Savvy trainers are using micro-blogging to foster informal
learning and meet likeminded peers.
Here's a scenario to give trainers pause. You're presenting at a
conference. Minutes into your session, a number of people are
tapping furiously at their phones or reading incoming messages.
Most of these people get up and leave the room, while another bunch
trickles in. At least a third of the audience continues tapping out
short bursts of text throughout your presentation. It is as if you
are not there.
Though it may not be apparent to someone unfamiliar with Web 2.0
behavior, these people aren't simply multi-tasking while you teach.
They're twittering - or as they would put it, "twitting out"
information about you, your session, and what they are thinking and
doing in real time. It's like getting the scoop on sessions that
might be better than yours. And their fellow Twitterers are talking
back in the staccato bursts of the 140 words that Twitter requires.
Twitter is a free micro-blogging service. Users sign up, create a
profile, and begin sending short messages, known as tweets, about
what they are doing and thinking. All other users may read their
updates unless the sender gives access only to specific people. You
may ask other users for permission to "follow" them (meaning that
you will receive all of their updates), and other people may ask to
follow you. More than 100,000 people followed Barack Obama on
Twitter throughout his campaign. As a user, you can send and
receive updates through the Twitter website, or by SMS, RSS, email,
and a host of other applications with too-cute names such as
Tweetie and Twinkle. By some estimates, Twitter receives more than
5 million visitors every month. More than 700 learning
professionals have Twitter accounts.
Working the back channel
While some instructors may not relish real-time reviews of their
classes that cause people to leave, others know how to benefit from
a roomful of people on Twitter. Whether at conferences or in
companies where micro-blogging while learning is encouraged,
informal information exchange is an adjunct to structured learning
Jane Hart, a social media and learning consultant, classifies
Twitter and other micro-blogs as tools for personal and informal
learning. "The point of social media is to turn learning into a
more participatory activity," she says. Learners use social media
tools to ask and answer each other's questions, and as Hart
maintains, "Micro-blogs can support collaboration and
Many educators already use micro-blogs to create community around a
class or an activity. Instructors who've used Twitter say it is a
useful back channel during and after class. "As an instructor, you
can have immediate feedback on the relevance of your class," Hart
says. After class, instructors can encourage micro-blogging to
support relationships among the people from the class and to
further their learning. Teachers post tips of the day, questions,
writing assignments, and other prompts to keep learning going.
Some believe that Twitter is even more powerful as a social
learning tool outside the context of the classroom. "In a
corporation, micro-blogging can be a way to augment behavior
modeling," says Sarah Millstein, author of the O'Reilly Radar
Report, Twitter and the Micro-Messaging Revolution: Communication,
Connection, and Immediacy - 140 Characters at a Time.
To model good workflow, for example, a person who excels at it
would send out frequent updates about what they are doing. The
company might formalize the process to the extent that it would
select exemplary performers to post regularly, and pick those who
should follow their posts. "This is an easy way to prompt
conversation and questions with role models," says Milstein.
Another popular use of Twitter and other micro-blogging sites is
the building of professional networks. Michele Lentz, a technical
writer and professional blogger, began using Twitter to get to know
other learning professionals. Within months, she was posting
regular updates about her work, getting help from experts, and
attracting followers of her own. Currently, Lentz has 1,000
followers on Twitter and teaches courses on how to use
micro-blogging as a learning tool. She recently polled her
followers via a Twitter polling application, about why they like
Twitter. The top reasons were
- it accelerated my learning curve
- it helped me with personal learning
- it expanded my circle.
The corporate tweet
A growing number of companies use Twitter to foster communication
among employees and customers. Southwest Airlines tweets first-time
customers with the message, "Hope you enjoyed your first-ever
Southwest flight! Can't wait to see you onboard
Employees and customers of Zappos, the online shoe seller with an
intentionally unstuffy culture, use Twitter extensively at the
urging of the CEO, Tony Hsieh. In a public directory of Zappos
employees using Twitter, ranked by numbers of followers, Hsieh is
As a public site, Twitter is not for every company, but there are
micro-blogging services that will set up internal corporate sites.
Laura Fitton of Pistachio Consulting has created a list of internal
(pistachioconsulting.com/services/research). Compared to instant
messaging, which requires you to address people individually,
Twitter broadcasts to a person's entire group of followers. People
who use it to get expert advice on the fly say it usually returns
results immediately. Sarah Milstein predicts that micro-messaging
will be as common as email in a few years and may replace email for
certain kinds of information, such as client and customer
A first visit to Twitter may not convince you of its potential as a
professional networking and learning tool. Many of the tweets are
not only personal but trivial - what someone is having for
breakfast, or where they're headed next. It's not unusual for a new
user to post an update and be completely ignored. Michelle Lentz
likens Twitter to a large party. "At first, you'll be talking to
yourself until you get involved," she says. She advises following
as many people as possible. For example, a search on e-learning
will show who's talking about it. Or use Jane Hart's list of
learning professionals on Twitter (http://www.c4lpt.co.uk/socialmedia/edutwitter.html).
Lentz recommends that you follow your choice of interesting people
for a while, and then send a direct message to a few of them, using
the @username format, to introduce yourself and join a
conversation. Before long, you can begin building a support group.
Twitter is not for everyone, says Lentz. "It's good for mobile,
on-the-go people who can learn anywhere," she says.
Micro-blogging is only one kind of social media tool with the
potential to support learning. Those that offer collaborative
filesharing, mindmapping, writing, and editing capabilities can
support more complex collaborative learning than Twitter. But for
the moment, nothing else is as immediate or growing as fast. As
Milstein points out, micro-blogging is taking off because it fits
how people work and think. But, cautions Lentz, "Think before you
tweet. Each tweet is a webpage. It can be Googled. It's forever."