Sunday, 16 October 2011

Setting homework via Twitter

So, apologies for the two-month absence. Rumours of my demise are greatly exaggerated etc... I've just moved to the Persian Gulf is all.

Predictably, a new job is a fount of chaos, and so it has proved as ever - you don't know any of the new place's systems, procedures, where to find resources, whom to ask for what etc - but actually it's a positive pressure: you want to do well, to make a good impression, and to succeed for your new students. I have a great love for the place I left but my day-to-day focus here now is pleasure and gratitude at the exciting opportunities the new role offers me. And new beginnings are as good a time as any to start something radical and see how it goes: when could experimentation possibly be safer than at first in a role, when you have the excuse of finding your feet if you cock up? Don't be cautious: gamble. Explore. And so my first post in a new school is to tell you all this: I'm setting homework only by Twitter now. And wow, but really - wow. I will never, ever set homework conventionally again.

This all began about four months ago when I (much belatedly) took advantage of an unlooked-for lapse in workload to finally get round to learning about Twitter. To someone deeply unimpressed by the Facebook phenomenon (I refuse to even have a page. I looked. I hated it. It would drive me mental) Twitter surprisingly caught instant light. Facebook is navel-gazing (even though you look at friends' sites) - Twitter is discursive by nature. Facebook is about self, and Twitter about views. Facebook is asking people to like me. Twitter is looking for whom I like and being pleasantly surprised by people following me - I take it that maybe I've something interesting to say if they do choose to follow. Obviously these distinctions are a touch false, but you take my point: Twitter is just fundamentally more businesslike and meaningful. I confess to being quite a lightweight user - I just use it to engage in educational and political dialogue on topics of interest, not for anything personal. I suppose others use it more roundedly - but I swiftly recognised its potential as a reliable medium of short factual communication - and what else is homework? I resolved to try it in my new school.

I should step back a while and give some context. I've always been an IT enthusiast without being a true tecchie. I was on email before others, used to teach media with videos while the conventional line was still to analyse newspaper headlines, and got all excited about forum collaboration and conferencing before NCSL made it the centre of every course they do (mildly irritated about how much less the TDA funded me compared to NCSL, but there we go...) I've been using the net since school systems could deliver the bandwidth to make it viable, and in the last three years everything I've produced has been resourced to websites where both colleagues and students could find it. I already refuse to allow students to pretend they didn't get a photocopy, couldn't remember the task, didn't know what proforma to use or how to plan the essay: it's all there online at course-specific websites I've created. They're not exciting (they're mostly Office Live templates with some thoughtful effort in layout going into them) but they're in depth and they work. I've used Wordpress (forgive me, BlogLord, don't strike me down or filter this page!) for dedicated subject blogs for specific schools. Twitter was the next natural step. And so successful was it after week one that several other staff have followed suit as well and we're trialling it together.

Think if you will for a moment of all the problems you face with homework:

  • the student lost what they'd written down
  • the student didn't write it down properly
  • the student couldn't remember it
  • the student couldn't read their own writing
  • the student abbreviated it stupidly so it makes no sense and they effectively do a different task to what you set
  • the student didn't know when it was due
  • the parent didn't know there was any
  • ... and is probably upset enough when they finally find out how much has been skipped, and blames you for not letting them know
  • the parent can't face the argument with the child when they ask to see the planner
  • the student / parent / both doesn't know what resource the task relates to
  • the tutor / TA / catch-up teacher can't find out what it is to help the student with
  • the teacher - god forbid - forget to set it before the bell and instead shouts "sorry - I forgot homework - none this week"
  • (the teacher forgot to write it down in haste and makes a fool of themselves next lesson not remembering?)
  • (the line manager can't check if the teacher is setting homework?)

You will have gathered where I am going with this: all of these problems disappear in their entirety when you simply tweet every homework. Take one lesson to make all students create an account (actually, two-thirds had them already) and require them to follow you, and you're off. You control the wording, the timing, the weblinks to resources, the due date. Parents or colleagues can access it at will without awkward conversations. Students can have it appear on their mobile, their facebook page - wherever. Display it when you set it for those who want to write it by hand anyway - but all excuses vanish instantly. Most delightful is the end of the ranting from those few parents who never checked their child's work but are furious with you that he (it's always he...) is not doing it. Now you get to delicately point out that they could have checked effortlessly, without conflict, any time they liked. Oh, blissful day - not that I've had that here anyway. Less exciting but more practical is my quiet admission that my own disorganisation has usually been the reason I've faltered away on homework as terms have gone on. Not any more. Twitter is my personal homework-monitoring Jeeves and when classes enter I'm armed with clarity and newfound high expectations.

Retrospectively, I realise this is so immense and fantastic that millions more people must be doing it already. If they are, they're keeping schtum. Having got to typing "using twitter for ho-" in Google, the venerable G-mind suggested completing it with "home automation." Behind the curve I may be, but surely more people have an interest in homework than home automation? Can no-one have searched for this before? Or written about this before? Maybe, beyond the lazy first-ten-answers I searched, they have, but all I found were a few general tangents: a Twitter account called ClassHomework - which stopped being used in early 2009; better, an idea of posting homework on Facebook is buried in the depths of this really thoughtful and inspiring page - but rather low-down in a manner that buries it amidst interesting but less practical and powerful applications (plus Twitter is a bare infostream, much more suited to setting homework than Facebook); the delightfully-named Graham Trick's use of Twitter to be homework help for students - but this entails sitting at Twitter for 2 hours every night waiting for help requests - "really? won't email do that just fine?"; and at last this IT / education consultancy one which sounds something like the use I make - minimal effort for me, high papertrail quality, documents referenced for homework. Why isn't everyone doing it? It's made my life infinitely easier.

Alright, so there needs to be some information about how to use it - but use a blog and post PDF guides for students and parents there available for download. And one for staff, too - you need to standardise the practice a little, to not confuse: we don't use our real Twitter identities (work / life separation warning bell - another reason to use Twitter, not Facebook) but a common form: XYZ_ABC where XYZ is the school's name in 3 letters and ABC the recognised staff initials on timetables. Students can use the formula to search staff. Tweets have a standard form too: year group - subject code - info - due date. A2 Sociology, for example: "13SOC: first draft of Murdoch ownership essay (Tue)" - how clear is that? Optional homeworks have "**" instead of a date, and items / links of interest just start "nb_" and the subject code. Combine these written explanations with a video tutorial on the glorious Screencast-o-matic (upload to / embed in blog if you like, or put it on the main school website) showing people how to go to and use Twitter and you're laughing. How could it be easier?

The luddites who adore keeping it in-house are grumbling, I can hear. Was Twitter the obvious step? Can't all this be done on the VLE, all this providing files and notifying of homeworks? Please notice my snort of derision. I have been waiting for VLEs to be not-sh*t (or indeed, even in existence) for a decade in multiple schools now. I invite you all to consider the following list of problems: step forward to win a prize if your school VLE
  • exists (and not just on the server or in the head of the IT guy)
  • functions effectively and does not need constant IT support
  • is actually used by enough staff for students to know and care about it
  • does not require a "working group" (?!) to talk about it
  • gives you enough access and functionality not to be irritating to use "because we can't give you full access, that might cause other problems"
  • doesn't have a set of emerging policies surrounding how you have to lay things out and what length / design they must all have
  • allows you to text homework tweets from your mobile mid-class
  • ... let alone then have 24 phones in the class ping as the homework is near-instantly delivered
  • doesn't, despite your being a secondary school, look like some cretinous over-bright chalkboard with infant-school icons designed by a six-year-old on a sugar high
  • ... i.e. like a late-1990s AOL proprietary interface ("the whole universe is me... look nowhere else...")

Anyone whose VLE manages to clear all these hurdles - pop over, Willy Wonka and I have your Golden Ticket waiting.

No - I'd rather have and maintain my own websites and blogs through commercial programs, free and with excellent functionality, and without line-management interference. And Twitter is the perfect complement. Set Wordpress (or whatever you use) to embed the Twitter feed too and BOOM! - There it all is right there for them. Not an excuse in the world. No losing track or lack of papertrail. No fake parental dissatisfaction. Fibbers - students or parents - have nowhere to hide - and nothing's going to keep me more honest, either: because if I'm not setting it right, I've invited the world to watch. I'm happy with that - we're all bound in to success together. Try it. And while you're at it - if you see any of the folks from Twitter's marketing department - tweet them that they owe me a MINT for this posting.