Swimming up the Twitter stream

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narstsri09-group.jpgI spent last week at University of Missouri co-facilitating (with Sandra Abell and Patricia Friedrichsen) and mentoring at the inaugural NARST (National Association for Research in Science Teaching) Summer Research Institute. Twenty-three science education doctoral students from across the country (and around the world) , whose research focuses on some aspect of teacher learning and development, gathered for an intense week of work. It was exhausting, but extremely valuable in a variety of predictable and also unexpected ways. I could not be more impressed with our new colleagues, who are bright, passionate and creative. The future of science education is in excellent hands!

A quickly emerging theme at SRI was that of community. I am certain that this would have happened regardless of the technology we used given the need to get to know each other as scholars and as people in a very short period of time. However, I will admit to adding some social tools to the mix. When I suggested to mentors that we make use of Twitter, there was an audible groan in the room, followed by numerous negative comments. Nevertheless, the #narstsri09 tag was coined and introduced to participants at the first whole group session -- for aggregating comments and media using Twitter and Flickr. Use of the tools was billed as "completely optional" and Lis Boyer and I seeded the space with a few posts and photos, respectively.

What happened next was completely unexpected in terms of the amount of time it took to engage in powerful applications of the space. We were split into 3 teams that met in different rooms. By Monday afternoon, students (and some mentors) were sharing resources, ideas, and encouraging comments via Twitter. The pinnacle event of the first day was when one student gave feedback to someone on another team that resulted in the refinement of research questions in a mixed methods study. The rest of the week only got better. By Wednesday, Lis and I modified a workshop (by request) to introduce participants to online tools for supporting their research. Consider that no one in the room had ever subscribed to a RSS feed of a key word search, only one used Zotero for grabbing citation information from the web, and none used social bookmarking.

In no way am I suggesting that we use these tools without applying a critical lens. I do advocate trying them on in professional settings in ways that help us understand their affordances in context. In the end will participants continue to use Twitter beyond the institute? I'm not sure that matters. They will have seen and experienced a professionally viable application of the tool to document ideas, collaborations, and exchanges that help capture the nature of community at SRI, which otherwise would have been difficult to articulate to others.

Postscript: I learned from the very best. Huge thanks to Cole Camplese and Scott McDonald for their leadership in this space.


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