PLNing Development: The (d)evolution of Twitter

Having delved back into past posts over the summer to reflect on how my teaching has been influenced by dogme, I am now in the process of looking back through my old posts on online CPD  (Continuous Professional Development) and growing a PLN (Personal Learning Network). The first in what will hopefully be a series of posts focuses on where the whole online journey of self-development began for me - Twitter.

A Slow Start
I first heard about teachers using Twitter to connect on the forums of my MA course back in 2010. Intrigued, I signed up but then.... didn't know where to start! I followed the account for the Teaching English website and a couple of people I knew but nothing happened and I wasn't sure how to make it happen. I then left Twitter alone for a while.

Getting Connected
By the summer of that year, I had become interested in the idea of blogging for teacher development but finding an audience was tough and my posts were going largely unread. A colleague on my MA suggested sharing my blog on Twitter to drive traffic towards it. I then returned to the 'micro-blogging' site and followed people my MA coursemates were following. Slowly but surely, people started to follow me back. Through links shared on Twitter, I found blogs to read, and I discovered the world of online conferences and webinars. Perhaps most importantly, I connected with other teachers from different contexts around the world. We started to share ideas, offer advice and push each other's thinking forward.

It was around this time that I blogged about using Twitter to build up my PLN for the first time. Over the next year or so, I would check Tweet Deck (haven't used that in ages!) several times a day always keen to see the links that had been shared and the conversations that had been taking place since I last checked in. These would often give inspiration for blog posts, ideas to try out in class, or areas to focus on in my MA studies... Exciting times!

Chats, Challenges & Conferences
Shortly after I became active on Twitter, #ELTchat started up and things really took off. Wednesday afternoons and evenings were crunch times in my weekly professional development as a global group of teachers engaged in a fast and furious analysis of important issues in ELT. That led to more connections, and more ideas to take into class and turn into blog posts or workshops.
Then there were the challenges that came up, inviting teachers to write a blog post, make a video or in some other way communicate an idea about teaching or teacher development. There was even a challenge to post about top people to follow on Twitter...

And then there was the almost obligatory and inevitable workshop session on using Twitter (one of hundreds that must have been given around the world at this time!) That helped me dig into what is was about Twitter that was so important: it was never about the numbers of followers and tweets; it was about the connections made with people and the ideas that were shared and developed. I can honestly say that had I never got involved on Twitter this much, I would probably be entering my 15th year of teaching primary school kids in the same establishment in Turkey...

From sharing ideas to sharing links
I also did some research into Twitter, blogs and social media for CPD during my MA. I remember how I scoffed at one article I read (apologies but the exact quote and reference has long since escaped my mind) that described such platforms as merely places for 'one-way broadcasting' - the author obviously had not engaged in such an active community as I had, I confidently declared to myself, and did therefore not regard PLNs and online CPD in the same way that I did.
However, nowadays I would agree that the author has a point. I don't go on Twitter that often these days and when I do, it's usually to share a link to one of my blog posts or articles. Others seem to do the same, sharing links either to their own work or to interesting articles. These get 'liked' and 'retweeted' but there is very little conversation going on. 'One-way broadcasting' seems a good phrase to describe it all. Like a radio channel, we send tweets out, other pick them up but very little comes back...

Something seems to be missing...
So why has this happened and what does it mean for the current state of online CPD? I would suggest the following (all based on my own observations and personal experience rather than any rigorous research I should add):

The Rise of 'Social Media & Sharing' Apps
In its early days, Twitter's 140 character limit made it unique. It facilitated a quick exchange of to-the-point comments which actually allowed for more back-and-forth interaction than one might have expected. Indeed, it was designed to mimic the space given to write text messages on our phones. However, other social media and sharing apps that have come along in recent years have been more about sharing things found online in the age of the smartphone: Pinterest, for example, is mainly used for sharing images and links; Flipboard is about aggregating articles into stylish 'magazines'; recent arrivals like Snapchat are about sharing the moment. The way people use Twitter seems to have changed accordingly - it's less about SMS-style conversation now and more about that smartphone driven quick sharing of links.

Migration and Moving On
People move on and trends come and go, and this is especially true of technology. I think I caught the crest of a wave when I joined Twitter but that has ebbed away to an extent. That is not to say of course that those people are no longer active professionally or no longer engage in CPD, just that they have moved onto other things. Some people who were active on Twitter a few years ago have now gone quiet and are most likely giving their all in their classrooms and schools as I write. Others have migrated to Facebook, staying connected with their closest connections from Twitter and elsewhere. And others still have moved up professionally and now have more demands on their time or no longer teach so much in the classroom, which was and always will be the primary inspiration for blogging. Many of the bloggers and tweeters I originally connected with are now still writing but they often contribute to blogs, websites and newsletters run by teacher development groups like Teaching English and iTDi or teacher associations like IATEFL.
Downsizing CPD
One thing I have come to reflect on about my own CPD is that it simply does not need to be as continuous as it once was. At the time I first got involved in making PLN connections, I had been teaching for only half the time I have been teaching now. I was in the midst of an MA and exploring what language education is all about. The constant exchanges and sharing of ideas on Twitter was exactly what I needed at that time and really pushed my thinking forward, helping my with my studies and with developing my career.

Now, the ability to analyse, reflect on and adapt my practice is part of who I am as an educator. Instead of looking to the Twittersphere for inspiration and help, I look at how I can connect and share ideas with the teachers in my own staffroom. It's smaller scale but it is just as effective. Without those experiences on Twitter, I would probably not engage in local small-scale CPD in the same way.

So thanks Twitter for helping me connect with so many great people, several of whom I have had the pleasure of meeting in person and look forward to seeing again at IATEFL next year. Thanks for helping me collaborate, reflect and develop. And thanks for helping me transfer that back to my working context.

Now, I'll just tweet this post and my reflections for the day are done. ;-)


  1. Great post Dave,
    I'm Carolina Rodriguez, a former MA classmate from Colombia, and I've been following you on Twitter aNd enjoying your posts very much... this post, however, called my attention since I have had a similar experience/reflection about Twitter these days. Anyway, I'm just hitting the peak of Twitter use in my own CPD, but as you say, I'm using it a lot these days to share what I'm doing with the world.
    On the other hand, I have become active on Twitter because of the need to talk to people outside of my immediate work circle. I feel it is great to find alike minds elseewhere and to hear of what they are doing in their own contents. I have found a much louder echo outside, than in-house with my colleagues. Just saying.
    Once again, thanks for your post, they'll always great to read.
    Best regards

    1. Hi Carolina - good to hear from you again. The MA was my first chance to directly connect with teachers from around the world such as yourself.

      One early memory I have of how Twitter can make the world of ELT smaller came when I saw Jeremy Harmer tweet about attending a session of yours in Colombia.

      It's good to hear that you continue to find Twitter useful in your CPD. I am sure teachers are still using it as a platform to engage and converse - those are simply connections I haven't made yet!

      I also agree that it is a great way to go beyond your immediate work environment and find other like-minded teachers. Perhaps as my current workplace has a much stronger atmosphere of sharing and development than the school I was at during the MA, I don't feel the need to seek inspiration elsewhere.

      Thanks for the feedback on the blog - always welcome! :)

  2. Some interesting reflections. I still use Twitter pretty much every day, but also use a group of other platforms that work well with it. Using Tweetdeck has really help me to make Twitter more effective, but as you say it really all comes down to what you want to achieve and what's the most direct route to that. Twitter certainly has its limitatons. Thanks

    1. Thanks for the comment Nik. I still find useful things on Twitter (links to blog posts, articles and resources mainly) but that element of connection and communication seems diminished. There are indeed limitations and I guess that is where other online platforms come into play.


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