Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Twitter for teachers (Tweechers?), and some thoughts about social networking in education settings

Given that I am both an early adopter, and a college teacher, I have been thinking lately about integrating the latest social networking sites into my classes.  First, I am going to describe the best known (to me of course) social networking sites, how they function (very very briefly, for other better intros, check out this Social networking in Plain English video, this tongue in cheek video, this non-fanatical beginner's guide to Twitter, Evan William's (Twitter CEO)  recent 15 min TED talk or the NYTimes news pieces about Facebook and Twitter.  By the way, even if you don't want the intro, check out the Times links.  They are called "Topics" pages, and are basically wikipedia pages, focused on Times content, but not exclusively.  I think they are going to make it. ).   Then, I’ll debunk a few myths.  Then I’ll offer some general principles, and finally a few examples that have come to my mind about their application to teaching.  I would love to hear any suggestions or comments that you, the few, the proud, the 5 people and my mom that read this blog.

I’ll confine most of my comments to facebook and twitter (and address them somewhat separately), since these are going to win the social networking wars, when MySpace and the rest die out (google already gave up its entry into this field, ok, LinkedIn may continue as a professional social
network).  You can consult the numbers if you want, but facebook is growing amazingly, and its users actually use it.  Ditto with twitter.  Interestingly, they have very similar functionality on the surface, but some small differences in function result in relatively large difference in how they are actually used. 

First, social networking is not a place (despite the fact that some people waste time on facebook, these same people could also waste time on the phone), but a tool, a method of communication.   I think it is far more valuable to think of facebook and twitter as more like the phone, or email, than some sort of web destination.  In fact, what facebook does is consolidate several methods of communication that have been available for years.  This is also a useful analogy when someone gives the kind of reaction that John Stewart recently gave about Twitter:  Basically, why would we want more inane chatter, updating every second with the meaningless trivia of our lives?  I happen to agree that I don’t want more inane chatter.  But twitter and facebook don’t have to be this.  Just because personal
video cassette recorders mostly played porn in the 70’s and early 80’s doesn’t mean that they were useless, just that the real good uses hadn’t been discovered yet.

So, if these sites are communication tools, what kind of communication do they afford?


First, you can use it to email, or send messages.  These are simple messages (you can’t attach
files) but you can attach links and send to multiple people at once, and just about anything else that email does.

Second, you can chat online.  Facebook shows you which of your friends are online, and you can request a chat with any of them.

Third, you can post links or notes.  This is basically a blog.  You can link to a page and put a comment of your own.  Or you can write a note and post that. 

Fourth, you can update your status.  This is a very brief 140 characters (or so, I think) on what you are doing right now, thinking right now, etc.  See the NYTimes on status update style. 

Fifth, you can add photos and videos. 

Finally, there are any number of applications that you can “plug in” to your facebook page, whether it is tracking your travels, your reading habits, a scrabble game, or any number of virtual gift giving applications.

So, if each of these things is basically possible with just email, why join facebook?  Why the craze? Why bother using it with teaching?

Two things set facebook apart.

First, on just about any of the above things, you can comment about some piece of information that your friend has posted. Every single thing on facebook is the potential beginning of a (mostly small talky, chatty, but it doesn't have to be this way) conversation.   This is where the connections happen.  Just like our brain, the magic is in the connections.  By the way, our brain has 100 billion neurons,
but  0.15 quadrillion synapses (an average of 1500 connections per neuron).  This is like having 
571 facebooks, with everyone having  1500 friends).   Think of that next time you lose your keys.  Admittedly there is a lot of inane chatter on facebook (which I actually think is a lot more valuable than people might beleive, but that is for another time) but sometimes facebook absolutely shines as a communication medium.   Here are a few brief greatest hits from my friends (please share one if you can, I'd love to hear more):

First, I had a friend who was scheduled to leave on an international trip from DC, but had forgotten her passport in Milwaukee.  She changed her status update to that, with an "oh no" added at the end.  Within a few hours, someone had suggested getting someone to get let into her apartment and fedexing it to her overnight.  Then, someone else said they were in the neighborhood and could do that this afternoon.  They did it, and she was on her way a day later.  What's amazing to me is that the different friends who helped did not need all of the information, but that the value was in the sharing.

Second,I have a few academic friends who post queries, such as the poet who asks "what is the best way to lecture about Sylvia Plath" or the philosopher who asks "Is the tendency to redeem the bad a virtue of character?".  

Second, the news feed. The news feed takes any of the above pieces of information (excepting the messages that you send directly to a friend, but also including other pieces of info from applications) and randomly posts it to your friends’ news feeds.  You can then choose to hear more or less about certain friends, or about certain kinds of information (I personally like to hear all the status updates, but don’t care who my friends are friends with, or when they update their profile).

What about twitter?

Twitter, at first glance, is just the status updates function of facebook.  Only 140 characters.  That is how it started.  But now it has added the ability to post pictures.  And links. Here is a good beginner’s guide to twitter.

The key point to both of these tools, just as any previous communication medium, is how many people you know who are using it.  The first telephone really wasn’t that helpful.  Nor were the first 100 people who bought one all that enthralled with it. 
The telephone is only helpful if everyone has one.   This is what has happened with facebook.  When everyone is on it (and everyone will be, your parents, your grandparents, your kids) it will be amazing, and it will start to replace the phone.   Already, I haven’t seen any data on this, but I am virtually certain, it is the most permanent part of a college student’s online identity.  My students rarely use email, and may change email addresses often, or even change phone numbers (and addresses), but no one could imagine changing your facebook identity, and going through the trouble of re-gathering your whole social network.

A few myths to debunk. 

First, the internet is not a monolithic medium (hopefully we are beyond that, but it bears being
repeated).  Meaning, spending hours on the internet actually tells you very little about how someone spends their time, whether it is useful and cognitively demanding, etc.  One could be spending hours making stupid and mean chitchat on a discussion board, or participating in a real discussion about politics in Zimbabwe, or gathering expertise and skills and contributing to a bustling online

Likewise, facebook and twitter use is not monolithic.  Some update their status with a lot of meaningless moments about what they are eating, how long the commute was, how they are happy the weekend is here, etc. (no offense, I do this a lot too: sample recent status update: Hmmm, Brussels sprouts).   But there are also real problems that are solved, magically and miraculously, by a hive mind of one’s trusted acquaintances.  I personally have had face-to-face contact with a childhood friend who currently lives in Venezuela who casually mentioned in his status update that he would be swinging through the Bay Area.  He didn’t even know that I lived there, but we had dinner, reminisced about old times, and now have had several conversations online (via facebook, and this blog) about the death of

Twitter is also not monolithic, and while its beginnings are so simple and austere, its use has evolved to include some really interesting possiblities.  A plant can twitter when it needs water, a drawbridge can twitter when it is up or down.  It is only a matter of time before your parking space twitters when it is empty.  
So, some people use twitter as a way to exchange little thoughts with their friends about a great sandwich, and some use it for marketing (see LA-area Korean taco truck).  What interests me about twitter is its integration of your friends with celebrities and outside news sources.  In facebook, the only communication is two way. 
A friendship must be two way, so celebrities would not likely have 16000 friends, because each of these 16000 would have access to all of their status updates, some of which would be personal (although there is a way to tweak this, facebook doesn't make this easy - the become a fan mechanism doesn't integrate well with the rest of your facebook experience).  On twitter, the relationship can
be one way.   You “following” someone, and that person “following” you are separate things.  So I can get Shaq’s tweets without him paying any attention to me.  (What’s interesting, is that this actually is not as one way as it sounds, even though Shaq has 180,000 followers, he still manages to add a personal touch to his twitter usage, see great story about meeting some fans in a diner, after he announced he was there on twitter).

Ok, so general principles.  
Why should teachers care about these tools?  First, because students use them.  I am sure you could tune into a conversation in the teacher’s lounge ten (maybe fifteen) years ago about email and how it was something teenagers were using to send meaningless po trivia and vastly important teenage gossip, and how there was little use for zapping instant messages to students.  Second because
they can be very powerful tools for learning. 

How can they be valuable tools for learning?  Because interaction is central to these new modes of communication.  Facebook’s mechanism for comments make it so quick and easy to have conversations (again, based on any bit of information) that makes Blackboard style “forums” look very clunky in comparison.   Also, I think that students come in with an interactive frame of mind.  They come at
it as participants, not as passive viewers, and leveraging that in our teaching can help.  Just as turning off the lights and showing a video in class can put students in passive movie watching mode, I think putting class content on facebook and twitter can help students want to participate.

They integrate many media (websites, text notes, photo and video) in a seamless and easily usable way.

So 140 characters is a very small nugget of information.  As I tell my students who complain about 2 pages not being enough to summarize a 17 page article.  If I told you to do it in a setence, you could, if I told you you had a paragraph, you could.  I think condensing thought into such a small chunk can actually be really valuable, and encourage an attention to the detail of words (do you really need that "the"?) that is a great way to teach writing.  Think editing and grading tweets sounds ridiculous?  Why any more ridiculous than the standard 500 word essay?

They can be used to engage what I feel to be a vital part of critical thinking, which is perspective taking.

Ok, a couple of examples.

First, in my cognitive science class last semester, one of the student’s favorite classes was when the philosophy professor and I co-taught, and co-guided the discussion on the section on language. Seeing both the perspective of the cognitive psychologist and the philosopher, and seeing them interact, was really valuable to the students.   This could happen on facebook in the comments as a philosopher, cognitive scientist, etc, weigh in on a piece of reading (or movie, or link, etc), even if only in a few words as a comment.

Second, someone is twittering the diary of an 18th century farm girl.  Someone also began twittering masquerading as Shaquille O’Neal, with witticisms reminiscent of Shaq’s style.  This got me thinking that it might be cool to have historical figures twitter in a history class.  I am teaching history of psychology next semester, and I am imagining Sigmund Freud having a few tweets, (“Just got out
with a patient, Whoa, Anna O.”)  then Jung coming along and responding then a little back and forth (maybe even excerpts from the Freud-Jung letters), then Skinner.  Then later thinkers.  This could take place in concert with the discussion in class.  I was thinking of assigning each person in class a role to play. 
What would Freud think about Maslow? 
What did Skinner think of William James? 
What would either of them think of modern neuroscience?  These are really hard questions, but make you really understand the theories and worldviews of these thinkers.  I think that kind of perspective taking is at the basis of critical thinking, and could be a great use of twitter in class.  It could also be tremendous fun.

Alright, I’ll stop there.

I’ll leave you with a few tools that could help you with similar projects.  Tweetlater lets you schedule tweets to appear later, so you don’t have to go on every day, but you could write 40 one line tweets for Freud in advance, and have them appear twice a week.  Tweetvisor organizes into conversations, and helps with multiple accounts.  Tweetree also helps with conversations and embeds the multimedia so that you don’t have to click on a link.

Thanks for reading, I'd really love to hear what y'all think.  Naysayers welcome.


Sam said...

Hi Cedar, helpful post. I'm no longer a teacher, but I think you make some good points about how Twitter might be useful in the classroom. Funny that you say that Facebook will eclipse MySpace, because none of my (former) middle and high school students in the Bronx use Facebook, but many, many of them are on MySpace. I use MySpace to keep in touch with my students. I never used it as a teacher, but now that I'm gone I'm glad to have an easy mechanism to stay in touch with them. I'm on Facebook much more often and prefer its layout, but I know my students love the many ways they can personalize their pages on MySpace. While I have some FB friends who change their profile pictures weekly, I hae some students who completely redesign their MySpace pages at the same rate.

I would also guess that many of my students have not yet heard of twitter, and few know much about FB. Because they have so much access to MySpace now, however, I could be confident that if I gave an assignment that required them to use Twitter nearly all would be able to do it. In the past I hesitated to assign homework on the internet because I feared that they did not have access, but my MySpace experience shows that it has spread. I'm sure that there are some who don't have access at home, but it now seems reasonable to expect that they can find a way to access the internet if need be.

Cedar said...

Hey Sam,
Thanks for commenting. I have managed to avoid a MySpace acct, but yes, I obviously know that MySpace is still very popular. There was a really interesting essay last June on class divisions viewed through the Facebook/MySpace split :
The basic premise was that facebook was exclusive, only for college students (that's the way it started), and when it opened up to high schools, it was for high school kids who knew they wanted to go to college.
Just judging by my friends from high school (across the formerly Myspace social strata) who have joined facebook recently, I'd say facebook is carving into MySpace's share, but no college students are switching from facebook to MySpace.
I also find it interesting that many people could use facebook and twitter without a computer at all, just with a phone. Not sure any students would currently let a teacher send them text messages on a phone, but I think that is the direction we are going.