solutions to problems in seconds - the kind of problems which usually would take hours of research. Why isn't this video playing for me? How do I do a mail merge with Word? How do I get the audio out of this video? How do I convert a Word document to PDF format? These are some of the questions I saw asked and answered just last week.
Really, once you have a decent-sized network, it's like having the biggest staffroom in the world. It's because of this professional side of Twitter use that people have started referring to their 'Personal Learning Network' (or PLN) - their worldwide group of like-minded people who can help them develop professionally in whatever field they work in.
It’s extremely stimulating to be part of a network, no matter where you live, or what sort of environment you’re teaching in, and a great way to make friends, and to feel connected to them. And you don’t need to be online or connected to Twitter all day long to benefit. I started by using Twitter for just a few minutes a day – once in the morning and once in the evening for about 10 minutes a time – although I quickly found it quite addictive! Twitter saves any ‘tweets’ you may receive, even if you are offline, so that when you log in, you can catch up.
What about the drawbacks? Twitter can feel a bit intrusive at first, at least until you learn how to use it so that it suits your work schedule best. After all, you don’t want continual interruptions while you’re connected to the Internet, even if they are from friends. Twitter has plenty of configuration options to control how you interact with it and it’s worth reading the help pages when you first get started. Another thing to bear in mind is that if you have tweets sent to your mobile phone, this can be expensive. As with any social networking tool that ‘pushes’ content to you, you need to spend some time learning how to manage the data, and working out your relationship with it.
So, what are you waiting for? Give Twitter a try, and I'll look forward to your following me over the next few days. If you do decide to try it, make sure you say hello to me and I'll follow you back. You can also take a look around my small directory of ELT people on Twitter at the ELTweet site (http://www.eltweet.com) and see Burcu Akyol's list of ELT educators to follow here: http://burcuakyol.com/?p=87 . That should be enough people to get you started.
The next thing I would do would be to download the free software (Mac and Windows) called Tweetdeck (http://www.tweetdeck.com), which will help you manage your Twitter account effectively and make it much easier to use than the simple web interface. If you're a mobile phone used then check out some of the Twitter applications available for connected phones.
If you're convinced and want to read a little more, here are some useful links to check out:
Twitter, Social Networking, and Communities of Practice
How to Build a PLN Using Twitter
Twitter for Teachers: Why You Should Start Tweeting