Sunday, January 6, 2019

Why Connect?

I was honored to have been interviewed for Educational Leadership, ASCD's flagship magazine, on the power of Twitter as part of a Personal Learning Network (PLN). You can read the article HERE.  Since only snippets of my responses were embedded into the piece I wanted to share the specific questions that were asked and my thoughts on each. As you will see, the true power of connected learning is what you glean from the people you engage with. 

When and why did you decide to get involved on Twitter? Did you have any initial challenges or reservations about it—and if so, how did you overcome those to develop a robust network and community?

I got on Twitter in 2009, which was an accomplishment in itself as I had previously convinced myself that I would never use social media as I didn’t have the time nor saw any value in it. Thus, the biggest challenge I had to overcome was a fixed mindset regarding how I could use a tool like this to improve my capacity as an educational leader. My “ah ha” moment came in March of 2009 after having read a newspaper article about Twitter in the Staten Island Advance.  This article switched the light bulb on as I finally saw value in how a tool like Twitter could help me become a better leader. The connection was to communicate.  You won’t find an effective leader who is not an effective communicator. Once I made an initial connection to supporting and enhancing professional practice I later learned how social media tools could be used to improve other areas of leadership. As my focus shifted from communication to learning that is when I saw unlimited potential.  We don’t know what we don’t know.  The humbling moments that the social media world provided became the primary driver in my pursuit to embrace digital leadership and work collaboratively with my staff to improve the learning culture at my school. 

How long does it take to develop a strong network on Twitter or other digital platforms? Does it help to focus in on one platform--like Twitter or FB--or do you need to build a diverse network with blogs, social media, podcasts?

The time it takes to develop a strong network on Twitter, or any social media platform is dependent on the quality of the content you share and create as well as the time you put in. I have found that educators are keen for more insight on practical ideas aligned to research and evidence of actual improvement. The more you can show, as opposed to telling, how innovative practices are improving learning outcomes leads to the development of a robust and respected network in my opinion. My rule of thumb is to start small by mastering one platform first and embed it consistently into professional practice.  Whether for learning, communications, telling your story, or developing a brand presence, consistency is essential.  Once you are comfortable with the use of one tool, the next step is to diversify your digital portfolio. This will open you up to even more information, ideas, opinions, connected educators, feedback, resources, and discussion. The bottom line, however, is to use the platform that best meets your needs and goals. It’s not about how many social media tools you use, but how well you use them to further your thinking and learning to continually grow as an educator while better serving your community in the process. 

Newbies are often advised to follow certain hashtags or prominent people as a way to ‘do’ Twitter, but sometimes that’s akin to walking into a crowded party and not having any idea who to start talking to or where the food is. How does one go about building a network, really?

Hashtags are an excellent way to begin to build your network as you can spread ideas and strategies to an established group. Amplification through hashtags combined with engagement plants the seeds that can lead to a vibrant network.  The key is to share original work aligned to the specific hashtag. People want to know what leads to results and ultimate success. The more practical the ideas, the quicker your network will form.  Other elements that go into network building are honesty, transparency, actively participating in discussions, and the right balance of sharing your work with that of others. The real strength of any network is not how many people follow you, but the quality of the people you follow and connect with. 

What’s the most valuable information, advice, or a lesson you’ve gotten from someone in your digital network? How did you use it to improve your practice?

I learned a long time ago to keep my message on point and aligned with my professional work. In my former role as a practicing school leader, this meant only sharing what my teachers and kids were doing during school hours. This not only protected me but ultimately helped to promote all of our successful practices while building my staff and students up in the process. In this sense, it has to be about “we” and not “me.”  Over time I learned that education had to change. “Don’t prepare students for something. Prepare them for anything!” – This is one of the biggest lessons I have learned from my time in the space. In the ASCD book, Learning Transformed that I co-authored with Tom Murray we provide a great deal of context on this. 

What three common mistakes do you see educators make when they try to develop a professional network or community on Twitter?

  • Too self-promotional where it becomes humblebragging. 
  • Tagging loads of people in your tweets for the primary purpose of getting him/or her to share your tweet. 
  • Not responding to questions or comments that are directed to you.

On average, how much time do you spend each day on Twitter? Do you have any personal rules for unplugging?

Well, this depends on the day. My thinking is this – we all can allocate at least 15 minutes a day to learn and get better. Why not make the time to do this on a platform like Twitter where we can personalize the experience?  Balance is key. As such I do not have any personal rules for unplugging. I limit my use dramatically when I with my family so that I am present. That is the best advice I can give. 

Related to the last: How do you stay focused when you’re on Twitter—and not get sucked down a rabbit hole of distraction (oh! Those cat memes!)?

Establish some personal norms and stick with them. Self-efficacy is the only way not to get distracted. I look at it this way. My time is valuable, and there must be a professional-life balance. Thus, my use on platforms like Twitter are all aligned to how I can become more effective at what I now do – helping educators, schools, districts, and organizations transform teaching, learning, and leadership. Even though my activity can come in many forms, the focus remains the same.  If I want cat memes and such I will move over to my personal Facebook or Instagram account. 

Do you think social media platforms are a give-and-take relationship? To receive good content, do you also have to create it? And if so, how?

To get anything valuable out of life, it requires to give and take.  You don’t have to create good content to obtain anything from the relationship necessarily. Case in point. One can lurk on social media and acquire proven strategies that have been successfully implemented in schools that have led to better learner outcomes.  The acquired content can then be used as a catalyst for growth and improvement in his or her context.  If you are willing to take the ideas that others are openly giving you and using them to move your professional goals forward, then a positive relationship exists. Creating content is not a means to an end if you don’t want it to be. It is the vetting of and then using, the material that others produce that leads to evidence of improvement that creates relationships in connected spaces. When, and if, you are comfortable building your content go for it, but never think that you have to to get something from the platform. 

What do you get out of Twitter (or other online connections) that you haven’t been able to get from a personal colleague?

Timely, practical, and specific feedback when and where I need it. The convenience of having a 24/7 support network that spans the globe is quite empowering.  I often get the best feedback and advice on how to improve. Another benefit is the ability to pull from a vast collection of educators who have a diversity of strengths and unique talents. 

One worry/complaint from people who are trying to build a network online is that there’s too much content. How do you sort through “the noise” to find the things and people who are most valuable to you?

The noise can be controlled by being selective about who you connect with. The beauty of social media is that it is all about YOU! Unfollow those who clog up your streams with information or posts that don’t align with your professional goals.  You can also use a tool like TweetDeck to manage your connections and hashtags in specific columns. By doing this, you essentially are applying your filter to your feed.  

When it is all said and done the true power of Twitter, or any other social media tool for that matter, is the people with whom you connect and engage with to learn. The best ideas and strategies in education come from those who are successfully implementing them and getting results. 

The digital age allows you to create an infinite amount of rooms to engage with the brightest minds across an array of experiences in education and other fields. By building a network that works for you the short and long-term impact on your professional practice can be priceless. 

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