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 Twitter.com. 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 Tribune. Publish2 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?
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.