Thursday, January 7, 2010

Twitter and Education

Every time a new technology comes along, the responses (in the education world) to it seem to fall into the following categories:

a). excitement
b). complaints about how the old way was "better"
c). avoidance of the technology and refusal to acknowledge its existence, in the hope it just goes away.

People in group A look for ways to incorporate this new technology into their classes as soon as possible, often to the trepidation of superiors and colleagues who may not fully understand this new advance. People in group B generally have little to add to the discussion about this technology; they usually just want to complain about how much things have changed and how teaching was better years ago, etc. People in group C are generally aware of the new technology, and may understand that it might have positive uses, but, primarily due to their own inability to understand how to use this technology, just want to hope it goes away.

The most obvious dividing example of new technology in the classroom is the cell phone/iPod category. These two devices have become so similar (or crossed over, in the case of the iPhone) that they can be merged into one category. Improper use of either of them is an obvious nuisance and constant source of disrespect. No teacher wants to see students texting while he or she is in the middle of a lesson. However, these devices to have educational value. In their ability to browse the web, cell phones are portable carriers of information. If you don't know something, you look it up. Why is this not more encouraged in secondary education? Employers rarely need workers to memorize everything; they just need their employees to be resourceful. If doctors do not understand your symptoms fully, they do research, they don't guess. Information sharing is happening all around us, we should not fight against it in schools.

The iPod also has immense educational value. Articles litter the web about colleges handing them out to incoming first year students. With their ability to run millions of applications and collect data and notes, iPhones and iPod Touches have nearly limitless potential as educational tools. But, we consign them to contraband items.

Part of the reason we do this is because we are firmly in Group B. The old way was better. We didn't have to worry about these items in classrooms ten years ago. Group B is an odd place to be, because the problems have always existed, the objects creating them were the only things that changed. Ten years ago, pagers went off during class instead of cell phones, and students walked around with Walkmen. They were the banes of our existence. All references to the "glory days" should be summarily dismissed. It won't happen, and even I will be hypocritical at times, but it should and we would do well to remember that we can't fight change.

Those previous paragraphs seem to have taken me a bit off course. I just wanted to write about another dividing technology, Twitter. The point of the previous paragraphs was to provide some introduction and guide me right into a discussion on one specific technology. I'm not sure I've succeeded, however, and I think I ended up in a different place than I intended. But, to save face, and reroute this essay, let's place Twitter in the "scary new technology" category with the iPods and cell phones.

For those of you who are unfamiliar, Twitter is set up as a social networking site, in which users post tweets (of 140 characters of less) about what they are up to at any given moment. The concept sounds both simple and incredibly stupid. Who cares what you are doing? If people follow your twitter feed, apparently someone does. If this is the point of Twitter, then certainly it has no educational value, and is merely another diversion for students to pursue, when they should be applying themselves to their diligent studies.

But, I want to be in group A, always. I want to stay excited about my job and my career and my potential by trying to be at the forefront of something new and exciting and, dare I say, revolutionary. Twitter does have uses. Anyone can receive tweets, all they have to do is sign up. It's free. As long as you have a Twitter client on your computer, cell phone, and/or iPod, you can follow what anyone writes. Think of the potential. Parents complain that they do not know their students' homework. So, I could type the homework into Twitter. Automatically, all of my students' parents know what to discuss with their children that evening. Even the students could subscribe, which would be very handy for those kids who can't seem to bring home their notebooks but wouldn't dare lose their cell phones. And, everything would be written in real-time, as it was happening, with time and date stamps. It would help to create a culture of accountability.

But, let's get even more radical, shall we? Imagine that you set up a student as a designated note-taker during a class discussion. You let him use his cell phone (gasp! sacrilege! please stop!) and tell him he will tweet everything of value said in class. First of all, that student gets to play with technology. Secondly, he is forced to pay attention, because he has a job to do. Finally, he is simultaneously learning important summarizing skills, as tweets are limited to 140 characters. As an added benefit, the rest of the class can simply participate in the discussion, without the need to take notes. The Twitter feed will exist in perpetuity, available for all to relive later. Even the absent students would get a good sense of what happened in class that day.

Group A is like the front of the bus. You have the best view of what's ahead.


Ms. Hill said...

I like the idea of using Twitter for notetaking but I foresee using the cell phone as a bit tedious. Why not use a blog and link to the notes via Twitter. The other issue is Twitter is blocked in most districts, my district included. I've asked it to be unblocked but I'm still waiting.

Douglas McGuirk said...

The cell phone probably is a bit tedious. But, I was thinking more in line with the proliferation of smart phones. Kids don't seem to have any problem banging out texts on those things.

I like the blog idea, though. Still, all of those things are blocked in my district...

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