This week, a literacy initiative that everybody seems to agree is a noble enterprise hit the headlines, after a parent voiced concern that Chapter Chat – an attempt to get kids talking about books through social media – shouldn’t be happening on Twitter. Creator of Chapter Chat Stephen Baker says he’s not concerned about the negative coverage, and explains that the way the group uses Twitter means it’s a safe place for young people to learn about good digital citizenship – not to mention discuss and share books.

Chapter Chat has been going now for three years, and was started, says Stephen, because he’s not a natural reader himself, and was thinking about how to make literacy more engaging for others who don’t spend their downtime in books. Expecting a smattering of enthusiasm, Stephen instead found himself signing up more than 100 classes right off the bat. That makes Chapter Chat something of an advertisement for the positive power of the internet to overcome geographic circumstance: Stephen teaches at a country school in Taranaki, yet Chapter Chat reaches more than 1,000 Kiwi classes, and has partnered with a well-known UK resource provider, Twinkl Educational Publishing.

“It’s all about collaborating and connecting, all over New Zealand,” says Stephen. “That’s what New Zealand schools are into these days – broadening the walls of the classroom.

“What’s really great about it for me is the audience – when we turn up on a Friday morning on Twitter, there’s 5000 kids all sharing their work, all discussing the work they’ve done during the week.”

Nobody quoted in the NZ Herald article that uncovered the parent concern disputes the laudable educational goals of Chapter Chat. What is at issue is that’s it’s done on Twitter – their terms of service state that users must be over the age of 13.

Neither is anybody suggesting that Chapter Chat actually contravenes any laws or policies – Martin Crocker, CEO of Netsafe, says in the same article that given the Twitter account is administered by teachers, and is a private group, the rules have been respected.

Stephen says that ease of use is the one and only reason behind the decision to base Chapter Chat on Twitter.

“Twitter’s just a really easy platform to use – it’s simple to send a tweet. There are a lot of other platforms out there, like Facebook and blogs, and Edmodo, but Twitter is just simple to use.

“Yes, Twitter is [restricted to those over] 13, but a teacher set up the account, and students are only ever Tweeting in front of an adult, when a teacher is actually in the room, and we’re only following other Chapter Chat classes, so

we’re just using Twitter as our own little community. We’re not going off and following celebrities, looking at Tweets from other accounts, and students aren’t using the account in their own time. We’re teaching them how to use [the technology] in a safe environment.”

Beyond that, pretending that Twitter isn’t now a ubiquitous part of the digital firmament is counter-productive, says Stephen.

“We’ve taught [students] all about what we expect, and we think it’s really safe.

“If you’re on the internet, you’re one or two clicks away from anything. We think that by teaching them in a good, safe environment that the positives far outweigh the negatives.

Authentic context?

Martin Crocker’s stance on Chapter Chat’s use of Twitter could be described less as alarm than misgiving. He says that he understands the ‘authentic context’ argument…

“But we teach kids about lots of dangers – without actually putting them in danger.

“I don’t know that there’s a specific platform that I’d suggest instead – certainly there are products… that are designed for use specifically by young people.

“True, there’s no exact equivalent of Twitter, but you can still achieve the same outcomes using technology that is designed specifically for young people.”

“I would like to see Stephen achieve the same things on a different platform. I don’t disagree with the value of [social media] as an education tool, but it would be great to see him find a platform that is safer for the students.”

Adding to the focus on digital citizenship and responsibility, Stephen says that even if something does go wrong, it’s an opportunity for learning.

“If someone Tweets something silly, or they see something that they shouldn’t see, just like when you’re in class and you’re online on Safari, and they see a silly picture, you stop the class, you say ‘hey, that’s inappropriate, thanks for showing me.’ It can be a learning context. Kids then know what to do when they come against something they don’t know how to deal with. They’re learning how to act online, and that’s what the New Zealand Curriculum is trying to get us to teach these kids.”

Stephen says that he’s not concerned with the negative coverage, and in fact the experience has been gratifying in that hundreds of teachers and parents have voiced their support for Chapter Chat, and urged him not to be discouraged. He says that Chapter Chat can’t hope to please everybody, and that scrutiny has reinforced his belief that “we’re pleasing an awful lot of people.” He’s still digesting the upshot of his cameo in the national media, but says that learnings will come from it.

“Most schools have their own policies for internet use, so we’ve sort of left it to those schools to monitor their use of Chapter Chat. We have a little team of three that work on it now, and we’ve got other people from Twinkl overseas who work with us as well, so we have thought about making some guidelines, and maybe putting out some letters. That’s something we’re going to look into.”

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