By Dan Koch @danvkoch
As I stand in front of the classroom instructing my students to turn their homework into the turn-in bin, I stand in awe of myself. “Wow,” I think. “Am I really this organized? I’ve got this on lock. Students have a process; they know what’s expected of them. I’ve done it.” Of course, I don’t get all of their papers, as some have lost them, some have miraculously broken bones that night but are healed this morning–but the trauma has caused them to not “have time” for their work. I may not get 100% completion, but 75% ain’t bad, right?
This was me six years ago. I had my classroom systems in place. I was having a good year. I found myself in a place where I was comfortable, and things were “working.” What would be cause for me to disrupt the good thing I had going in the classroom?
This got me thinking about a podcast I listened to a few weeks ago. In an interview with Twitter founders Biz Stone, Jack Dorsey, and Ev Williams, they spoke about the platform’s tenth anniversary, what the company means to them, and why it’s an important piece of history. What I found most intriguing about this interview was that these guys were all so humble about their company (Jack Dorsey has a net worth of over $2 billion), but more interestingly, how many iterations Twitter had undergone before it got to the current 2016 version it looks like today, with a “Moments” tab, which is basically crowd-sourced breaking news broken down by category, “like” button, and extremely sophisticated analytics. The Library of Congress actually works with Twitter to catalog all public tweets, which may seem superfluous until you realize that we now have, for the past ten years, an archive of the trends of what people were thinking between 2005-2016. What if we had a way to crowdsource and analyze what people were thinking back in the 1800s?
Twitter didn’t always have these features. In fact, the entire idea of 140 character posts was birthed from the limitations of SMS texting, in which you could only fit a certain amount of characters in a text message before it got split in two. Originally, it was built just for cell phones as a way to receive tweets from those you followed.
Where did THIS idea “begin?” Well, according to the founders of Twitter, it came from using AOL Instant Messenger. Evan Williams noticed that when people signed in, it would show whether they were “online” or “offline,” but some users were posting status messages indicating what they were doing while not sitting at their computer. The concept of knowing what someone else was thinking or doing while not actively sitting at a computer screen began to take shape. What if people had a service just for this purpose?
In a 2008 pitch to Reuters, they simply asked, “What if we could give you a feed of everything happening in the world right now?” After this claim, Dorsey whispered, “We don’t have that!” Upon which Williams replied: “Don’t worry; you’ll make it.”
There were many features that were introduced and changed or discarded. For instance, they had a moon/sun feature in which you could basically tell Twitter to not disturb you with Tweets (remember, these used to be sent right to your phone as an SMS text), unless you had a user you “worshipped,” which was sort of a “turbo” follow. You’d get tweets from this person no matter what, because they were super important to you. The feature was quickly discontinued because it was too…creepy. Even the verb “follow” was debated–should it be “listen?” “Subscribe?” They eventually settled on “follow” because it could be interpreted multiple ways: “Are you following me?”
Finally, when asked about how Twitter has evolved since its inception, their response was simply to be true to what you want to create and go do that. Throughout Twitter’s development, they were told Twitter was useless, a dumb idea, and “Like Seinfeld, Twitter is a site about nothing.” The company actually took this comment, which was meant to be a dig at them, and added it to the rotating testimonials about Twitter, adding, “Why wouldn’t I want that on the site? Seinfeld was huge!”
Fast forward to me in my classroom in the year 2016. Now, Twitter has become an organic part of how the world operates and receives information. We share our experiences with the world. Twitter breaks news at least ten to fifteen minutes before any news station–and it’s from citizen journalists. Technology has allowed us to control the narrative of such things. Consequently, students publish their work and classroom projects now instead of throwing paper in a bin–they are not confined to the four walls of the classroom anymore. Using platforms like Wall Of Social, I can beam slideshows of teacher and student tweets and photos about school, using our school hashtag of #falconfoward, to every TV on our campus. Now, students, teachers, and parents can tune in to our Twitter stream and see the great things we are doing with our classes.
Alex Stubenbort and Zac Leonard, my two cohorts and team members who created #EdTechAfterDark together, honed this innovative thinking and used a Twitter chat, which many educators use after school hours to get their own professional development from, with their students. Since their school had just gotten done testing for the year, they decided to have their students answer some questions about their plans for the post-test school year, summer, and next year. Students were able to tweet their responses, and I even joined in across the county to contribute to the chat. We even had some teachers from other counties in Florida join in and tweet to the students.
This didn’t happen by accident, or overnight. Each year, as more technology is introduced and new ways of creating and consuming content presents itself, we have to continuously evaluate the market (our students) and, like Twitter, improve on our processes (even if they worked before). We may cling to old staples of our pedagogical practices (“Clap once if you hear my voice” works, no matter the age of your students or how digital your classroom is), but we owe it to our students to innovate for them, and find new ways of making school a place where they are “breaking down the doors” to get into, rather than the other way around. We also need to realize that each year, our classrooms may need to look and operate differently. In the words of Ev Williams, “It takes ten years and a lot of hard work to be an overnight success.”
In the Twitter HQ on Market Street, California, the company has a “heart” structure to represent the “likes” tweets receive. In real time, each time a tweet is “liked,” the heart pulsates. It’s become a joke at the company–”if the heart stops beating, we literally die.” Let’s not let the comfort of our own practices stop our hearts from innovating and changing for our students.