Mathematics educators on Twitter

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Twitter launched in July of 2006 and offers asynchronous following (you can follow someone without them following you back), a mostly chronological timeline (some conversations are pulled together in users' timelines to make them easier to follow), direct messaging, and relatively short posts limited to 140 characters. Originally described as a "microblogging" service, Twitter use for many has evolved into something more conversational as small groups chat back-and-forth and share links and pictures.

Twitter is home to one of the most active online communities of mathematics educators. Mathematics teachers who regularly use Twitter generally use it to converse and share links to resources or information relevant to mathematics education. Some math teachers on Twitter refer to their community as the "MathTwitterBlogoSphere," or MTBoS. Twitter's key organizational feature is hashtags, and mathematics teachers on Twitter use them to organize "chats" (such as #mathchat) or to share during conferences or other events.

It is difficult to estimate the number of mathematics teachers who use Twitter and how many of those primarily use their account to communicate about issues related to mathematics education. As of May 2015, a directory built by Jed Butler for people who identify themselves as part of the MathTwitterBlogoSphere (https://sites.google.com/site/mtbosdirectory/) had 280 self-registered users. A Twitter list maintained by Raymond Johnson (https://twitter.com/MathEdnet/lists/mathed) had over 1100 users, while David Wees, whose following list is mostly made of people related to mathematics education, had more than 5200 people.

Community Organization and Ongoing Activity

Twitter's popularity among mathematics educators relative to other social networks seems to come from its low barriers to creating an account and some sense that posting is low-risk due to the size of a Tweet and the ephemeral nature of Twitter content. The asynchronous following structure is also useful, allowing new users to follow many others without needing those users to follow back.

Defining a "community" on Twitter is difficult because the service itself does little to help users identify themselves as part of a community. Each user chooses their own set of accounts to follow, unlike an internet forum or listserv where joining automatically connects a user with other users joining the same service. The primary Twitter feature used to bring people together are hashtags, labels typed into posts that can identify the post as part of a larger conversation, or "chat."

The MathTwitterBlogoSphere

Some mathematics teachers on Twitter refer to their participation in blogging and tweeting as being part of the "MathTwitterBlogoSphere," or MTBoS, and use that moniker to identify themselves as part of a core community of math educators on the social web. The label rose to prominence in 2012 with the help of Sam Shah and others who worked to help organize some of the activity of mathematics teachers on Twitter. These efforts led to a website launched in the summer of 2012, Welcome to the MathTwitterBlogoSphere, that helped introduce people involved in the MTBoS, why others should join, and tips for getting involved.

Chris Robinson was the first to use the #MTBoS hashtag on Twitter on April 15, 2013.

Explore MTBoS

In the Fall of 2012 Sam Shah led a "new blogger initiation" to help get more teachers involved in blogging and the MathTwitterBlogoSphere. (See announcement post and roundup post.) In the Fall of 2013, this developed into Exploring the MathTwitterBlogoSphere (see announcement) led by Julie Reulbach, Justin Lanier, Sam Shah, and Tina Cardone. This new orientation was structured as a series of weekly tasks for teachers new to Twitter and blogging, such as setting up a blog, following new people on Twitter, commenting on someone's blog post, writing a first post, etc. One or more times a year the Explore MTBoS site organizes a new multi-week orientation to help introduce more mathematics teachers to using Twitter and blogging.

Twitter Chats and Hashtags

Hashtags (named for the use of the #, or "hash" symbol) are commonly used on Twitter to make it easier for users to find messages related to a specific theme, content, or event. They were first suggested by Chris Messina in 2007 and inspired by the use of channels on IRC networks. As hashtag use evolved, Twitter adopted them into the service by making them links that trigger a Twitter search, making it easier to follow a hashtag that signifies an ongoing conversation without the need to follow all the users contributing to that conversation. Users often use hashtags informally to express some context or feeling about their tweet without trying to label that tweet as part of a larger, ongoing conversation. For example, math teachers may use the hashtag "#nguyening" as a form of the hashtag "#winning" but associated with the Twitter-using math teacher Fawn Nguyen.

Chats Focused on Mathematics Education

Hashtag Purpose Organizer(s) ("?" represents people who conceal parts of their name) Chat Time
#mathchat
#mathschat Discussions of maths teaching in the United Kingdom.  ? (@BetterMaths) and AQA Maths (@AQAMaths) Wednesdays 8pm GMT
#SlowMathChat A one-question-a-day chat to spur asynchronous, ongoing conversations. Michael Fenton (@mjfenton) Questions posted weekdays at 7am and 7pm ET
#mathscpdchat United Kingdom-based discussions related to continuing professional development in maths education. See @mathscpdchat for information. National Center for Excellence in the Teaching of Mathematics (@NCETM) Tuesdays at 7pm GMT
#mathsTLP Collaborative "Twitter Lesson Planning" (TLP) for United Kingdom-based mathematics teachers. Jo Morgan (@mathsjem) and Ed Southall (@solvemymaths) Sundays at 7pm GMT
#ElemMathChat A chat focused on elementary school mathematics Melynee Naegele (@buffalogal03) Thursdays at 9pm ET
#MSMathChat A chat focused on middle school mathematics Justin Aion (@justinaion) and Adrienne Shlagbaum (@shlagteach) Mondays at 9pm ET
#alg1chat A chat focused on Algebra 1 Lisa Henry (@lmhenry9), Matt Owen (@_mattowen_), Kathryn Freed (@kathrynfreed), and ? (@aanthonya) Sundays at 9pm ET
#geomchat A chat focused on high school geometry Barbara Madden (@barbarawmadden) and ? (@algebrainiac1) First Thursday of each month at 9pm ET
#alg2chat A chat focused on Algebra 2 Wendy Menard (@wmukluk), Lois Burke (@lbburke), ? (@druinok) Second Monday of each month at 9pm ET
#precalcchat A chat focused on precalculus Taoufik Nadji (@mrlenadj) Thursdays at 9:30pm ET
#precchat A chat focused on calculus Lisa Henry (@lmhenry9) Third Thursday of each month at 9pm ET
#statschat A chat focused on statistics Julie Kindred (@jkindred) Thursdays at 9pm ET
#probchat A chat focused on problem-based learning in mathematics.
#SwDMathChat A chat focused on mathematics teaching and learning for students with disabilities. Andrew Gael (@bkdidact) and ? (@fourkatie) 2nd and 4th Thursday of the month at 9pm ET

Archives of some of the above chats and additional information can be found at http://mathchats.pbworks.com/. A comprehensive list of education-related chats is at https://sites.google.com/site/twittereducationchats/education-chat-official-list.

Hashtags Used to Label Tweets Related to a Theme

Instead of being used to coordinate a chat, some hashtags are used simply to label a tweet according to a theme or topic. Often the hashtag is related to an ongoing blogging series by one or more authors. The following are examples of prominent hashtags used in this way:

  • #MTBoS, the hashtag for MathTwitterBlogoSphere is used by a number of math teachers on Twitter to gain the attention of others who might be searching for relevant content using that hashtag.
  • #tmwyk is short for "Talking Math With Your Kids" and relates tweets to Christopher Danielson's site (http://talkingmathwithkids.com/) that helps parents support their children's mathematical development.
  • #wcydwt stands for "What can you do with this?" and signals images, videos, scenarios, or other phenomena that provoke a need for mathematization. The #wcydwt hashtag grew from a series of posts by Dan Meyer started in 2010 to include posts from many teacher-bloggers and tweeters.
  • #anyqs is another Dan Meyer-launched hashtag and similar to #wcydwt, except more specifically targeted at soliciting the mathematical questions students might ask given mathematizable phenomena.

In many cases, including all of the above examples, hashtags are only recognizable and useful to those who already know what they are, which creates challenges when trying to use hashtags to attract or organize novice Twitter users or those unfamiliar with the abbreviations being used.

Conferences and Events

Twitter's real-time, chronological nature makes it ideal for following an ongoing event like an educational conference. Following Twitter can be useful both for attendees of a conference and those who are trying to follow conference sessions and learn about resources from afar. Typically a hashtag is promoted or agreed upon for the conference, such as #NCTMBoston for the 2015 NCTM Annual Meeting.

Twitter Math Camp, or TMC, is a small conference held since 2012 that was organized by and for mathematics educators on Twitter. More information about TMC can be found at http://www.twittermathcamp.com/.

Sometimes Twitter is useful for following non-conference mathematics events such as #PiDay.

Other Chats and Hashtags of Interest to Mathematics Educators

There are many other chats and related hashtags of potential interest to mathematics educators. Some are general, such as #edchat (mostly in the U.S.) and #ukedchat (in the U.K.), both of which relate to a broad range of educational issues. Some are organized around common standards, such as the #CCSSchat for the Common Core State Standards. Other hashtags help organize people around issues of equity and social justice, like #educolor.

Some hashtags relate to a topic and have no regularly scheduled chat. Teachers tweeting about interactive notebooks often use the hashtag #INB and users of standards-based grading typically use the hashtag #SBG or #SBAR.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Using Twitter

There are a number of features of Twitter that make it popular amongst mathematics teachers. First, the barriers to entry are low: accounts are easy to create, it is relatively easy to find people to follow, and posting takes little effort from either desktop or mobile platforms. Second, the short size of messages (140 characters or less) and real-time nature make Twitter feel a bit more like a large chat room than other social networks. Third, the chronological ordering of (most) posts make Twitter well-suited for following events like chats and conferences.

Some of these same features can be disadvantages under certain circumstances. Twitter's small message size is not well-suited for detailed explanations or nuanced arguments, which sometimes forces users to either oversimplify their communications or use multiple tweets to express an idea, replying to themselves to help preserve the thread of the argument. Generally these larger ideas are better suited for a blog post or services like Facebook or Google+, but the siloed nature of most social networking services make it difficult to jump from one service to another without losing the thought and audience.

Multi-person conversations using Twitter can also be difficult, as each username in the reply takes valuable space. Twitter clients typically include all usernames in replies by default, and removing them manually can be a problem unless the removed user follows everyone in the conversation as well as any new users who join the conversation. In these cases a short-term hashtag might be more useful, but this is rarely seen in practice. The asynchronous following structure in Twitter also creates confusion in conversations. Consider the following scenario and questions, which isn't uncommon in normal Twitter usage:

@davidwees asks a question on Twitter, which is seen by his followers @one, @two, and @three. @one replies first but because @two doesn't follow @one she doesn't see the question has already been answered, and sends her own reply to @davidwees. @three, however, follows both @one and @two, so he sees both replies. @three wants to ask a follow-up question and chooses to reply to @two's tweet because it's most recent in his timeline. @three's Twitter client automatically adds the @davidwees Twitter handle to the conversation, but not not @one. Will @one see @three's tweet? Only if @one follows @three, or if @three manually adds @one to the reply.

Protected Twitter accounts (shown with a lock symbol) also cause issues in conversations because you can see replies to a person with a protected account, but not the tweet being replied to unless that person has unlocked their tweets to you.

The real-time nature of Twitter may be well-suited for following events, but it is not ideal for preserving or building upon ideas over time. Twitter's search functions continue to improve, but the vast majority of Tweets are quickly forgotten once they scroll down users' timelines. For ideas worth preserving, blog posts or other forms of easily searched and archived web content are preferable.