Vermont’s new leading role online
In today’s podcast, Mark Olofson talks with Joshua Rosenberg and Spencer Greenhalgh, education researchers from Michigan State University. Their research focuses on the state-level twitter conversations among educators: who is doing it, and what they’re getting out of it.
And, spoiler alert, when they looked around the country, Vermont emerged as a pretty special place.
Mark Olofson: This is Mark Olofson with Tarrant Institute for Innovative Education and we’ve got a couple of other researchers with us today. Guys could you just tell us your names and where you’re at?
Josh Rosenberg: Yeah. Sure. I’ll go first if you don’t mind, Spencer. My name is Josh Rosenberg and I am a graduate student at Michigan State University and before graduate school I was a high school Biology and Earth Science and Chemistry teacher.
Spencer Greenhalgh: I’m Spencer Greenhalgh. I am also at Michigan State University. Josh and I are both in MSU’s Educational psychology and Educational Technology Program. I am in my fourth year there and where I do research on things like teacher’s use of Twitter. Josh and I do a couple of different kinds of Twitter research actually but one area that we’ve really been interested in is what we call SETHs or State Educational Twitter Hashtags. We’re particularly interested in this because as local as you can get with Twitter… we talk about Twitter being something that can connect people from all across the world and that’s a wonderful ability that it has. But people are also using it in sort of geographically defined ways and we wanted to get a picture of what that looked like across the United States.
Josh Rosenberg: It’s cool. It’s ambitious. It’s inspiring. We don’t know a lot more about what to really make of this new opportunity, whether it’s for us as teachers to share resources we create or resources we find. Whether it’s a chance for us to connect with others. We came to this research largely through participating in the same communities, or the same hashtags in this case, and through participating in them we saw an opportunity to possibly collect data on what was going on and just start to create a portrait of what was going on, kind of as a first step and building on some kind of newer work on Twitter and education.
Mark Olofson: What types of things do you see educators doing on Twitter?
Josh Rosenberg: We see them tweeting a lot. Over six months we looked at lists of hashtags that other folks had created and we did our best to find a hashtag for every state and we found more than half a million tweets over six months. This is the first six months of 2015 and we have some more recent data including Vermont hashtag #vted, for this most recent year. But they’re talking about a lot of different things.
Spencer Greenhalgh: Teachers are using Twitter to build community and we expected this to be a sort of very professionally-driven thing and don’t get us wrong, it is but at the same time, we also saw teachers who are just shouting the breeze. They’re connecting with people that they haven’t seen in a while. Or maybe people that they only know through Twitter. They’re chatting and they’re having a good time. Anything from building community to also contributing to a broader educational conversation, they’re offering their own thoughts form their own experience. They’re developing original ideas and sharing it with others. On top of that, they’re also taking the original ideas that others have shared and others have created and they’re engaging with that in a way. They’re endorsing it or critiquing it, or commenting in on it in some way. There’s a wide range of purposes that teachers same to have when they use Twitter. We’ve been really impressed with the diversity of ways that teachers are using Twitter and also as Josh mentioned the scope. There’s a lot of tweeting going on across the whole United States.
Mark Olofson: Here in Vermont we have a Twitter chat that we …different folks host and we’re really kind of focusing on Thursday nights and we bring a set of questions to it and encourage teachers to chime in on sort of a structured chat. Is that something that you see happening in other places?
Spencer Greenhalgh: One of the most promising things we’re starting to notice and it’s… I say notice because obviously we have nothing to do with the chats that are already established and are ongoing. One big difference we see Mark, is that when states seem to have a synchronous chat, whether it’s every other week, every week, or less common than those, there seems to be a lot more activity. That’s not surprising because just by the nature of having an hour where people come together at the same time to discuss communicating with parents or curricular standards or in some states political topics. A lot of the SETHs that we’re seeing… Kansas sticks out, are very politically active.
In addition to the amount of activity, there seems to be a lot more mentions. A trend that we’re not really sure about yet but maybe just intuitively you might expect is, 6 days and 23 hours when there’s not a chat, people are more likely to be sharing out content, sharing out links, sometimes with many hashtags. When they’re talking at the same time for a chat, there seems to be a lot more interaction. A lot more mentions between participants. That seems pretty interesting because it shows maybe that… we use Twitter in different ways depending on when we choose to use a hashtag or just participate in another way.
Mark Olofson: Yeah. You know I would say that you know – addressing a little bit about what comes up in those – Vermont is working with some policy mandates around personalized learning and I think that the Twitter chat has been a great place for people to unpack what’s going on in their schools around some of those personalized learning plans and other things related to what here is called Act 77, and so it’s been really nice when there’s been a statewide change to have that statewide outlet for teachers and administrators to all kind of connect and talk about what’s going on in their spaces.
Spencer Greenhalgh: If I can build on that a little bit I think it’s one of the reason that Josh and I and our colleagues were interested in looking at this particular state-based phenomenon of Twitter use. As I said, there are a lot of different ways out there. I’m familiar with SS chat for social studies teachers across the country. There are a lot of different ways to participate. We were trying to think why did these sort of geographically centered hashtags also exist and I think it’s exactly, Mark, for the reasons that you’re talking about that in the United Sates as much as we might talk about or even complain about the role of the federal government in education, much of what’s going on is happening at a state level and it’s really important for the teachers in Vermont to be able to band together and – teachers in California might not be able to relate to them on those points. If they’re talking about subject matter, that’s a different thing but when it comes to issues of policy and what’s going on in the classroom, often the voices that teachers need to hear, or so we feel from our research, and what appears to be evident in the existence of these state-based hashtags, the voices that people need to hear are the ones that are a couple counties over or on the other side of the state; someone who can sort of relate to what’s going on in your classroom.
Josh Rosenberg: Because Vermont, by some measures, is the most active SETH. One thing we looked at was how many people used a start hashtag over six months. In Vermont that was a little over 2000 unique participants. We adjusted the number of participants by how many teachers there were in the state using kind of the best data that we could get on the number of teachers per state from some census data. Vermont came out on top with… A caveat is of course not everyone who participates is a teacher but we used that kind of as a proxy for the size of the educational community in the state and there were about .25, actually closer to .26 people who used the #vted as there were teachers in the state, a really high proportion of activity in Vermont.
Mark Olofson: We could translate that to be neighborhood of one in four if we’re adjusted by that teacher metric. If everybody was participating in it it’d be – .25 is that a decent interpretation?
Josh Rosenberg: Yeah, thanks. That’s’ exactly it. One thing – we pulled out a sample of participants and we tried to code how many were administrators, how many were in instructional support positions how many were educational researchers, how many were representing an organization and we found out that about .25 of all of our participants were teachers. I guess it’d be like, if you wanted to make a claim from the data you could say maybe 1 in 16 Vermont teachers, roughly.
Spencer Greenhalgh: Josh brings up a great point there because it’s also administrators, it’s also, you know, university researchers and other folks who have a connection to education who are getting involved in these conversations… we don’t have any data to prove this one way or the other but I imagine sometimes that’s really helpful and sometimes it might muddy up the conversation a little bit but it’s interesting to note that because Twitter is a public forum other people are getting involved in these educational discussions.
Mark Olofson: Absolutely. We here at the Tarrant Institute are at the University of Vermont and work in schools and we definitely do utilize the #vted hashtag in order to continue to participate in the conversation.
Spencer Greenhalgh: Yeah, exactly.
Mark Olofson: You alluded to that a lot of folks in Vermont are using this hashtag and I wonder if you could tell us a little bit more about how frequently folks who do use the hashtag, how often are they on Twitter? How active are they on this hashtag?
Josh Rosenberg: That’s a great question and maybe something we can look at and dive into deeper. Right now it looks like there’s kind of a long tail where there’s a lot of people who are really active and then a lot of people who participate just once or twice. We haven’t done really enough to look into that but there seems to be a wide range of degree of how active the average Twitter user for #vted and other hashtags is.
Spencer Greenhalgh: I think one thing we can say across the US is that there’s an average of about 70 of these tweets coming out per day, which if you think of these in terms of professional development, sort of reflects a steady stream of contact with the broader teaching community. Again, that’s an average taken across the entire United States not just Vermont Ed, but it’s a number that we’ve been impressed with. Like Josh said, what we have some – definitively some area to dig deeper and figure out what’s going on in these particular SETHs.
Mark Olofson: I think you guys also looked at when people were doing these tweets, sort of like what days of the week. Is this something that people are holding off until the weekend or is it pretty consistent throughout the week?
Josh Rosenberg: Yeah. It seems to be that, kind of surprisingly or maybe not, Friday and Saturday seem to be the lowest activity days. I guess what’s super impressive is that so many of us are coming home and tweeting at 8 o’clock on a week night. But on Friday night, we seem to take the sets off. And Saturday too. By the same token, Sunday is… it’s almost the most active day. It looks like Sunday and Thursday were two days with really high activity. Maybe it’s preparing for the week ahead, lesson planning –
Mark Olofson: I was going to say, that seems – at least when I think about when I was teaching, those were times that I was doing a lot of my preparation work. Thinking about if folks are doing lesson planning or planning projects, these types of things, that maybe Twitter and these hashtags are spaces that they’re turning to help assist them in their planning.
Spencer Greenhalgh: I think it also connects to what we talked about earlier in terms of chats. If you break down these overall figures by chat, you can see for example that the Georgia ed hashtag is really active on Thursdays and barely active the other days of the week. Michigan ed, #miched, is pretty active throughout the week but there’s a clear peak on Wednesdays. From what we know of these hashtags, it’s because there’s a chat going on, on one of these particular nights and – I don’t know. That’s really impressive to see that this chat is drawing in so many people enough that it’s really affecting the participation and… it goes back to this idea that these chats in particular, not just the hashtag but also these chats are really valuable resources for the teachers involved.
Mark Olofson: You guys have now spent a lot of time looking at what educators are doing on Twitter. You’ve alluded to some continued research that you’re going on. Overall, what do you think educators are really getting out of using Twitter? That maybe they couldn’t get from somewhere else?
Josh Rosenberg: That’s a great question. Do you have any ideas Spencer?
Spencer Greenhalgh: Yeah. I think there are some smarter researchers than us who have sort of paved the way for our research. Oh goodness, I’m blanking on their names but Dan Krutka and Jeff Carpenter, they’ve done some great work, surveying teachers about their use of Twitter (link). What they’ve been able to tell us is that these teachers are finding a personalized form of professional development that they feel like they’re not getting in the more workshop-based or standardized PD opportunities that they’re having in their normal career. Getting on to Twitter and being able to connect with specific people on specific communities is giving them answers to questions that they have in that particular moment and that they’re able to reach out to other people and feel like it’s a friendly sort of environment for them to make connections with others. That there’s a broad scope going on and because of that broad scope they can also get something that’s heavily personalized in nature. Some of the work that I have done has sort of reinforced this a little bit. A particular hashtag that served as sort of a just what I needed in the moment sort of opportunity for some teachers in France. That was something that really fun to look at.
Josh Rosenberg: I think that what Spencer referenced in terms of some folks who have asked teachers, what do you take away from this? This idea of a personalized learning network is a really powerful idea. We should add that it’s not just limited to Twitter, it also include Pinterest or Facebook and other – it’s kind of distributed across different homes that we have. Or even if we have a website, that could be part of a hub for the network that we create. I think one thing that stuck with me is seeing teachers say, “Using Twitter has refreshed my teaching.” Or, “It’s given me a chance to rethink who I am as a teacher.” I think that’s cool.
Mark Olofson: Absolutely. I’ve got to ask, would you recommend for teachers to check out their state level hashtag?
Spencer Greenhalgh: I absolutely would. I should make it clear that I wouldn’t pressure anyone into doing that. I had a brief career as a French teacher before I started graduate school and I remember just feeling so overwhelmed by everything that I was learning to do at the time that if someone had told me that I needed to use Twitter, which was sort of an escape for me at the time, to keep my mind in teacher mode, I probably would have rebelled. I know other teachers who actually find that to be exactly what they need when they’re feeling overwhelmed. It really depends on, I think, a teacher’s particular circumstances. I would 100% recommend that someone look into that but, and Josh sort of alluded to this earlier, Twitter’s not the only space for this. Twitter is a wonderful tool for it, but I think the thing that we’re more interested in here, is that teachers are using tools; they’re using spaces to find help that they need. Check out Twitter, see it it’s the space for you. If it’s not though, we hope that you’ll find that space and find those resources somewhere else.
Josh Rosenberg: Yeah. Just to build on that I would say definitely. I think the weekly chat’s a good time to try to dip your toe in and even if it’s just to introduce yourself and then maybe watch a lot of it because it can be really hard to keep up with. I found both in North Carolina and in Michigan – North Carolina where I used to teach and Michigan, where I’m in graduate school now– that the folks who are participating are really welcoming to people who are – it’s their first time to the chat and they’ll go out of their way to make it a – make it welcoming for you.
Mark Olofson: That’s great. That’s great. One thing and this might… we might place it somewhere else but, do you see parents interacting with educators on Twitter at all? Has that been anything that came up for you as you were looking at what was going on?
Josh Rosenberg: Yeah, yeah. We do. Spencer, do you have any thoughts on the different participating categories that we have?
Spencer Greenhalgh: Yeah. We found that about 20% of the participant profiles that we looked at were what we called education connected. These are folks who have a clear interest in education of some kind but we couldn’t figure out from the short statement on their Twitter bio, what role they played in that. I think in some of those cases, I can’t point to a particular example but in some of those cases I am confident that those were teachers… I’m sorry, of course they were teachers. In some cases I’m sure that those were parents who were interested to see what was going on in the teaching community because they had children in schools. We had other folks too, sort of educational gurus who wanted to step in and share their wisdom and all sorts of folks that had a clear interest in education but maybe not a clear title that went along with that and that in our experience absolutely include some parents.
Mark Olofson: Anything else that either of you guys would like to share with us about Twitter and education? Or state law hashatgs? Even online professional development largely? Go ahead.
Josh Rosenberg: One thing, Mark, I’d like to add is, we don’t see this as our proprietary topic because this is what that teachers have created. What that means for us is that we want to be really careful about saying why different SETHs have more activity than others. SETHs being what we’re calling the States Educational Twitter hashtags – and being open to sharing back to the teachers who are doing such amazing things, some of what we found and getting to hear from teachers and others to what they make of what’s going on in their SETH or what they think of the findings. To that end, we’re interested in sharing the data we collected if others want to contact us, we can negotiate a way to share the data. I guess I just want to say that we’re really thankful for the chance to collect data that’s from cool communities. A lot of times in education we swoop in and collect data and then swoop out and this has been an opportunity to … from the side just see something really neat going on and get to document it.
Spencer Greenhalgh: If I could build on that. I think… Josh used the word cool in his statement right there and that’s also a word he used at the beginning to describe why we wanted to do that sort of research and I couldn’t endorse that statement enough, especially the spin Josh that you put on it, this most recent time that you brought it up. A lot of times educational researchers, when we come into the classroom our job is to learn something that we can then come in and then tell teachers, and in this case, I think… I personally feel really lucky and I know that my co-authors do too, that we could come into a space dominated by teachers and learn from them, a space being run by teachers and learn from them, because there’s something amazing going on here and it’s been an absolute blast. I just get a big smile when I do some of this research sometimes, which isn’t something that everyone can say about all research. Just being able to see the amazing work that teachers are doing in these spaces really… I don’t know, it’s great for me and it’s great for all of us I think.
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