Micro-Blogging Part Deux

David Parry bio photo By David Parry

At last the long promised follow-up to the previous Twitter post. For whatever reason that blog entry has garnered a great deal of interest, so rather than respond individually in comments to those who posted here and elsewhere I thought I would group my thoughts together in one place.

My General Philosophy

Let me start by saying although I have suggested a range of possible uses (and others have raised even more), within the context that I have used it there are really two key reasons I find Twitter useful. First, for what I teach Twitter is an object of study. That is I teach Emerging Media and Communications so I am interested in thinking through how these new forms of communication shape the content of of what is communicated and thus shape our culture. At this level it seems rather obvious that I would deploy Twitter in my class. In fact I could make the argument that not teaching Twitter, at least on a cursory level, would constitute a rather glaring omission given its increasing presence in the digital networked communication structures (more on this later). I am not suggesting that Twitter is the ultimate (killer) web application, or that it will have the life span or presence of other web applications, but rather that at this current moment it is important and influential and not teaching it would seem odd (same would go for something like YouTube in the classroom). Furthermore, of all the digital communication forms I taught less semester, Twitter served as the most useful example for talking about “Smart Mobs.” We read Rheingold’s book about half way through the semester, but it is when students started using Twitter that I think they had a pragmatic example on which they could hang some of the more abstract concepts we were engaging. I should also add that the students who were most engaged with these concepts were the quickest to take to Twitter, and the ones who ended up continuing to use it. Not that this was not without its problems, but the problems themselves were instructive.

The second use is one that I see relating more broadly to education and this is where the social networking function of Twitter plays in. And it is this feature of Twitter I was alluding to in the end The Chronicle video blog, when I said Twitter helps us to expand the walls of the institution. Okay, so I am going to get overly general here and paint some fairly broad strokes, but just grant me some of this latitude. I would suggest that the old model of higher education as much as it was characterized by professors standing in front of the classroom lecturing to students in front of a chalkboard, the one to many aspect, it was also characterized by being a community of learners. Perhaps I am invoking a nostalgic model of education that never was, but I am thinking here of the way in which many students lived together in dorms, socialized after class. But in this moment at least I think that is becoming less and less the case, students attend college where their identity as a student is just part of what they do and who they are. Many of them have jobs, commute to school, etc., and thus the social aspect of the campus life has changed. If this is the case than these “new” ways of socializing such as Facebook and MySpace are where students are forming their learning communities, ones which do not entirely, perhaps only minimally, overlap with their classroom experience. Thus to extend the walls of the classroom, make education relevant to all aspects of students lives rather than just what they do four-five hours a day we need to think of ways to extend the ways we form and foster learning communities. Now I am not going to make an argument for our against the “lack of face to face communication” (this line of discourse has always seemed a bit silly and reductive to me—see below), instead I want to suggest that as educators learning to communicate with students in the ways and through the channels that they use makes education all the more relevant. In my graduate class (I haven’t taught Twitter as a object yet, thus it is not required) I have noticed a disparity between those who use Twitter and those who do not. Since I only see them once a week if they are one of the students who throughout the week uses Twitter i tend to have a much better sense of what they are doing, how they are engaging the material, and how my class fits into their overall educational goals. Perhaps this strays into territory which makes some in education uncomfortable, a realigning of the faculty student boundaries, but in a society where once rigid social hierarchies are being brought into question by these new modes of digital communication I would offer that this type of student faculty network is a good thing. (If you don’t believe me, think about how much of graduate school is determined by the network of academics one discovers as a student, both connections to faculty and other students—not necessarily what happens in class.) And so here I am going to purpose maybe the more radical thesis, that educators face a choice either to continue to close off what happens in the classroom, treat is as a sacred intellectual space and time whose borders are absolute, or to understand that like many other institutions its domain is by no means rigidly determined. One is the path to relevancy the other to producing educated individuals.

Some critics have suggested that this could get overwhelming, 50 students a class twittering, or a student twittering for three different classes. Maybe, but since I see its use for building a community of learners across classroom spaces I think some of this “large network” might be a positive thing, and for now at least I really don’t see so many professors using it that it gets too noisy. Others have suggested that this just illustrates a problem in our society whereby we replace face-to-face communication with mediated communication. Two things, first I often use Twitter to foster face-to-face communication, and second there is no such thing as none mediated communication (even face-to-face is mediated). As I have pointed out on multiple occasions, I find that some students have actually increased their participation in class, once we began using Twitter.

Additional Uses for Twitter

In my last post about twitter I listed some possible uses for microblogging for education. Since that post several other academics have chimed in adding their thoughts to the list. So, I thought I would take the time to collect some of those thoughts in one place.

  • @iVenus uses Twitter for teaching foreign language. Her blog has several Twitter posts worth reading.
      • @jbj the author of The Salt Box suggests that one can use Twitter to reflect on and keep track of quick reflections on how class went for the day. Chris Copeland at TeachEng.us points out a the same thing.
      • Several commenters pointed out that Twitter might be useful for large lecture style classes, as sort of a back channel to the lecture, or a way to get instant feedback. This strikes me as useful. Of course you run the risk of letting your audience take over. (But, maybe this is a good thing.)
      • Tom Scheinfeldt points out that Twitter is an excellent outreach tool.
      • Melaine McBride makes a similar case to the one above, that Twitter is a useful tool for “Classroom2.0.”
      • If you want more from me check out the interview I did with Campus Technology. Of the several interviews, recent press write-ups, etc. I think this one turned out the best.
      • Finally if you are looking for more check out Howard Rheingold’s Twitter bookmarks on delicious.</ul> Up Next (within a week maybe), the Technical Side. The Nuts and Bolts of How to Use Twitter in a Classroom.