- Associated Press - Friday, October 10, 2014

CASPER, Wyo. (AP) - Hundreds of miles from one another, seven men and women settled into an online meeting room.

They wrapped headphones around their ears and turned computer volumes higher. When the video feed began, a child ran across the background of one screen. The glow of a televised football game flickered on another’s face.

This is an ed chat. The people behind the computer screens are teachers, principals and technology directors who care about education enough to give an hour of their Sunday night to Twitter, a social networking service that allows users to send and receive 140-character bursts called tweets.

A growing number of educators in Wyoming are logging on to the social network to find inspiration in their classrooms and to connect with teachers across the region. With sometimes an hour’s drive separating teachers from their nearest colleagues - and longer during bad weather - teachers say Wyoming is poised to benefit from the online connection.

On a recent Sunday, these teachers saw each other’s faces for the first time. It was James Kapptie’s turn to lead the discussion, and the video chat was his idea. The group used YouTube and Twitter to talk about how to use technology in classrooms.

Kapptie, a technology director for Park County School District No. 1, said there’s no better place than Wyoming for these virtual chatrooms to take hold.

On Sunday nights, Kapptie settles into the double recliner in his basement in Greybull, a Mountain Dew soda next to his laptop and desktop computers. He’s typically wearing whatever he fished in earlier that day. Kapptie’s four kids, ages 5 to 14, will traipse downstairs to hug and kiss Kapptie goodnight before the chat finishes an hour later.

The discussion questions have been written and programmed to hit Twitter in five- to seven-minute intervals. Ten minutes before the chat begins, Kapptie sends a reminder tweet to the roughly 230 educators following the discussion on Twitter.

Then, at 8 p.m., the questions begin.

What strategies can we use to move past “just” Twitter collaborations?

Is there technology you’d recommend that can help support my child in self-directed learning?

What can I do to support literacy in my home?

The weekly Twitter discussion is different than any other teacher training, Kapptie said.

Nobody tells these teachers to be there. Responses are limited to 140 characters.

“The people that are on there, one way or the other, whether it’s a big group or a small group, are excited about education and they want to talk about education,” he said.

It started when Kapptie and a local principal were brainstorming ways to get more Wyoming teachers talking to one another. Both Kapptie and the principal used Twitter and had joined national education chats online.

“We said, you know, we could do this in Wyoming,” he said.

Teachers refuel their tanks during the Sunday night talks, he said, and find motivation to go back to the classroom on Monday.

Other teachers agree.

Stacy Martinez, an elementary school technology teacher in Worland, said she uses Twitter to find teaching ideas more now than before she joined the Wyoming education talks.

“I had a Twitter account, but I didn’t really use it,” Martinez said.

She now tells other teachers that Twitter is not only a social tool. Martinez follows educational companies, nonprofits and other teachers who post valuable websites and resources online.

Darrin Peppard, principal at Rock Springs High School, said he made valuable connections through the weekly online talks.

“There are many, many communities (in Wyoming) where there is only one high school,” Peppard said. “So there’s not near as much collaboration with somebody who has the same job or a similar job.”

Unlike some Wyoming schools, Peppard lets his students use Twitter on their smartphones. Some teachers create hashtags - a searchable word or phrase that can link tweets together - for their classes.

As discussions are happening, kids are tweeting. They include the hashtag so other students can see their messages.

It’s an opportunity to teach good Internet practices, Peppard said.

“It’s not just, ‘If you can’t beat it, join it,’” he said. “But rather, lead it. Really get kids out there on the forefront using technology.”

There are challenges and limitations to using Twitter, Kapptie said. Some teachers battle poor Internet connections and technical difficulties, or schools blocking the social network. Most teachers - who grew up in an age before smartphones - face learning curves.

Before a recent Sunday chat ended, the seven people in virtual attendance thanked each other for logging on.

“Thanks again for another awesome experiment,” Crista Anderson, a teaching coach in Missoula, Montana, said before signing off.

“Thanks from North Dakota,” said Kelly Rexine, an information technology specialist for North Dakota-based company EduTech. “It’s nice to see you face-to-face now.”

Rexine paused.

“Or, virtual face-to-face,” he said.

___

Information from: Casper (Wyo.) Star-Tribune, https://www.trib.com

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