Thoughts on Twitter (as it applies to education)

Susie Bartel, a University of Oregon journalism student in Feature Writing 1, is writing an article about instructors using Twitter as a part of their curriculum. She requested I offer my opinion on Twitter as it applies to education. The questions are hers via email; I thought I’d respond on my blog so she could link to it as primary source material (even paragraph by paragraph thanks to WinerLinks).

Susie: When did you start using Twitter? Was it for personal, professional, or educational purposes?

I’m almost positive I joined Twitter in April 2007, although I don’t think I started using it regularly until that summer. Since episode 1, I’ve been a regular listener of Leo Laporte’s This Week in Tech. I believe I heard Twitter mentioned first in this episode, and signed up shortly after.

In 2007, all use of Twitter was experimental. There was no distinction between personal, professional, or educational. It was a new tool, and people had to invent how to use it. Since the beginning, up until about three weeks ago, I used Twitter as a mix of all three. I posted images from awesome vacation sights, scored a two-year gig at Publish2 by tweeting “I want to live in startup land”, and tapped the knowledge of people smarter than I by tweeting questions I’ve run into.

Susie: Have you always been open to using Twitter?

Yes, until three weeks ago.

Twitter is/has been an amazing communications platform. When I started, the advantages to Twitter over other platforms were three-fold: forced brevity, serendipity from asynchronous relationships, and real-time updates.

Tweets are limited to 140 characters. Because of this design constraint, the cultural focus became pithiness. Pithy updates about what you’re working on, pithy reports from the conferences you’re attending, and pithy descriptions of (along with the link to) the brilliant article you just read.

Furthermore, you can subscribe to this pithy information stream from anyone on the platform. Most of the time, the thought-leaders of whatever context you’re passionate about aren’t in your same geographic vicinity. People like @jeffjarvis, @cshirky, @zephoria, and @timoreilly. You can’t just drop in the room to hear them lecture, or invite to coffee. On Twitter, however, you can and you can.

Lastly, you can do all of this in real-time. Publishing becomes almost conversational. For a couple of years, I even had every tweet sent to my phone as text messages.

Unfortunately, there are downsides to Twitter that, three weeks ago, overran the positives. I haven’t established my thoughts well-enough to go into too much detail, but I will say a couple of things.

I tired of not having full access to my data. You’re only permitted to access your last 3,200 tweets. Search is a terribly mangled mess, and only goes back seven days. Think about it this way: Want to find your notes from the conference a year ago, or your updates from your vacation to India two years ago? Good luck, it’s technically impossible. There’s no way to export your data either.

I also am increasingly wary of letting a corporation control my namespace and identity without being guaranteed specific rights. Like nearly every other service on the web, Twitter’s Terms of Service has a clause explaining they can delete you at a moment’s notice:

Twitter may stop (permanently or temporarily) providing the Services (or any features within the Services) to you or to users generally and may not be able to provide you with prior notice. We also retain the right to create limits on use and storage at our sole discretion at any time without prior notice to you.

If Twitter is your primary method of communicating, as for many Facebook is becoming, then you absolutely must have the right to a portable identity.

We urgently need an open Twitter protocol that co-exists with Part of that needs to include a decentralized reading interface so that reading is closely coupled with publishing. I’d prefer spend my free time and attention working on that, rather than “serfing the web.

Susie: Have you taken any classes where the instructor used Twitter as a teaching tool? If so, what class and in what ways was it used?

No, I haven’t taken any classes where the instructor used Twitter as a teaching tool.

For fall 2009, I signed up for a number of entry-level geography courses. In one of the classes, the professor made it clear laptops could only be used for taking notes. If caught using it for anything else, the infraction would be grounds for a “F” in the course and forfeit of course credit. If you used your cell phone for texting, you’d lose an immediate letter grade. Proof is in a PDF of the syllabus.

On the second day of the new term, I flew down to San Francisco for the Online News Association’s annual conference. There I had the fortune to meet people like Aron Pilhofer of The New York Times and Brian Boyer of the Chicago TribunePublish2 won a big ol’ award on Saturday night. It was an extraordinary time that reinvigorated my enthusiasm for helping reinvent the news industry.

I can’t say the same about classes whose structure fundamentally cripples new opportunities presented by technology. Think about it: the web is potentially more disruptive than the Gutenberg printing press. It’s in the process of flattening the music, movie, and news industries, and will change education, government, and healthcare in the future. In most traditional classes, not only do you not have the chance to experiment with the web, but you’re actively discouraged from doing so. This is broken.

The Monday following ONA, I informed the registrar of my intent to withdraw from my classes.

Susie: What do you think are the benefits of using Twitter in the classroom? Do you think there are any negative aspects (i.e. distraction)?

See my response to the second and last question for the benefits. Regarding whether Twitter is a distraction or not, separate the tool from the instructor and the course. If students are bored in class, they will find a means to engage their mind. Before technology X, it was passing notes, reading a book, or skipping class altogether.

Susie: Do you think more instructors should use Twitter as a tool?

Yes, especially this one. If not to teach (there’s only one @jayrosen_nyu), then at least to have a working understanding of the platform, its strengths, and its limitations.

Susie: How do you think instructors should use Twitter?

Let’s take a step back and frame your question in a broader context. It really should be “How do you think instructors should use technology?” When you get down to the nitty-gritty, Twitter really isn’t all that different from Tumblr, WordPress or YouTube. It’s a text-based real-time communication platforms limited to 140 characters that empowers its users to reach a global audience.

Without asking this broader question, you’ll end up trying to “meet the future by doing what [you] did in the past”, as Sir Ken Robinson artfully explains:

The current system of education was designed for an industrial age. You spend tens of thousands on a four-year degree because you used to learn things that would last most of your career. Throwing new technology at these old systems won’t fix anything; in many cases, it will only exacerbate the issue.

Think about technology holistically because it enables you to do in fundamentally new ways. Use Twitter as your real-time notepad, then archive those thoughts on a blog post. When you’re working on a piece, publish all of your source material along with intermediate revisions so the curious reader can explore how your thoughts developed.

Broadening the question opens plenty of possibilities.


Andrew Spittle November 13, 2010 Reply

Thanks for sharing this here instead of letting it hide in an email thread.

From my own undergrad experience, the fact that laptops were even allowed is a plus. In many of my undergrad classes laptops weren’t even allowed for note taking. Talk about a good way to hamper ambitious students. 🙂

Something you touch on toward the end is, I think, relevant to why some teachers take that approach. The old distractions you mention were seen as disruptive to a classroom setting because there wasn’t a mechanism in place for that activity to flow back into course learning. In some ways that activity was precisely the opposite of class: a type of social learning that is distinctly non-academic.

A traditionalist teacher could view Twitter, WordPress, et al. in the same light. Since many (most?) teachers have not yet integrated ways for that activity to flow into the course experience technology becomes viewed as a mere distraction. The stance they take is “God forbid they be on those social networks in my class” instead of “How can I leverage/incorporate/build upon online activity for learning in my course?”

Great post, great ideas. Would love to hear more about what you’re doing at CUNY with technology and education.

Daniel Bachhuber November 13, 2010 Reply

Very intriguing observation: “social learning that is distinctly non-academic.”

Nothing terribly significant to announce from CUNY yet. A lot of my time in September and October was spent moving 150+ sites into WordPress multisite. We have a lot of people using for collaborative note-taking, we’re starting to expand use of Basecamp for project management, and I’m working on both migrating all of our digital media assets into Aperture and then making them accessible on demand. Right now, most of our photos, video, and audio are on a file server in raw form and only accessible to certain people. The nice thing is there are significant inroads that can be made just by connecting already existing pieces.

Suzi Steffen November 13, 2010 Reply

Hey Daniel! (And Andrew, yo.) Susie was my student in #J361 last year, and she interviewed me about Twitter as well, so hey, in the spirit of openness, here are my email answers. We’d had about a 45-minute conversation with much more info and many more digressions (I gave props to Daniel, to the #collegejourn discussion and to changing ideas about education in that interview, I SWEAR IT, ahem), but the recording device didn’t work, and I didn’t have time to do it all again, so this is a bit shorter than I’d planned (but a hell of long comment; sorry). Also, as you can see from answer number one, I’m the instructor who sparked that “Trouble with Twitter” piece in the Chronicle to which Daniel linked in his answers. Sorry no linking; I’ll try to do it later, but I have to go, um, be a full-time journalist today.

1) When did you start using Twitter in the classroom?

In the spring term of 2009, for a visit from Boston Globe editor-in-chief Marty Baron. He was coming to our class on the 2nd day of class and then giving the annual Ruhl lecture for the SOJC, and my class used live-blogging and Twitter to broadcast what he said both in class and in the lecture to a wider audience.

2) Have you always been open to using Twitter?

Not at all. For one thing, other instructors didn’t use it, and I usually didn’t send my students to “real-life” assignments off-campus. I don’t know if you can believe this, but I used to give my students a fact sheet and have them construct a news story from the fact sheet, and by pretending to be people they could interview. So that’s obviously changed a lot. What we do in #J361 is open to the rest of the world, though I don’t live-broadcast my classes (yet; some j-instructors I know, not at Oregon, do that too).

3) In what ways do you use Twitter as part of the curriculum?

Students live-tweet events; tweet from the field (usually their Eugene neighborhoods); send photos of campus to other J-students at other campuses; take notes in class, especially when we have a guest speaker; keep a running commentary when we have someone Skype into class; and of course we use it to communicate with each other as well.

4) How do you think it benefits the students?

They can get in touch with me more easily, and they can get in touch with sources (for stories or for their beat-blogs) more easily. They find sources that interest them to follow, and they follow news organizations, which helps on the current events quizzes. Some of them have found internships by staying in touch with other professional journalists they’ve met over Twitter.

5) Do you think there are any negative effects (i.e. distraction)?

Sure; some people can’t take notes on Twitter and focus at the same time, so they don’t tend to tweet very much during class. I can’t tell if students are screwing around online or using Twitter, and though that’s not really my problem (I mean, it’s annoying when people aren’t paying attention, but it’s their grades at risk), it does tend to make me worry about what students are learning. I’d like to start systematizing the process next term so that one group is responsible for tweeting class lectures/info each of the first five weeks of the term (say, three people per group) and so that students are REQUIRED to go to neighborhood meetings and live-tweet them,

6) Do you think more teachers should use Twitter as a tool?

I don’t think there’s any “should” about any classroom tool because teachers have different strengths and need to utilize those strengths. What I do think is that instructors should not forbid their students to use Twitter to talk about class or broadcast what’s going on in class. If an instructor is afraid that what she or he says will get out to the wider world, that instructor needs to rethink his or her profession. What we do is publicly funded and should be publicly available. If a student wants to record class, we need to be prepared for that.

7) In what ways has using Twitter as tool in class benefited you, as an instructor?

Well, I’ve gotten to know journalism instructors across the country (and in Canada), and we trade assignments and talk about ways to get our students more engaged in the work of journalism. Also, I can see who’s taking what notes and what the students are finding important about what I say — and revise my lectures so that I emphasize different points, though of course people will remember things like “Don’t sleep with your sources!” more easily than “The Five Most Important Tips About Newswriting” because the first is funny and sexy while the second is like … oh yes, important but not that interesting. Until the midterm or an internship application, of course.

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