The trouble with Twitter

Twitter is a great place for educators to share ideas. It has become my go to place when I am looking for something to read, a new idea or some inspiration. It is a great avenue for sharing practice, asking questions and building a community. 
But . . .
. . . Twitter has some problems and these seem to be growing. To get the most out of Twitter a degree of caution is advised. 

The first challenge facing Twitter is a consequence of what is also the greatest strength of all social media platforms and the internet in general. Twitter gives the average person a voice and bypasses the old gate-keepers of the traditional media world. If you have something to share, Twitter will give you the means to do so and with time and persistence you can build an audience and tell your story to the world. In broad terms this is a good thing. Giving a voice to those who might not otherwise be heard benefits us all. Twitter has shown its value as a powerful tool for social change. 

The trouble with such ease of access is that the filters are removed. Anyone can share anything and the end user is left to assess the reliability of the statements which are made. In many cases, it is obvious that what is being shared is based upon personal experience and as such might not apply to other contexts. In other cases, the claims made are backed by solid research and links allow for further exploration. In some cases, statements are made which contradict what might be revealed by quality research. Opinion, personal philosophy, belief based on limited experience, biases and misinformation abound and is rapidly spread across the twitterverse as it is shared by like-minded individuals; All are spread with the authority of fact. 

The danger is that for some Twitter becomes their sole source of information and one where they curate a list of sources that are in agreement with their world view. Divergent perspectives are tuned out and they find themselves surrounded by voices of agreement. The most effective use of Twitter comes from an embrace and active search for diverse opinions coupled with the inclusion of those who seek to share well-researched perspectives. 

As a community of educators, we should also be seen to build in elements of critical thinking and critique of opinions and ideas. There is a line between questioning the perspectives presented in a tweet and anti-social negativity and trolling. In fear of crossing this line or of becoming involved in a heated online debate many avoid asking difficult questions. If Twitter is to truly serve our needs for a learning community, we need to be able to politely ask questions and offer critique. When we see criticism of our posts as an opportunity to understand a different perspective, to review our thinking and analyse the premises behind our beliefs we open the door to continuous learning. 

The trouble is compounded by the limited length of tweets. While the length of tweets has been increased from 140 characters to 280, there remains little space within this for the subtle nuances of more complicated issues to be explored with the level of detail that they deserve. Quick sound bites become the norm and topics which need to be unpacked are reduced to their absolute minimum.  The reader is left browsing a set of catchy phrases and shallow claims about what does or does not serve the needs of our learners. With little detail, available ideas which contradict one’s existing world view tend to be discarded and the reader is readily immersed in an echo chamber where their personal beliefs are never truly challenged. 

The challenges presented by the brevity of tweets is most evident when complex topics are debated. Our tendency to see the world through a lens of false dichotomies seems to be amplified by the limits of the medium. There is little space for any middle ground and debates quickly dissolve into a heated defense of one perspective over another. In many instances were the two parties to meet in person and discuss the topic at leisure, they would quickly find that they had much in common. It is sadly true however that we have a tendency to focus on our differences rather than our common ground and feel the need to defend our divergent perspective at the expense of discovering that we have much upon which we agree. 

There are so many things that our students need from us as educators. They need to develop a love of learning, they need opportunities to develop their agency, they need to master the fundamental skills and dispositions they will require beyond school. They need to learn how to learn and they need to learn how to thrive socially and emotionally. They need teachers who support their learning and development and they need teachers who get out of the way and let them struggle. They need to be taught and they need time to reflect on what they have learned. They need engaging and exciting learning opportunities and they need to see the purpose in the little steps along the way. All of these things matter and have value.

Whenever we begin to focus on a limited set of what education should provide our leaners, when we argue simplistically for one position over another rather than exploring a more complicated middle ground, we reduce the outcomes we offer our students.
By Nigel Coutts