The Hashtagification of Education

On August 23, 2007 Chris Messina started something so small, he would never know how it might change the world.

Chris, among other things, was also a founder of Barcamp (which was the inspiration if you remember for Edcamp). But this tweet was important on a number of different levels. The tweet led him to write two blog posts on August 25th that set the stage for what the hashtag concept could be. In his second post, “Groups for Twitter: A Proposal for Twitter Tag Channels“, Messina explains his initial thinking:

In fact, I’m not at all convinced that groups (at least as they are commonly understood on sites like Flickr) are ultimately a good idea or a good fit for Twitter. But, I do think that there is certainly some merit to improving contextualizationcontent filtering and exploratory serendipity within Twitter.

What blew me away after diving into this post and some others on the history of hashtags, is how far into the future Messina could see. As I’m reading this blog post from 2007! I’m sure he had no idea how evolved the hashtag would become, but his initial thoughts on the form and function still stand true today:

I also like that the folksonomic approach (as in, there are no “pre-established groups”) allows for a great deal of expression, of negotiation (I imagine that #barcamp will be a common tag between events, but that’s fine, since if there is a collision, say between two separate BarCamps on the same day, they’ll just have to socially engineer a solution and probably pick a new tag, like #barcampblock) and of decay (that is, over time, as tags are used less frequently, other people can reuse them — no domain squatting!). It also enforces actual use in the wild of tags, since no evidence of a tag will exist without it first being used in conversation. This means that representing channels in tagclouds across the site that grow and fade over time, and are contextual to all of Twitter or to a single user, is the ideal interface for displaying this information.

Oh, and from a language/design perspective, you can actually turn regular words in a sentence into channels, just as many people do with @replies. For example: I’m coming to #barcamp later today.

Specifically, Messina makes the point that hashtags could create a “better eavesdropping experience” in Twitter than on other forms of social media (probably not called social media in 2007 though). And that essentially is what makes hashtags so powerful. You don’t have to use the “#” in order to take a seat at the table.

Hashtags in Education

Both George Couros and Steven Anderson have great posts on hashtags in education. How they function, why we should use them, and some ways to get started immediately with hashtags. As I looked at the “big list” of educational hashtags I wondered if any other field had as many hashtags as education…

Teachers have taken to Twitter like no other platform before or since…and it has created a large ecosystem of conversations, sharing, and professional development (for lack of a better term). Educators have also used different hashtags to start live “chats”. The ever-popular #edchat is just one in a multitude of educational chats centered on a shared hashtag.

There are many reasons for the exponential growth of Twitter usage by teachers but one of the biggest reasons has to be the low barrier to entry as opposed to other platforms. Steven Anderson says in his post how he gets teachers using Twitter before ever joining:

In a nutshell, I no longer start with signing up and tweeting the first day. I always show how to use Twitter without ever signing up. I believe it’s important to establish the value in using it rather than using it and attempting to find the value.

What a lot of people don’t realize that Twitter is a very powerful search engine. Just like Google, if you know how to use the search effectively you can find pretty much anything. And one of those effective ways is leveraging the power of hashtags.

Hashtags have evolved to the point where any conference, educator gathering, or online sharing usually has a hashtag associated with it. Schools, teaching groups, books, grade levels, projects, subjects and almost every sub-category of education has a hashtag.

We are currently acting out the “Hashtagification of Education”.

And yet….this might be just the beginning.

The Evolution of Hashtags

Evan Scherr wrote a post a while back that still has my head thinking. In “How a Common Hashtag System Could Change Education for Students” Evan touches on a missing piece of hashtag use:

By developing a commonly accepted and thus used hashtag system educators in the K12 space could encourage experts and other scholars to engage with our students around the content that they specialize in. If I am having my students learn about #formsofgovernment politicians, or scholars of government could follow the hashtag and participate in the conversation, share their own resources, or content, or even better connect with the class/student(s) that are learning about the subject.

Why would this be such a big change? Because it would open the doors to more real-time learning…and would expand the reach of the classroom teacher beyond previously written articles, books, or videos.

The problem I initially thought about with this idea was limiting the platform to Twitter. Hashtags have taken root in our society and are now being used on multiple social networks including Google+, Instagram, and Facebook.

This problem is solved with Tagboard. Tagboard allows for anyone to search a hashtag across these various platforms. Which makes Evan’s premise even more exciting. Yet, I’m still a bit reserved.

We’ve fallen into a trap of categorizing almost everything we share online. If we are categorizing for a reason (such as a live event, chat, conference, or ongoing discussion) then the power of the hashtag will continue. But, when we “over-categorize” we may be missing out on those conversations that spring out of cross-disciplinary interest. And those are some of the most needed conversations to push education forward.

How do you see hashtags evolving for educational use in the near future? Do you believe they are used up to their potential…or do you think we can (and should) move to a next level of hashtagification? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.

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  • John Bennett says:

    I see the use of hashtags as a natural part of effective learning. Encountering a topic of interest, general or in response to an assignment, should I believe start with an online search – with this material then engaged via what I have labelled “Considerations” ( ) to develop what I call a vision regarding the topic.

    Along with applying this vision to address assignments, it enables conversations initially among students / team members / classmates. Then at this point, I really love your notion of hashtag use to enable outside experts to easily join these conversations. I also like the search options here: hashtags for sure but also phrase searches as well. I.e., if a student team is dealing with an assignment on climate, they might search “rainfall trends” on Twitter or others. I’m not sure if this is done – but I have on occasion. It’s a way to identify accounts of potential sources and often reveals links to other material not found earlier.

    I like the “expert” response to hashtags for another reason. Part of the considerations associated with material gathered from searches is the assessing of the usefulness of the pieces of material, especially with contradicting information. On social media, I might expect contradictions more frequently. The students will benefit greatly dealing with the experts who might be biasing their thoughts via selected source material or even pure arbitrary unsupported opinions. As I noted, great experience for students!

    But the chance to interact with quality input from true experts will indeed let the students test their understanding and expand it significantly. What great confidence-building experience for them!!!

  • Evan Scherr says:

    I believe that the hashtag has the potential to deepen learning for learners of all ages. I envision a system that allows classes and students from all over the world to connect around the content that they are learning not only when the are learning it, but as a catalog to what past learners were thinking and experiencing at the time of their own learning. In a way the dreamer in me often wonders what it would have been like to listen to Plato speak or know what he was thinking. The hashtag sort of changes all of that. Not just for learners, but everything. I can hashtag a parenting moment and in theory 20 years from now my own children could access it via a search of their own. It may be a bit too utopian for some, but this is how I picture technology being use to shape experiences and ultimately the learning that happens within those experiences.

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