The Value of Twitter: An Open Letter to Stephen Toope, President of UBC

Dear Stephen Toope,

I saw this quote from you, the President of UBC, in my issue of Trek recently and it made my heart sink. I’ve been thinking about your statement for a while because I wanted to try to understand where you were coming from and what message you were trying to convey.

I am quite shocked that the president of an educational institution like UBC, and specifically an institution that trains teachers, would make such a statement.  I am sure you have heard your share of backlash from this quote. I just wanted to present to you my thoughts as a UBC alumni, an administrator and a teacher.

When I joined Twitter not that long ago I, too, had my heels dug deep. I viewed Twitter as another time waster I didn’t need to introduce to an already busy life. Initially, I did not see the value of it either.  I joined, though, because some of my colleagues wouldn’t stop gushing about it and because I secretly wanted to prove to them that I would hate it. So, I joined and jumped in with both feet… boy was I ever quickly eating humble pie.

Twitter has flattened the walls of society.  I am able to directly connect with people I could never dream of connecting with before. Recently I attended the ConnectEd Canada conference in Calgary. Through Twitter I was able to easily connect with the organizers, the speakers, and fellow attendees.  What made it even more exciting was that we made an effort to meet face to face and connect even more. The conversations I have had, and the potential projects these connections have sparked, are all a result of Twitter.

Twitter has been a tool that has led to deep reflections and connections in the education community. It also has been an outlet for people who are too shy to share at conferences, workshops and meetings. But, you suggest that nothing of importance can be communicated in the limited number of allowable characters Twitter provides. As well, you are concerned with the immediacy of the medium. Why does it have to stop at the limited number of characters? You can just send another tweet! Why do you have to respond immediately?  You can quote people and respond to them later, sparking more conversation at another time!

I am proud to say that my school district has welcomed Twitter.  We have our own hashtag stream where people from the district and outside of the district share, collaborate, and celebrate all in the name of improving education. We also have recently started holding a weekly chat time every Sunday night where people who are interested gather on our hashtag stream to chat about a preplanned topic. The topics have included inquiry based learning, assessment practices, and success stories. Weekly chats like this are happening all over Twitter.

I invite you to join twitter… even under an alias! Give it a try.  Take a look at the many hashtag streams related to education that are out there.  You can not negate the potential of a tool without trying it yourself. Oh, and if you do, let me know @teachermrskhan so I can follow you!


Iram Khan

13 thoughts on “The Value of Twitter: An Open Letter to Stephen Toope, President of UBC

  1. It’s amazing that someone in leadership, someone in education is making such a bold statement about something he obviously knows very little about. What an awful example of a life long learner.

    I’m fine if he chooses not to have one because he may not see value from a distance, but to speak so boldly when he is ignorant is quite shocking and doesn’t, in my opinion speak well of his ability to lead and empower people.

  2. It sounds as though President Toope has fallen victim to the “Bieberization” effect. That is, taking a kernel of the conversation found on Twitter and extrapolating that exchange to all of the platform. Like most things, social media is perhaps best in small doses. Fortunately, the use of hashtags and followers permits us to focus our “conversations” (exchanges?) that meet our needs. When I tell people I have 3 Twitter accounts, I often have to clarify how I use each. One professional, where I share ideas regarding 1:1 computing in schools and the latest Common Core information, another to share out the amazing work my 5th grade class does, and yet a third to follow sports teams, select celebrities, and satire accounts. This leaves people somewhat aghast until I make the comparison to something. Transportation comes to mind… My wife and I own many means of conveyance, but use each for a specific task. My hatchback gets me to work and back with decent gas mileage, while our SUV carries our two sons and their requisite “stuff” with ease. Finally, though I love it, my kayak is of no real use in terms of true transportation, it’s simply a recreational toy. So it is (or can be) with Twitter. Here’s hoping the good President takes it Twitter for a test drive soon, hate for him to get passed by.

  3. Thank you for your comments Dean and Ben. Yes, I too am shocked that the president of a University with a leading education program is writing off Twitter without even trying it. I worry, how many other educators and preservice teachers who read his comment and use it as justification to not try as well.

  4. Hi Iram,

    Good for you for writing this open letter to this leader in education. I am both shocked and saddened that someone who is leading education at the post-secondary level would ave such strong feelings about something he clearly knows so little about. Should he not be modelling openness and willingness to try new things to the students who attend the university of which he is the president?

    It is through my involvement with Twitter, and all the inspiring educators on Twitter, that has made me as reflective as I am today. Like you mentioned, Iram, I have also learned from so many on Twitter – both online and in person. This learning is ongoing and powerful to my improvement and evolution of myself as a teacher and administrator. I am so thankful for these connections with amazing educators I learn from all the time on Twitter (and their blogs).

    I hope Stephen Toope reconsiders his negative view about Twitter and, instead, start modelling a more inclusive, reflective, professional persona.


  5. Stephen Toope responded to this blog post via email. He has given me permission to post his comments. Here they are below.
    Thank you for responding thoughtfully to my comments on Twitter, initially offered in response to a question from the UBC student newspaper about why I did not join Twitter myself. I should say at the outset that if you get some value from sending and receiving Tweets, more power to you (as my late Mother would have said). I can see two productive uses of Twitter: to quickly organize crowds to protest injustice, as we saw throughout the “Arab Spring”; and to direct people to other online sites where more serious conversations can be had, such as your Blog. Neither seems to me to outweigh the negatives that I have already spoken about.

    In my short previous comments I noted two concerns. You are right that neither is inherent in Twitter, but I think that both are exacerbated by Twitter. Twitter is the epitome of the immediate reaction dynamic present in too much social media. Given the short messages, and the ease of re-transmission, Twitter encourages thoughtless, reactive modes of communication. In addition, Twitter privileges the facile response over carefully reasoned discussion. If the entire world thought elegantly in epigrams like Dorothy Parker or Oscar Wilde, Twitter would be a boon to civilization. Sadly, that is not the case, and the result is mostly inane and obvious commentary masking for discourse. (I do read tweets that people show me!). Let me add a third concern that I did not address previously. Given the anonymous nature of much Tweeting, the discipline of standing by what one says is lost, and the result is a serious degradation of the public sphere, with an ease of personal attack that is appalling. The last point is an issue with other forms of social, non-curated, media as well. I won’t be signing up.

    Stephen Toope

  6. I think it’s great that he responded and clarified his position. But again, he chooses to focus on the negative aspects of twitter which are all true. But every new media has always come with concerns about the larger impact. Even print was not completely welcome. Concerns over people not memorizing, not gathering together to hear lectures all suggested maybe this print thing isn’t such a good idea. We’ve seen the same with TV. Again, all these concerns are valid but our evolution as a species requires us to thoughtfully adapt and embrace new opportunities. That does mean that people will misuse and abuse them as well. We have to live with that. As leaders and academics I think ignoring these mediums suggest they have no validity. I would argue that while Dr. Toope may certainly maintain his view, he should be able to point to and acknowledge people in his own field and others who have used these tools and affordances for positive. The more thoughtful people take hold and offer ways to make the world a better place with tools such as twitter, the better chance of it collectively being a good thing for society.

  7. Dr. Toope makes at least three mistakes in his assessment. First, he believes that Twitter has accomplished only what he is aware that it has accomplished. In fact, people on Twitter have meaningful conversations or gain game-changing insights every day – but he hasn’t seen those things happen.

    Second, he sees only conversations he is not involved in, because he is not involved. So the relationship and personality aspect entirely escapes him – it just looks like random noise.

    Third, he mistakes the 140 character limit for a barrier to communication, when it fact it is a stimulus to it. Creativity is always greater within boundaries, nearest the margins. Consider the Haiku – no one ever claimed you couldn’t put a profound thought into such a constrained format.

    The fact is that every communication medium reflects every other medium, because they all run on human behaviour, and human behaviour never changes.

    Twitter, like academic conferences, contains both bumph and deep insight. Most of the presentations at academic conferences (or TED talks!) are instantly forgettable. But they all have to be there to create an event at which one or two riveting, world-changing presentations can be held and have an audience.

    What isn’t appreciated about social media or technology by people who aren’t fluent in either (and I say this as a TSL – someone for whom technology is definitely still a second language) is that the fluffy stuff is a necessary skill-building layer and generator of critical mass that both attracts the deeper contributions and supports the depth.

    It is a bit like the conversations you have with your kids. I have met parents who say they only want their kids to come to them for help for the big things, because they want their kids to be independent, grown up. The problem is that your kids don’t know how to talk to you, how to come to you with problems, or what to expect from you if you don’t discuss life’s little problems with them. So the bulk of what your kids talk to you about may be inane and superficial, but you can’t just eliminate it as a time waster. It forms the basis of the relationship on the strength of which they know they can come to you with the big things.

    Or it’s like a high-rise – you can’t just build a 30th-floor penthouse. The tower needs all 29 of its floors AND a few below ground to hold that penthouse up.

    I don’t fault Dr. Toope for not joining Twitter. The world needs people who do jump onto new forums like Twitter, and it needs people who don’t. I was a “don’t” until quite recently myself, and I was also a late adopter of Facebook. It’s been interesting exploring both, and understanding how people use them and how they evolve. It’s also been interesting to see what aspects of people’s personalities (and my own) emerge in different forums. What I can say having explored them, and leaning more toward Dr. Toope’s own preference for meaningful content, is that he should have confidence that wherever people communicate, at least some good things are happening.

    But the challenge to people who don’t join Twitter is to keep up with the level of responsiveness that Twitter enables and conditions people to expect. Your point, Iram, is very nicely made that Twitter flattens walls. People are learning to expect not only that they can speak with the people in power, but that the people in power will respond. And on that, I think Dr. Toope has made a very good start, even if he is wrong 🙂

  8. “made my heart sink”

    “shocked and saddened”

    “he is ignorant”

    “quite shocking”

    Really? Those are your reactions to one man’s calm, well-reasoned argument against something he doesn’t like? Your comments read more like entries on a fan site for Jack Dorsey.

    I have complete respect for Toope’s well-stated opinion, which was likely made knowing full well he’d be labeled a dinosaur and “behind the times” by those disagreeing with him.

    Like Toope, I’ll continue to sit back and ignore twitter, while immersing myself in the arts and media of substance and laughing to myself at the thought of you getting your undergarments in a bunch because someone has the temerity to criticize your beloved social media platform.

  9. Pingback: UBC president Stephen Toope doubles down on his dislike for Twitter |

  10. I can see how he would hesitate to accept social media as a means to grow and learn. I see Twitter as the bread crumb trail which leads to the real sources of information on Blogs and other internet resources. We collaborate together to create a better understanding of the world around us. Those in the “Ivory tower” that do not recognize the value of twitter and other social media need to dive in with both feet as @courosa said. I have learned more in the last five months and connected with more people than I could have ever done at “PD” events where I learned little and left without any commitment or mechanisms to collaborate with others. Twitter has not only connected me to my peers but has also allowed me to form meaningful adhoc groups that challenge me and support my learning. Learning real learning requires attempts and mistakes, it seems that the aforementioned professor has made a mistake and now has an opportunity to learn.

  11. Twitter is just another communications channel, albeit a very powerful one because it provides instantly global reach. Traditional communication forms simply do not have the reach power that mainstream social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn, Google Plus and Pinterest have.

    In reading what Stephen Toope has said about his dislike for Twitter is a classic example of someone who is simply misinformed and uneducated about the platform. Tactically speaking, there are many things that Twitter users can do to “filter” and “search” for information that they are seeking. Which online platform was the most visited during the tsunami in Japan? It was Twitter. It’s an aggregator of real-time information that can be accessed by any person, and you don’t even have to have a Twitter account. Twitter is a public forum that is indexed by Google, and can be searched using Google. Twitter is also a way to share online material to a broader audience, which is why it’s so popular to stay current on major events — every single major media/news outlet publishes online news content on their websites and then “pushes” content to their social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook.

    Let me ask a question of Stephen Toope. If the CBC publishes a news article on their website, does that mean that readers are required to respond via the comments function immediately? Of course not. The same for Twitter. You can view information at your leisure, filter information however you like and respond whenever you like, if at all. You can do this today, tomorrow or in the future.

    Finally to Stephen Toope. If you are having an in-person conversation with someone over lunch and the other person makes a comment, would you say back to them, “well… that’s a good point, let me think about that one and get back to you”? Of course not. Depending on how you are using Twitter you could actually be participating in a “Twitter Chat”, which is like an in-person conversation had on Twitter. You would respond immediately as you would in an in-person conversation.

    I have only touched on the tip of what Twitter is, and this goes to show that Twitter is much bigger than what Stephen Toope is making it to be. Why? He simply has no clue, nor could he because he has never tried it. You are entitled to your opinion but please do so in an educated way. After all you are the President of the University of British Columbia, a highly respected educational institution that educated 25,000+ students annually. I am very surprised by your perspective as they clearly showcase your lack of knowledge about Twitter, and your inability to reach beyond your own capacity. It’s a shame.

  12. Thank you for your comments, you’ve all summed it well. The issue is how misinformed Dr. Toope is. He doesn’t understand Twitter, because he has not tried it himself. You can hear things about it and read tweets that are shared with you, but To understand and see the benefits of it you need to participate.

    B. Ferdich, yes, Dr. Toope’s response was calm… But I disagree with well reasoned. My goal was to convince him to join Twitter and give it a try so he can better understand the platform. So, of course I wrote about all the great things that are happening with it!

  13. Pingback: The Value of Twitter: An Open Letter to Stephen Toope, President of UBC | | Fort McMurray Public Schools Go Google

Comments are closed.