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Is Twitter the Driving Force Behind Upcoming Educational Change?

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

The very fact that I found the reflective piece, "Is Twitter encouraging a type of ‘Arab Spring’ within Education?" via Twitter would seem to indicate that Twitter is having some effect on changing the education landscape.  The article, written by S. Harris and posted on the Connected Principals site, poses the question, "Are we living through a process whereby social media is finally breaking down some of the traditional divides that have kept education transformation suppressed?" He then proposes ways in which Twitter is facilitating that process. Examining Harris’ ideas sheds some light on why Twitter is a good tool for jumpstarting large-scale educational reform.

  1. Break down the barriers that have made it difficult for teachers from different sectors to meet, collaborate, and talk.
    Communication is the first step to any substantive change and being able to use advanced tools like Twitter to make connections between related issues within education’s various subsystems allows for meaningful discussion of these issues. In this way, potential solutions can also be explored where no such possibility previously existed.
     
  2. Spawn new grassroots movements, such as Teach Meets, where teachers from any background can freely share ideas.
    Change happens more quickly and efficiently when initiated at the grassroots level (Moon, 2008). Venues like Twitter allow for a democratization of the conversation by placing all participants on equal ground without excluding anyone. In this way, ideas from all areas can be considered, from those of administration, to students, and to teachers themselves. There is no filtering of ideas, and possibilities from a variety of perspectives can meet and blend, providing solutions that may appeal to all stakeholders. For an example, look at the conversation currently happening around the hashtag #edreform.
     
  3. Enable quick transfer of outstanding ideas and practice to anyone interested.
     The open sharing of information among stakeholders in education – teachers, students, parents, administrators, and researchers – can accelerate the pace of change exponentially and on a much larger scale. Effectively, Twitter allows for change agents in many schools to simultaneously share the same thoughts and plans regarding innovation in their individual systems and the larger governing systems. Nearly spontaneous generation and sharing of powerful ideas is possible in greatly compressed amounts of time. There is no underestimating the power of a unified community approach to changing education. Drawing on the swiftness and effectiveness of change that came as a result of last year’s Arab Spring (Abdel-Latif, Feb. 23, 2011) the idea that a large movement of like-minded individuals, collaboratingthrough the Internet, can create large-scale change is very real.
     
  4. Gather a new educational tribe, one that has education and vision ahead of administration, policy, or politics. Bring together people who share a common passion for seeing students fully engaged in their learning.
    The ability to supersede administrative or institutional oversight in the early discussion of potential change allows for a free exchange of ideas that the institution as a whole may not be ready for.  Twitter provides those interested in educational reform with a convenient venue for sharing their ideas and, eventually, mobilizing for change. The results of these informal discussions can then be refined and formalized and presented to governing bodies after a groundswell of support has already begun.
     
  5. Challenge people to accelerate the change process at their respective institutions.
    Anything you can Tweet, I can do better. This seems to be the assumption behind this point, but will educators succumb to such pressures from the largely faceless Twitter masses? Looking at Twitter simply as a vehicle for disseminating new ideas and innovations, the answer is "yes." Because of the slightly depersonalized nature of the medium, people are free to pick and choose what they like in a sort of educational smorgasbord feeding frenzy. Where else can you quickly review hundreds of idea and pursue only those that are of interest to you? The ability to quickly scan and review many idea and engage in discussions about them, can help changes to happen much more quickly than is possible with an individual or institutional approach where there are not nearly as many ideas floating freely. Individuals can take these ideas and run with them or use them as fuel to further discussions and start change on the ground.
     
  6. Enable easy access to educational visionaries from all over the globe.
    Assuming that those educational visionaries are on Twitter (hey, I’m on Twitter!), there is a real possibility to spread their messages to a huge audience of people who are eager for leadership and inspiration in the educational reform and restructuring movement. The beauty of Twitter as a global network is that those visionary ideas no longer need to come only from a localized body of experts.
     
  7. Highlight where government policy is hopelessly inadequate across the world.
    Follow discussions on Twitter about the recent insurance/birth control battle, or Komen’s decision to withdraw its support from Planned Parenthood, and you will see the real effects of a tweet storm (Rothschild, Feb. 4, 2012). Mobilizing this kind of energy behind a single educational reform initiative could yield real pressure on governments and actual change. The issue is in galvanizing a large enough movement behind a single goal. Currently, the education system is so far out of alignment with the real needs of society (Marquis, Oct. 11, 2011) that pinpointing any one central issue is difficult.
     
  8. Enable thought leaders to bounce their ideas with a speed and strength previously impossible.
    Twitter facilitates a social construction of knowledge in a way which fits well with the concept of knowledge production in the Information Age. It is now acceptable for fledgling ideas to enter the public sphere and reach their maturity through a collaborative effort that bridges the needs of all stakeholders. The Manifesto for Teaching Online, recently created by instructors at the University of Edinburg, is an excellent example. The Manifesto was circulated, not as a finished document, but rather as an open call for participation in defining the values surrounding online instruction.
     
  9. Demonstrate that educational analysis can reflect current dialogue, not articles that surface a year after a conversation.
    This point is self-evident for anyone on Twitter. In fact, the conversation around new ideas often moves so fast that it is difficult to follow. Any new research article, infographic, or blog post that seems valuable is almost instantly shared by dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of users. While these initial sharings do not always lead to an engaged Twitter conversation, they do increase circulation of the information, encourage responses on message boards, and spark conversations with those in other networks. Traditional academic channels such as books, academic articles, conference papers, etc. may take months or years to reach a wider audience.
    (Harris, Feb. 6, 2012)
     

The idea that Twitter is a driving force in educational change is not far-fetched at all, considering the power that the medium has demonstrated through the Arab Spring and Occupy movements. However, what it actually seems to be more than anything is a paradigm shift in the way in which change is initiated in our media-rich, connected society (London, Understanding Change)[http://www.scottlondon.com/reports/change.html]. We seem to be moving from a model in which change comes from the top down, initiated by governments and spread through bureaucratic channels, to a more organic, grass roots model of change. Twitter may actually be a symptom of the larger effect that social media is having on society. True democracy requires a free and open exchange of information and ideas, where the ideas for change and the power behind it come from the masses. The power of Twitter to drive social change should be considered a positive step in promoting a government  "of the people, by the people, for the people." (Lincoln, The Gettysburg Address).

Join this conversation using Twitter hashtag #edreformtribe
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