An article by John Naughton  coincided with a conversation with a colleague to induce me to try Twitter.

Naughton wrote about Retweeting:

One of the most intriguing and useful features in Twitter is the “retweet” facility. If you see something in your tweetstream that you think might interest others, then you can click a button to make it visible to the people who are following you.

 As it happened Nigel  had tweeted about a post I had written. He showed me how someone else had picked this up, retweeted and spread my message, not quite like wildfire but a brisker flame than otherwise.

Reader, I was intrigued.

I took the plunge last week. It was a leap into the unknown but several people have urged me to join this networking phenomenon assuring me that I would find it worthwhile. I am not a very sociable being so was uninterested in linking to superficial chit-chat that many of us associate with these sites (Facebook being another – I belong to keep an eye on what my daughter’s up to!).

At the same time I am questioning the effectiveness of traditional teacher professional development as I sit at work on an in-service training day with little of relevance to me going on in the school where I am based.

Could the formation of groups of educators on Twitter be thought of as communities of practice, and can the learning constructed by these groups be thought of as professional development?

I am not looking for a one-off day where, despite research into learning, I am subjected to transmission based teaching methods from a speaker or presenter who ‘delivers’ a presentation. The knowledge accrued is then expected to transform my practice in the classroom. This traditional teacher professional development, despite being ineffective, is also costly in time and money.

This has as many implications for the quality and nature of the CPD I offer to my colleagues as for my own professional development.

Education concerns exploring new ways of being. A major topic of interaction among the microblogging educators is how we are to redefine education and schools for the 21st century. I want to be a part of the conversation. I am grateful to  Jo McLeay for her scholarly exposition of the subject.

She shows it is well established that communities of practice play a huge part in knowledge construction and sharing – and of course it’s not any more just about newcomers to a community learning from old timers. Membership of communities of practice allows learners to collaborate, to develop new knowledge and to develop and learn about new resources. Learning is an outcome of participation.

The three attributes, ‘mutual engagement, joint enterprise and shared repertoire’, are key ways to differentiate communities of practice from teams or groups.

Communities of practice are not – and should not be – static but subject to evolution. My own evolution – at least 5 years behind the techies – reflects this premise.

I have been skeptical about the nature of social networking: I don’t really want to know the minutiae of what my own family is up to let alone complete strangers!  However, I am beginning to understand that strong informal relationships necessary for true sharing – not just of resources and tips but of philosophy and fundamental beliefs – can occur once trust and confidence are established.

The community of educators that is forming on Twitter “fulfils the human desire for interaction” (McInnerney, p. 73), overcomes isolation, engenders a sense of belonging in a joint enterprise. Thus it is a source of influence, learning and identity.

Finally back to John Naughton who quotes a study clarifying that Twitter is a radically different form of social networking.

Researchers at the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology assembled a cluster of 20 PCs, collected the entire contents of Twitter for the month of July 2009 and then set their algorithms to analysing the resulting mountain of data.

One of the researchers’ conjectures concerned the number of “degrees of separation” one would expect between Twitter users. Ever since Stanley Milgram’s famous “six degrees of separation” experiments of the 1960s in which he showed that any two people on earth were separated by at most six hops from one acquaintance to the next, studies of social networks – both offline and online – have generally confirmed that figure. Given that only about a fifth of Twitter relationships are reciprocal, the Korean researchers conjectured that the degree of separation among Twitter users would be greater than six. But what their data showed is exactly the opposite: the average path-length in Twitter is just over four.

If you’re not into network theory, then the difference between six and four may not seem very significant. But if you’re interested in how news spreads around a network then it’s dynamite. Next to traditional, few-to-many broadcasting, Twitter is the fastest way to spread news and information. In fact, it’s the nearest thing the web has to wildfire. And the key mechanism that enables that is retweeting. The Korean researchers have found that this single facility generally enables any given message to reach a much bigger audience than those who are followers of the original tweet.

 We’ll see how it goes.