Twitter is a social networking website which allows its users to send and read other users’ messages called ‘tweets’. It lets you send a 140 character long message which can be read by anyone but only directly by followers. It was launched in 2006 and since then its growth has been exponential.
Many question what Twitter is for. For some, it is a way of following people who they are interested in – the most popular being Stephen Fry. As a result it has developed a reputation for being trite and insubstantial. However, its immediacy means that it is also a way of hearing news as it happens and increasinly, a way of following topics or asking questions of like-minded people.
Some farmers are beginning to use twitter as a way of communicating with each other and the general public. Despite being popular amonst young people, it has not commonly been used in schools where it has been viewed with great suspicion and its use prevented.
Farming and Countryside Education (FACE) decided that it would be interesting to develop a project that brought farmers and pupils together through Twitter. Having discussed the idea with Alan Parkinson from the Geographical Association an invitation to participate was sent out to farmers and teachers. A group was formed on Twitter which was exclusive to those signing up to the project. Once the farmers and teachers were briefed, a two week slot was set up when pupils would be able to ask questions which the farmers would try to answer. As a pilot, the brief was left open-ended so that we could learn from what worked and what do not work.
There was a slow start to the conversations due to many schools having issues to resolve so that the majority of the first week was spent with the farmers posting comments about their daily life. This in itself was an interesting development. When schools did start to participate, the questions started to appear in ever increasing numbers and the farmers began to reply. The questions varied from how to become a farmer to which aspects of farming were more profitable .
When the twittering had ended, the farmers and teachers were asked their views about the pilot project. Some farmers and teachers had initial problems with the technology but the general view was that it became easier to use Twitter with practice. Unfortunately, some teachers were prevented from participating because they could not resolve e-safety issues in their schools. Maybe the successful use of Twitter for educational purposes by other schools will result in a re-examination of attitudes towards this technology.
The farmers were impressed by the intelligent and thought provoking questions asked by pupils. It was seen by teachers as having great potential for teaching and learning. They thought it was a good way to introduce agriculture as a topic and increase pupil involvement in class. Pupils were very enthusiastic to be using Twitter and were very excited when they had immediate responses from the farmers.
Both farmers and teachers would have liked an opportunity to discuss the types of questions that were likely to be asked and when pupils were likely to be using Twitter to ensure that responses could be timely. It may be that if there were many schools wishing be involved a booking system would have to be used to prevent farmers being overwhelmed.
Everyone who was able to participate in the project has said that they would like to be involved again.
So what is Twitter for? The answer is whatever you would like it to be. FACE intends to build on this pilot project which has demonstrated the great educational potential for using social networking technologies as an exciting way to engage with young people in schools about food, farming and the countryside.