David Silver is using Twitter in his media studies classes (check out the amazing “Eating San Francisco”). Twitter is the class’ main mode of communication, and he writes that Twitter has replaced three classroom technologies:
twitter has replaced the class listserv. for years, i’ve used a listserv (alternatively called a mailing list or discussion list) to extend our discussions beyond the classroom. these days, when we want to continue conversations, the 12 students in DMP, the 17 students in ESF, and i use twitter.
twitter has replaced email announcements. in the past, if something’s come up, or i want to add a reading, or we have a location change, i would send all the students in class an email. these days, when i have something to announce, or when my students have something to announce, we use twitter.
twitter has replaced the cardboard box i used to bring to class on due dates. in the past, my students would print out their papers and bring them to class; i’d collect them in a box and take them back to the office to grade. these days, my students write blogs, design flickr sets, upload video, and post works-in-progress. when finished, they tweet about it so that i – and, more importantly, their peers – can check it out.
This is instructive for designers of educational technology. The “traditional” trajectory of educational technology is specialization and feature-creep. For example, a class must have an email list, a forum, website/CMS, each with its own space and identity. When I log into BlackBoard, I see about 30 different things I can do, and for each I have to click a link and go to a page to do the action. Twitter strips away the features, instead using an inherently flexible textual space to facilitate communication, accomplishing the same goal of other feature-ridden “course technology.”
I see Twitter’s artificial limit on post size as an important factor in classroom success. First, it keeps the information space managable, meaning information is economized and easily retrievable. Second, and this is pure speculation, but I see Twitter’s short form as a communication equalizer. In any class, you’re going to have verbose individuals and quiet individuals – the same applies online. Twitter forces the verbose to be concise, and it makes it easy for the quiet/reluctant to contribute “normally.” To illustrate this point, let’s imagine a traditional class forum. Our verbose individuals may contibute multi-paragraph posts. Our quiet individuals may look at those long posts, struggle to replicate them, and end up not enjoying or participating in online communication. We’ve lost “communication” because a student struggled to replicate a “form.” In the case of Twitter, the difference between the verbose and the quiet is 140 characters. Form goes away, more or less, and the forum focuses primarily on the communication of raw ideas. Again, this is just speculation – but there’s plent of research in CMC on media richness and form effects that might provide theoretical basis for this sort of research question.
In my class, we’ve used Facebook groups for discussions with (in my opinion) great success. We’ve also experimented with Ning, where that success was not replicated. I believe that Ning suffered from the problems endemic to BlackBoard and other CMS – too many functions, too many buttons to push, too many markup styles to remember. This “overfunctioning” leads to a segmentation of communication, and in an online discussion where communicants may be reluctant, segmentation is death. Twitter is the opposite of segmentation, forcing all communication through a single, flexible channel. This creates the impression of activity, again stimulating discussion.
If I were going to build a CMS (Course Management Software), I would start with Twitter as the prototype, and only add features to the dashboard screen. In this sense, the CMS would only have one page, and everything would tie into and key off the communication sream (i.e I would join Twitter with something like Facebook’s News Feed). If I were to employ Twitter in my classes, one thing I might ask for is “Groups” or “Rooms.” It would be a challenge for me to keep track of all of my student communication (though a second Twitter account would probably suffice).