On TeachMeets, EduChats and Marketing

YOUR VOICE

Following from my earlier post, in which I grappled with the ethics around blogging about freebies, I wanted to start a broader discussion about the way our social and professional networks are being harnessed by marketers.

When I first entered the world of Teach Meets, and education Twitter discussions, I found them refreshing, fascinating and empowering. They seemed to me almost revolutionary in the way that they were giving practitioners voice. Instead of teachers being talked TO by ‘experts’, consultants and so on, here was a platform which elevated the voice of the practicing classroom teacher and brought their expertise to the fore.

We were hearing from each other and it seemed to me to fill a much needed void, while also bringing respect back to the profession. Collegial networks formed as teachers became aware of others working towards similar goals, whom they could learn from or team with. It was inspiring, it created support networks, it helped teachers build confidence in their own practice, and respect for the practice of others. No longer were we just recipients of other people’s wisdom. Our practice, our innovations, our stories were being shared and were of value.

Twitter chats were a fast paced, short form version of the same. Led by a moderator around a topic, teachers would share their insights, practices and resources. As with TeachMeets, we were sharing genuine experiences of what was working in our classrooms, gathering ideas, sharing resources and forming communities of practice.

But then the marketers arrived. The last 4 TeachMeets I organised had more product reps than teachers signing up to present. They jumped on the sign up forms as soon as they became available. I was thrown by this at first, not sure how to respond, but eventually settled on a policy that any TeachMeet I organised would be marketing free. Listening to commercials is not what TeachMeets are about, at least not to me. At a TeachMeet, I want to hear the stories of teachers not the pitches from sales reps, no matter how good their product.

Sponsership of an event is less black and white to me. Museums, tech companies and other organisations will sometimes provide free space for TeachMeets as part of their community outreach. On those occasions, it seems fair that the venue host give a brief overview of the services they make available for educators. An interesting venue, sometimes with catering included, provided in exchange for a five minute overview of their education services seems a pretty good deal. But how far should one go down that path, I wonder? My favourite venue for a TeachMeet will always be a pub. It’s relaxed and there’s beer. Many pubs provide space for free if its mid week and they know a group of teachers will be eating and drinking there.

Twitter chats also started to attract the marketers a year or so ago. Some with products to flog would join, they’d seem friendly at first, but then I’d notice they contributed little other than links to their product or websites. I felt very uneasy with this. It seemed our networks, formed by teachers for teachers, were being infiltrated by people who wanted to use the guise of professsional discussion to market their product. It was insincere.

A more honest approach to marketing seems to be the hashtag chats that have grown up around some books and tech products. The marketing agenda is clear from the tag used in every tweet. However, I choose not to participate in them. Back in the mid 80s coca-cola branded t-shirts were inexplicably popular for a short while. I wanted one and remember my father spluttering with disbelief that people would actually pay money for the privilege of advertising a product on their shirt. Perhaps that influenced the view I have now. I refuse to tweet in chats using a tag that provides free advertising for a profit making venture. That seems like exploitation to me, and I don’t wish to be a part of it.

Interestingly, when I’ve expressed these views on Twitter I’ve been fairly heavily censured. One commercial hashtag chat convenor spotted my conversation with a friend on the topic and accused me of having an ‘attitude problem’. I’ve been accused by others of being too negative, and that expressing these views is not a constructive or positive use of Twitter.

I found it strange that speaking out against the marketers provoked such a strong response. I speak for and against all sorts of things, but it’s only my tweets on marketing that seem to anger people. (Aside from one time when I happened to mention phonics while a lot of UK teachers were online) It’s odd, because my intention is actually one that is positive. I love TeachMeets and I love education Twitter networks. I speak up about this sort of thing because I hope, in my small way, to preserve what is great about both: that they elevate the voices and expertise of teachers and provide a space where they can be heard. That’s a rare thing, and I don’t want to see it disappear.

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An Ethical Dilemma

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photo by zeevveez on flickr

People trust recommendations from ‘real people’ more than they trust advertising. Consumer reviews on sites like Amazon are trusted for this reason and it’s why marketers pay people to post positive reviews there. However, in doing so, they erode the usefulness of those sites as the deceptive practice makes us uncertain which information we can believe.

Another strategy marketers use is to recruit ‘ social media influencers’ to promote their products.  These ‘influencers’ have built a reputation with an audience who see them as trustworthy, so their recommendations are of great value.

Over the last 24 months, I’ve been offered money, gifts and VIP access in order to review or raise awareness of various education events and products. When an offer comes in I’m flattered but conflicted. On one hand it’s a huge compliment, and often a great opportunity. On the other hand, I worry about the ethics and the impact on my integrity. I don’t want to be seen as someone whose opinions can be bought. I don’t like ‘cash for comment‘.

When ABC Splash employed me for a couple of months in 2015 to raise awareness of their work on social media, I tried to get around the dilemma by declaring on all my profiles that I was working with ABC Splash to raise awareness of their product. Without that disclaimer, I felt it would be unethical to even retweet something they said.

In addition, instead of providing my own reviews of their product, I provided a space on the TER Podcast for their spokesperson to inform the audience of their latest releases. I also made a somewhat clumsy declaration in each of those episodes that I was receiving payment to raise awareness of their work.

Access to events such as conferences has also raised this ethical dilemma. While there’s no agreement that I provide a positive review of events when I’m issued with a media pass to attend, even so, I wonder if podcasting about them is a form of cash for comment.  I don’t believe I have any entitlement to access and when it’s granted, I’m grateful for the privilege. This makes me less inclined to be publicly critical. It would seem discourteous to accept hospitality and then speak negatively. My reviews therefore focus mainly on the positive aspects, and I feel more circumspect about sharing any criticisms I may have.

Microsoft recently gave me a tour of their office, a Surface 3 and a really interesting overview of how their products can be used for education. There was no demand, but they did express a hope that I would blog about it. I haven’t done so yet, mainly because it was fourth term and I was tired and busy.

I like the product, so my review will be mainly positive, but having accepted a gift, am I turning the trust and good will my readers place in me into a commodity that I trade on? Am I letting that trust be exploited for profitable ends? Where does benefiting end and exploiting begin?

Being transparent about benefits and agendas is an important first step. It saddens me that in 2015 I came across a number of blogs and tweets, and sat through TeachMeet presentations, from people receiving incentives without declaring their interest.  When this occurs, it erodes trust in just the same way as fake reviews on Trip Advisor or Amazon do, and I hate seeing our education networks exploited for personal or commercial gain in that way.

But are those of us who declare the benefits we receive any different? Is declaring enough?  If we are allowing our network influence to be used by companies for marketing, to bring them profit, are we becoming part of the problem? Who is benefiting, who is being exploited, and does it even matter?

I’d welcome your comments on this dilemma, so please make use of the comment section below.

 

Opinions are my own.

When I started out on Twitter I  used to wonder why people would state that opinions are their own on their Twitter bios. I soon learned that it’s a necessary statement to make clear that we are expressing personal views, not those of our employer. For me, as a NSW Department of Education and Communities employee, I am in fact bound by our Code of Conduct to make that distinction clear.

Recently, however, I’ve noticed people writing things such as ‘Opinions are my own, don’t steal them’ on their bios.

I’m not sure anyone can really steal an opinion. And for me, claiming an opinion as intellectual property  goes against the notion of commons that abounds on Twitter where we share information for the common good, so that others in the community can take what they find valuable, build  and develop it. We’re all richer for this collective sharing of opinions, ideas and practices.

If we share information that comes from a particular source, we should of course credit it. And if someone has influenced us in a particular way, it’s nice to acknowledge that.

But as for opinions. If you share my opinions on anything at all please feel free have them. You probably shared my opinion before I expressed it anyway.  Is it even possible to own an idea?

By the way, if you’re interested in the idea of commons and why people these days are increasingly giving their intellectual property away for free,  I recommend the book ‘Open’ by David Price. It’s fantastic.

Word Choice – Developing a Twitter Voice that People Want to Hear

I’ve been spending some time puzzling over why I love to follow  some Twitter accounts but others, even though they are sharing and promoting great ideas, I find  a little off-putting.

I’ve realised that for me, it comes down to word choice.

Accounts that I enjoy following tend to use reflective and inclusive language. They offer solutions and ideas, rather than telling. They’ll preface a comment with ”  I think…” or they’ll offer a solution with “This might…” or ” What if …”

I like that language because it’s open. People can take or leave the advice. It’s respects diversity, provides space for other opinions and remains humble while sharing expertise and ideas.

The accounts I find off putting tend to make  frequent use of authoritative language:”Teachers should, must, need to”

They also make frequent use of evaluative language: “correct”.

Both types of language seem to position the Tweeter as a higher authority. Someone who is there to tell and to make judgements.

In real life, we tend only to use that type of language when we are in a role of positional authority, such as a principal or other school leader. Even then, we tend to use it sparingly.

In our real life interactions it is rare to go to our colleagues and say to them “You should be doing x in your classroom.”

With colleagues, we tend to be more moderate in our language. We suggest, encourage and share, but we don’t tell, command or judge. Rather than saying “you should” we would make a suggestion, “Have you thought of trying..” or “Here’s a strategy that may help”.

And so, as I continue to tweet and blog, I’m going to endeavour to address my colleagues in the same way I would speak to them. As a colleague on an equal footing not as an authority.

Can we all please just agree to disagree?

dissent

Do you ever feel as if the teacher community on Twitter is just one big echo chamber? I’m not intending to be disrespectful to anyone here, its just I’ve noticed, after 4 years of tweeting, that those in my PLN seem to agree on almost everything.

I realise this is a result of following like minded people. I  follow people who are teachers like me, and with whom I’ve had some sort of positive engagement. We may have had an enjoyable exchange in a chat, or perhaps they retweeted one of my blog posts and made a positive comment. I follow people who tweet things that resonate with me, or who share things that I find interesting, or who write blogs that I enjoy reading.

So, its somewhat inevitable that my feed will become full of those who think like me.

But without dissenting voices, we leave ourselves open to some troubling habits and I write this post to urge some caution.

I fear at times, my network and I are developing a sort of group confirmation bias where ideas are accepted as true, because they appeal to our collective view of how we would like the world to be. We start to accept ideas without appropriate scrutiny.

A sort of group-think starts to emerge. There are so many expert voices and loud voices on Twitter advocating for the same ideas – 1:1 ipad programs, inquiry learning, flexible classroom spaces . I wonder if there are people out there who have some doubts about these ideas, but adopt them anyway because it seems as if everyone else is, and if all those expert, leading teachers say these are good, well they must be, right?

I’ve also noticed a rather troubling tendency for people to squash dissenting voices on the odd occasion where they emerge. If someone says something that challenges group norms, rather than engage in a productive dialogue, finding out how a person might have come to a particular, dissenting conclusion, and being open to discussion, people try to ‘correct’ their point of view. This may be done by telling them directly that they are ‘wrong’, or by rounding up other ‘right thinking individuals’ to help convince dissenters that they are wrong. An almost moral outrage seems to flare up from time to time if someone dares say that they like to use text books, or that they believe teacher centred methods are appropriate.

Some people take dissenting views very personally. Perhaps they feel so invested in an idea that a criticism of an it is perceived as a personal attack. I’ve been unfollowed by people I’ve engaged with positively, after they’ve discovered we have different views on particular issues, and I’ve seen whole groups of people unfollow those who express dissenting views too often.

I’ve started to become disenchanted with the echo chamber. I still love Twitter. I love the community, the friendships, the support and help that my network provides. However, I feel like I’m  learning less and less because I’m not being challenged as much.  We’re all just agreeing and reinforcing the same ideas.

Increasingly, I’m finding myself drawn to people who I don’t agree with. A few months ago, I tweeted something critical of direct instruction. It was retweeted a number of times and a person I’d never interacted with me before, started arguing with me, wanting me to justify my position. I didn’t have the energy to engage in a debate, with someone who was clearly a lunatic (after all, we all know that direct instruction is bad and inquiry is better, right?) and was tempted not to respond. Instead,  I chose to ask him how he came to his views. He linked me to his very reasoned blog, and while I still didn’t change my mind about the value of inquiry learning, I shifted on the issue of direct instruction. I could see that there is value in it, and I’ve softened my stance. I’ve been reminded that I’m not an expert and perhaps need to examine the evidence for and against my position more deeply.

The beauty of genuinely engaging with someone I don’t agree with, rather than trying to argue against them, is that it stretches me. It forces me to re-examine my beliefs and put them under scrutiny. I may emerge with an even stronger commitment to a particular stance, or I may find my self shifting on issues and adopting a new position. This is healthy, and it is to be encouraged. For me, encountering ideas that force me to re-think my own, is what keeps Twitter a vibrant place of professional dialogue and learning.

Dissent is not negative, its a sign of a vibrant and healthy community. In fact its just not normal to agree on everything all the time. Constant agreeing and echoing of views leads to a sort of smug, self satisfied stagnation that I don’t want to be a part of.

So here’s to those who are brave enough to express their dissenting views. I applaud you. Now can we all just agree to disagree please?

Reflecting on the first 8 months of EduTweetOz

This post was written for EduTweetOz.org I’m reposting it here:

As the school year draws to a close, and with one more week of EduTweetOz before we take a break for the Christmas holidays, it seems timely to reflect a little on our journey this year.

EduTweetOz joined twitter on the 18th of April, 2013.

My involvement began when Sydney teacher, Michelle Hostrup, inspired by theIndigenousX rotation curation account and encouraged by IndigenousX founder, Luke Pearson, sent a message out to the twittersphere, asking if anyone would be interested in having a rotation curation account for Australian educators. As a result of this tweet, we started chatting, along with Donelle BattyLiz Sinnott.  Soon after,  we formed an admin team and EduTweetOz was born.

When we started the account, our intention was to provide a platform for teachers voices. We were tired of not hearing them in mainstream media discussions about education. We wanted to raise the profile of teachers, hear their stories and hopefully start sharing them with the broader community outside of teaching. We also wanted to show the diversity of roles within education across the various sectors, find out what was on teachers’ minds, and show case their work. Above all, we wanted to be a very positive platform to promote and share the work of Australian teachers.

But while this was our intention,  EduTweetOz quickly  grew beyond this, taking  on a life and purpose of its own as followers embraced the account and took ownership of it.

That EduTweetOz had grown into something more first struck me when I attended an event for preservice teachers at Macquarie University. I was approached by one of the students there, who recognised me as an account administrator, and spoke to me in passionate terms about the importance of the account. He explained how it helped him connect with other educators, build a professional support and learning network and deepen his understanding of educational issues. It had become a hub to connect Australian educators with each other.

And then, in August 2013, we reached a milestone with 2000 followers. To celebrate, we decided to hold a tweetup (a meet up of twitter followers)  in Sydney and encouraged other account followers to hold their own tweetups. This idea was embraced by teachers around Australia, and tweetups were held not only in Sydney, but in Perth, Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra. The willingness of total strangers to organise and join events to celebrate our milestone amazed me, demonstrating just how much the community of followers value and feel ownership of the account.

In November, Betty Chau became our host, the same week that Christopher Pyne announced that he would not be honouring the Gonski funding agreement with the states. (He has subsequently reversed his position on this) Betty felt strongly about this issue and sent out several tweets on the topic, including starting a trending hashtag #reportPyne. One of the EduTweetOz followers wasn’t happy with her tweets, complaining that they were too political and that the account shouldn’t be used for that purpose. Immediately other members of the EduTweetOz community came to her defense, saying how much they had enjoyed her tweets, and that they felt they were appropriate. The debate and discussion around how the account should be used was heartwarming. It showed me how much people felt ownership and cared about the account. 

And that’s been the most satisfying thing about this year’s journey with EduTweetOz. @EduTweetOz is more than another Twitter account, it’s become a community and is owned and shaped by all who participate in it.

To all of you who have participated in our community this year, either by tweeting for us, or joining in the conversations, I thank you.

A Teacher’s Guide to Starting on Twitter

Networked Teacher Diagram - Update

Networked Teacher Diagram – Update (Photo credit: courosa)

There are many ways you can become a connected educator, but one of your most powerful tools for this is Twitter.

Starting out on Twitter can be overwhelming. How on earth do you start from having no followers, or just a handful of people you know to becoming a truly connected educator?

Here is what I’ve learned on my journey so far…

Twitter is not like Facebook.

Facebook is a social network. A typical Facebook user will be friends with a range of work colleagues, old university and  school friends, family members, team mates, and gradually that connections grow through the network of people you already know.

Twitter on the other hand is not a social network. It’s an information network. You form connections based on the information you share and are interested in. People don’t follow you because they want to be your friend, they follow you because they share an interest in the kinds of things you are sharing and talking about. Twitter will link you to far more people than Facebook will, due to hashtags, which I write about later in this article. It allows you to quickly connect with networked educators across the globe.

If you tweet about politics, as I sometimes do, then you will find yourself being followed by people who are interested in politics. If you tweet about education, then you’ll find yourself being followed by educators.

Be Purposeful.

If you are using Twitter to find a network of like-minded teachers, then keep it for that purpose. Unlike Facebook, there’s no need to tweet about what you ate for breakfast (unless of course you are hoping to find a network of like-minded breakfast enthusiasts).

It’s okay if strangers start following you. 

I’ve known a number of new Twitter uses who have been very worried when total strangers start following them. This is actually okay, in fact, it’s what Twitter is all about. You’re not going to expand your network if you just stick to people you know. Remember, Twitter is about sharing information, so they’re not following you to be your friend. They are probably following you because they think the information you are sharing may be interesting.

It’s okay if people stop following you.

I know other Twitter users who freak out when people stop following them. That’s okay too. If people choose to unfollow you, it’s their choice, and unless you know them well in real life, it’s unlikely to be personal.

There are also Twitter ‘bots’ who follow people automatically. People use software to scan Twitter for key words and may automatically start following you simply because you mentioned a word. This is often to advertise their own product and you can usually work out their purpose just by checking out their twitter feed. If you don’t follow back, they usually automatically stop following after a few days.

How to find people to follow.

If you are on Twitter to find other teachers to follow, you’ve probably been introduced to it by a teacher already using Twitter. If this is the case, ask that person to recommend people to you. If you are an Australian teacher, a good place to start is by going through this list of Australian educators on Twitter put together by Perth teacher, Sue Waters.

Rather than just following every name on that list, as it will become overwhelming, look at their bio’s. This way you’ll learn a little more about them. Also, have a look at their tweets. Are they tweeting about things you are interested in? Are they engaging with other people? Those are the two qualities I like to see in people I follow. Sometimes you’ll find someone who does nothing but self promotion on Twitter: ‘Read my blog’, ‘Check out my product’. I don’t mind a little self promotion, but if that’s the only way a person uses Twitter, I choose not to follow. I don’t like my feed being filled up with self promoting spam.

Twitter Chats

Another great way to find people to follow is by joining, or simply following the many Twitter chats that occur. Chats are discussions that take place on a particular day and time. Two of my favourite are #ozprimschchat and #teacherwellbeingchat.  To follow the chat, type the chat name, with the # at the beginning into the search field at the top of your Twitter page. This will bring up all the tweets for that discussion. You can either join in, or if you are just starting out, you might prefer to watch and learn. People who participate in chats are usually a good place to start if trying to form a network as they are active users who are interested in engaging and sharing ideas with others.  Here is a great list of Australian education Twitter chats and hashtags, and here is a list of global education chats.

Communities

You can also find communities of people on Twitter. Earlier this year, @poppyshel, @Liz_loveslife, @dbatty1 and I began a rotation curation Twitter account, @EduTweetOz which has a different Australian educator tweeting each week. We have built a community of nearly 2000 educators who are interested in learning and engaging with each other and participate in discussions throughout the week using the #edutweetoz tag. A lot of the people who participate in this are great to follow.

What to Tweet

It can be scary sending out those first Tweets, but eventually you will become comfortable in the medium and your own voice will emerge. I began by sharing any articles or blogs about teaching that I found interesting.  Another early strategy I used was to ‘retweet’ tweets by others that I liked.

Eventually I became confident enough to begin engaging with people, perhaps by asking a question of someone who had shared something interesting, or thanking them for it. Over time I became confident enough to join discussions, but it took me a long time as I’m a very shy person. I spent a months lurking, watching and learning how others interacted before I was ready to have a go myself. 

The importance of hashtags

Hashtags are really important if you are new to Twitter and trying to find or build a network. They are an amazingly simple, and very clever device that will amplify your tweet and send it out to potentially thousands of people.  Even if you have zero followers, a hashtag will allow your tweet to be found by others. By tagging a tweet #ozprimschchat, for example, it will be seen by anyone who participates in that chat and likes to follow that tag. For a list of commonly used hashtags, check out the links I included above for Australian education Twitter chats and Global education chats.

By the way, if  you see a hashtag on someone else’s tweet and click on it, Twitter will show you all the other tweets that have recently been sent using that tag.

For me, Twitter has caused an absolute explosion of professional learning and opportunities. I’ve learned about and begun using pedagogies I had never even heard of before, and I’ve connected with educators all over the world. I’ve found a great group of teachers who willingly share their practice, and a wonderful group of academics who keep me updated with their latest education research. I’ve made great friends with other teachers around Australia and the world, and have had opportunities open up to me which I never dreamed of. If you’re not using Twitter, I recommend you have a go, and if you are just starting out, I hope you stick with it. The rewards really are worth it.

For more tips, check out my 5 Tips for Teachers Getting Started on Twitter

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