Building your professional network with twitter, google reader and a few other tools
A couple of days ago, Frank Noschese tweeted the following:
This is a pretty regular occurrence these days. I feel like the blog-o-twitterverse is exploding with new educators with great ideas to share. This stuck home for me when I read a comment from Josh Gates (another new twitter convert) to Brian’s Blog:
Family—that’s exactly what this network is starting to feel like. In fact, I’ve seen this network rally around a fellow teacher suffering from terrible loss, and in a small but meaningful way, serve as a source of strength.
As for myself, I can’t really remember what it was like before I had hundreds of teachers I could learn from, before I was in almost daily discussion with physics professors and teachers around the world, and before I found myself thinking of teachers I’ve never met in-person as tremendous friends and colleagues.
But I still there’s so much more room for growth. I talk to many teachers every day who haven’t seen the power of networked learning, and many are still dismissive. I’m not too worried about trying to convert them over—if I’m right, and this network really is like a family, I think the advantages of networked learning will become more and more apparent over time.
As someone who married into a big family, and sometimes gets lost in all the relations and how they are connected to me (he’s my wife’s aunt’s cousin once removed), I think there’s value in the genealogy of networked learning—that is organizing and maintaining a our networks in such a way that emphasizes relationships.
Now, with a Google Reader filled with more than 500 RSS feeds and twitter feed of over 250 people, I wish I had taken the time to carefully record exactly how I found each of the bloggers/tweeps that are now a part of my network, and how they are connected to each other. I think this information would be truly valuable, since basically, good teching blogs are opaque to google searches. I was on the internet for more than 15 years before I found the a consistent source excellent teaching resources and insight. But once I stumbled upon the blog of a 3rd year math teacher in California trying to toss tennis balls into trash cans, everything changed, and suddenly I found myself discovering new and amazing teachers all around the world, just by following the links from Dan’s comments and blogroll. .
But now, a few years later, I constantly find myself looking at a RSS feed or Twitter and wondering—wait is that the person who? Where does that person teach? What subject is that again? And often most importantly, as I try to introduce others to this world, how in the world did I find this awesome person?
As a result, I’ve decided to put together a list of tips and tricks I wish I would have known/used when I first started building my learning network.
Tips for building a learning network with Google Reader
I couldn’t imagine reading blogs without Google Reader. I currently have 599 RSS subscriptions to various blogs, including some that post crazy frequently like Gizmodo and Engadget. Though I try to make a regular habit of keeping my RSS clear, it’s not uncommon for my full RSS feed to generate hundreds of posts in a few hours. The only way to cope with this firehose of information is to have a tool that allows you to very quickly find the things that are useful, and quickly dismiss all the things that don’t interest you.
Here’s my list of how to turn Google Reader into a very powerful information filter:
- Google Reader layout basics: The power of Google Reader is that it allows you to quickly scan 100s of posts and to quickly decide how to deal with an individual post—trash it, read it, save it for later, etc. But to get the full power of this, you need to change a few settings. By setting Google Reader to show only new items, old items are dismissed as you read them, and by clicking show only headlines, you can fit 50 or more items in a single screen.
- Master Google Reader Shortcuts: Just like Gmail, Google Reader has some crazy powerful shortcuts to allow you to power through your RSS feed, and many of them are the same as the shortcuts from Gmail. Some of the most useful are ‘j/k’ for moving up and down your list of items, ‘n/p’ for moving to the next/previous folder, ‘e’ to email the item, and ‘shift-a’ for marking all the items in the current view as read (killer feature).
- Rename your feeds to inculude name and details about each blogger: teacher bloggers come up with some really great names for the blogs, but as the number of blogs I subscribe to climbs, I find myself trying to remember more and more—what’s the name of the author of “Recipes for for Pi?” or where does the author of Gealgerobophysicsulus teach? Now for every new blog I add, I click on rename subscription, and try to add the blogger’s name, city and subject to the title in parenthesis. In doing this, I think it helps me to see that these blogs are more than just a bunch of ideas I scarf down on a daily basis, they are threads of a network of colleagues and friends who influence me tremendously.
- Have a ‘best feeds’ folder: I’ve tried all sorts of strategies for sorting RSS feeds into different folders (physics blogs, math blogs, science, tech, etc), and while it is helpful, it seems like a bit of unnecessary work, and I find myself always fiddling with how I organize these. But one tip that is useful is have one folder called “best feeds” and put the feeds that you know to produce consistently useful stuff in this folder. That way, when you’ve got 2000 items in your google reader, you can relax and start with just the best feeds, knowing that if you have to declare Google Reader bankruptcy, you won’t miss the best stuff you really want to read.
- Follow comment feeds: one of the downsides of following blogs in a RSS reader is that you often miss out on the equally valuable conversation taking place in the blog comments. But it turns out that you can actually subscribe to RSS comment feeds as well (often the feed address is just feed://blogname/comments/feed). Subscribing to the comment feeds of a few very popular blogs that have a lot of comments can be an easy way to blow up your Google Reader, but I find subscribing to the comment feed of many of the high quality, but not super well known teaching blogs I follow to be tremendously helpful without being overwhelming.
- Bookmark blogs separately in delicious/diigo: one thing I wish I had is a blog roll, with a list of all the blogs I follow and a short description of the blog/why I started following it in the first place—I think this might be super helpful for those moments where I might want to share a list of great teaching blogs. I’m now trying to create such a list by bookmarking blogs in diigo as I add them to my RSS feed, and tagging them with the tag blogroll.
- Utilize the power of search: One of the best thing about reading blogs through RSS feeds is that Google reader has built-in search via Google, and this allows me to think things like “I read this awesome blog post on modeling a basketball shot from a commercial just recently—who wrote that?” Instead of having to try to search the whole internet to find this, a search through my Google Reader for “Basketball NCAA commercial” yields this post in seconds. It’s like searching a detailed archive of everything your brain has read. Awesome.
Tools and apps for making Google Reader even more useful
- Use a smartphone for triage: This is probably where you decide I’m a total internet addict, but I love using my smartphone to do triage of my RSS feeds. I’ve bookmarked the Google Reader page on my iPhone as an app icon, and whenever I have a bit of time to kill waiting in line, I just fire up Google Reader on my iPhone and start skimming through links, and marking the really good posts as “keep unread” while marking everything else as read 25 posts at a time. There are a number of other RSS readers out there for smartphones, but I’ve yet to find one on my iPhone that makes it as easy to quickly find useful posts, save those for later, while getting rid of everything else.
- Use Wizard RSS to convert partial RSS feeds into full feeds: A number of RSS feeds on the internet are published as partial feeds, which means you only get to read the first part of the post on Google Reader, and then have to click through the post to read the full article on the original website. When reading a lot of stuff, this can be a big bottleneck. Luckily, there are technological tools to fix this—Wizard RSS. Give it a link to a partial RSS feed, and it will return a full RSS feed for you to use.
- Reeder—the best RSS reader for Mac: Reeder is an beautiful application for reading your RSS feeds. It syncs with Google Reader, knows all the keyboard shortcuts, and allows you to add many more. It’s my default application for reading RSS on the mac. There developers also make an iPhone and iPad version—I love the iPad version and use it all the time, but I’ve found the simple web interface to Google Reader on my iPhone to be a bit faster/more useful to me.
- IFTTT: IF This, Then That: IFTTT is one of those wildly cool services on the internet that is still don’t fully know how to use. It basically allows you to create simple recipes to control automated actions on the internet, like “If I star a post in Google Reader, add it to Evernote” or send it to me via email, etc. I’ve only created a few rules (I use it to archive all of my tweets to Evernote), but it has great power sort of internet glue for connecting various services.
- Cobook: One other thing I long for is a sort of digital address book that I never need to update. I’d really like to be able to open my address book, flip to Frank Noschese, and see his twitter handle (@fnoschese), and his blogs(Action-Reaction and Noschese 180), along with links to facebook and all the other social networks through which we share a connection, along with regular contact info. This would save so me much trouble trying to figure out the email address of the person who writes a particular blog, or his/her twitter handle, etc, and be a great way to help me see all the digital facets of my friends and how we are all connected. Until this perfect tool exists, there is Cobook, a nice smart address book for mac that interfaces with facebook, twitter and linked in, and automatically pulls in contact info for your contacts, and even syncs up with the address book on your computer, and even supports tagging.
- Tweetchat: This is the way to follow any of the twitter chats that take place regularly in the education world. Tweetchat allows you to view only the tweets with the chat’s designated hashtag, and then automatically includes that hashtag in all of your tweets. Also, here’s a nice blog post with a link to a list of all the various education related twitter chats, also available in calendar form.
- Hibari and Osfoora-two great mac twitter clients: I can’t find the perfect twitter client, but Hibari and Osfoora are pretty close. I dislike big twitter interfaces like tweetdeck, and prefer a minimal client that dosn’t take up my entire screen. Hibari has been my client of choice for the past year or so—it does a nice job of linking replies to original tweets, supports momentum scrolling, and has a very uncluttered interface. The one thing Hibari doesn’t do which I would really like is have some sort of better image support (it just opens images in a browser), and autocompletion of twitter handles. Osfoora is a recent entry into the field that does have autocompletion and handles images beautifully (they open up full size within the app), but alas, it doesn’t have momentum scrolling, and so it feels just a bit clunkier. Hopefully they’ll work that out in the next version. (Yes, I’m very picky about tiwtter clients).
- Tweetbot—the best iOS twitter clinet: if you’ve got an iOS device and want to keep up with twitter, Tweetbot is the best app out there, hands down.
- Storify: Storify is a powerful tool for taking bits from social media (tweets, Facebook posts, YouTube videos, etc) and combining them together into social stories that form a digital archive. To see an example, check out Audrey Waters’s collection of tweets from the SXSWedu conference. Storify also just released a great iPad app as well.
- Twitter ninja tricks with IFTTT: One of the real powers of If This Then That is how useful it can be for twitter. Two recipes I love are archiving all your tweets on Evernote (you’d be surprised how useful it is to have an archive of everything you’ve tweeted), and sending the links from any tweets you favorite to Instapaper, which is a super-powerful way to save those long reads you find on twitter into a reading list to tackle later. If you aren’t familiar with Instapaper, it’s this amazing website/smartphone app that allows you to extract text from any article on the web, and then view them again in a very easy to read format.
Blogging without twitter feels like going out for a fancy dinner but skipping out on the conversation. Twitter is the faculty lounge where I find so many great ideas and conversations that are essential to my growth as a teacher.
One of the most important things I learned the hard way about twitter is that tweets don’t stay searchable forever on twitter’s search. If you go to that great conference, and find yourself wanting to go back and read tweets from the conference, you’ll find yourself deeply disappointed a week or so after the conference.
I don’t have as many tips as I do for Google Reader, mainly because I find Twitter to be far less overwhelming and less prone to information flooding than my RSS feed. But here are a few tools I find useful.
That’s all the tips I can think of at the moment. The big idea for me is trying to find ways to map my teaching network and connect it to real people that I can get to know better. I also find that often, these networks of great teachers are something of a closed loop, and hard to find through searching alone (googling “good teaching blogs” certainly doesn’t do it), so I want to find ways unlock these loops and connect to more teachers. I’d love to hear any suggestions you may using tools like Google Reader and Twitter to strengthen your professional networks.