Tobermory’s Tweecher

The Herald June 16 2009

NEW HORIZONS: Social networking and blogging are an increasingly important part of classroom life for both pupils and teachers.
The pen has always been a mighty instrument. But in this internet age, when daily musings are so freely dispensed through Twitter, Facebook and blogs, it is easy to forget the power of the written word. The brightly painted town of Tobermory on the Isle of Mull has recently been reminded of this, after the local paper published a series of messages that had been sent by Lynne Horn, a principal teacher at the local high school, through the social-networking site Twitter.

The tweets, as messages sent through Twitter are known, included a remark about some children with additional support needs being “hard work”. In relation to one class, Horn wrote: “I don’t know who least wants to do anything, them or me”.

Such comments might have seemed less than thrilling in a chat at the school gate or in the staff room – but, once published in the paper, they appeared more indiscreet and, to some, shocking.

Horn has been for many years an evangelist for the role of technology in the classroom, using iPods, mobile phones and blogging to enthuse pupils about foreign languages. Boys in particular respond well to such an approach, she has argued.

Pupils in her Tobermory classroom have been encouraged to download contemporary French pop songs to their mobile phones. They have recorded themselves chanting irregular verbs and sent the sound instantly to their teacher. Other members of the languages department have used the technology to record native Gaelic speakers.

As well as encouraging classes to keep blogs, or online diaries, about the highs and lows of their language development, Horn also began an “edublog” – something that has been officially encouraged by the development body Learning and Teaching Scotland. Argyll and Bute council has also promoted the use of some new technology, seeing it as a way of overcoming the isolation of rural communities: useful for a local authority that includes 25 inhabited islands.

Schools generally bar the use of mobile phones in classrooms because of the prospect of mischief: for example in the form of unauthorised photographs and recordings. However, as Horn’s technological successes show, the situation is not so clear-cut, and modern methods of communication can be a boon. “Should the fear of letting our pupils use their phones in class deter us from considering the motivational and language-learning benefits of doing so?” said fellow information-technology enthusiast David Noble, who interviewed Horn about her innovative work for an education website.

In this case, however, it was not the pupils who found a pothole on the information superhighway but their teacher. Recently, Horn started exploring the learning potential of the new big thing in communication, Twitter: an online service that enables users to send out short personal updates, or tweets, of up to 140 characters long. These can be sent just to friends, or to a wider audience: Horn’s were seen only by a few people.

One of the people who was receiving Horn’s tweets was a local journalist, who decided they were worthy of publication – although she did not name the teacher. The story was then taken up by the BBC and national newspapers. In a small community, it did not take long for Horn’s identity to be revealed – and indeed, students wrote on Facebook about their teacher’s misfortune. One parent was quoted by newspaper reporters as saying: “I am outraged that she describes children as hard work. She is paid a lot of money to do her job and it is unbelievable that she is sitting talking about them on a computer rather than teaching.”

But elsewhere Horn had many defenders. A fellow education professional, John Johnston from North Lanarkshire, who had access to the tweets, said in her defence: “A quick look at Horn’s tweets would show a commitment to teaching and learning that goes way beyond contracted hours.

“The reports should have been celebrating this commitment and efforts to improve education, rather than picking up on one or two tweets that are the sort of staffroom chat that goes on all of the time in every school in the land.”

On The Whiteboard Blog, which is about IT in the classroom, a contributor called Danny Nicholson said he was “concerned the BBC can see fit to just take a teachers’ tweets and use them out of context”. Others wrote that they had seen or published similar remarks elsewhere, with one penning a defensive blog entitled: “And then they came for me and there was nobody left to tweet.”

Argyll and Bute issued a statement disputing the suggestion that they had “banned” teachers from blogging or using Twitter. A spokeswoman said: “Social networking sites are blocked in all schools as policy. Educational blog websites such as edublogs and ScotEdublogs are available to teachers from within Argyll and Bute’s education network.

“Teachers may request access to professional blogs which have educational value. This has always been the case and is not related to any incident. Staff are not able to maintain or access personal sites such as their own blogs or Twitter pages through the council’s network.

“The council covers a wide geographical are. We therefore encourage our staff to use all available methods of communication to share ideas with colleagues both within the area and further afield. While it is not usually appropriate to access sites such as Twitter in class time, we fully support staff in their efforts to share best practice through all available means.”

David Lewis, a psychologist based at the University of Sussex who specialises in how people think in everyday life, says the rise of social networking is making such incidents more common. “This kind of slip-up happens all the time,” he says, citing the case last year when 13 members of an airline’s cabin crew were sacked after posting derogatory messages on Facebook about passengers. “People have to be very, very careful what they put in writing.

“I know a psychiatrist who once went for a job interview and the interviewer said: Well, if it wasn’t for the bloody patients, it would be lovely here.’ He was joking. But if he had written that in an e-mail and it had been made public he would have lost his job.

“I do think, however, that we are terribly easily shocked nowadays. We seem to have lost a bit of robustness in the way we go about our daily lives and we are all very interested in other people’s business.”

Argyll and Bute Council refused to comment on individual cases, but Mull councillor Gordon Chalmers said of Horn: “She is a very hard-working teacher and a totally dedicated professional. I can only guess how crushed she is by this. I would be devastated to learn that she feels less than 100% supported in her job.”

The councillor was initially quoted as condemning any council employee who was sending tweets in work time, but said he had since found out more. “This teacher has been at the forefront of bringing technology into schools. We have the highest travel costs of any council area and we saw new technology as a way of building links between people and communities.

“I hope all this doesn’t throw a spanner in the works.”