Reflections on Learning
My wife tells me that vinegar can do just about anything. And if you do the research, you’ll find out she’s right. In fact, if I told you that I actually had vinegar write this post for me, you’d have a tough time arguing that contention. Vinegar is simply amazing.
When the ancient Egyptians were using vinegar, I’m fairly certain they didn’t think that they could use it to put on their automobile windshields at night so that they weren’t frosted over in the morning. Nor did ancient Chinese cultures think that vinegar was the best for getting out ketchup stains or stopping lint from sticking to their laundry.
There are plenty of other examples of products starting out as one thing and ending up as another. Coca-Cola was originally intended as a patent medicine designed to cure many diseases, including morphine addiction, dyspepsia, neurasthenia, headache, and impotence. Post-it notes were the result of a failed attempt by a 3M scientist to create a glue with an unbreakable bond.
And so it is with Twitter. Originally designed as a micro-blogging application, Twitter, like vinegar, has been morphed and manipulated by the users (rather than the developers) into a tool that does things the inventors never imagined. The analogy might not extend too far beyond that though as I can see that Twitter, like vinegar has many uses, yet I’m not entirely convinced that Twitter is as useful as vinegar.
I’m going to take a bit of a different approach to this blog entry. I’ll discuss briefly the personal and professional implications, but mostly I’d like to focus on some of these “other” uses I stumbled across as I learned about this application and how this impacts me and potentially the classroom.
The Personal Level
I’ve mentioned in other postings that I was and probably remain a bit of anti-facebook person. For whatever reason though, I was using Twitter fairly early on. I first discovered it as a way of getting real-time information about baseball’s spring training. Reporters would cover games that weren’t being broadcast and tweet what was happening. They would provide the latest rumours about free agent signings and provide links to other stories. This was interesting to me not necessarily because I’m a baseball nut (I’m not) but more because I’ve taken an interest in seeing how teams are constructed. The pre and off-seasons of sports allow for a fairly public view of how this happens and Twitter, I discovered, allowed me to get information faster than ever before. Since that time, as is the nature of the Internet, new applications like CoverItLive, have replaced Twitter coverage somewhat.
As a personal tool, I can’t say that I’ve found much use in it. It’s nice that my brother-in-law posts the odd photo so we can see how the nieces and nephew are doing, but there are other ways for him to share this info too. I’m a little leery about using Twitter in this way (see Twitgoo below) and I’m not too interested in sharing mundane things about my life with “whoever”.
The Professional Level
I gave a presentation the other day to some of our 4th year ed students at the local college. It’s actually a satellite program of the U of A and they were looking at how they might use Web 2.0 in elementary social studies classrooms. The prof knew I was taking this course and asked me to share some thoughts. I talked with them about many of the applications we’ve looked at in this course, but my biggest point of emphasis was on Twitter. The reason for this was not necessarily because I felt they could use this as a tool in the classroom, but because I’ve found Twitter to be an incredible resource for reading. And even though Twitter itself is a bit “stream-of-consciousness”, it provides these connections to fascinating reading that allows one to grow as a professional.
One might argue that Google Reader can provide you with the same sort of access to excellent articles, and I have enjoyed my subscriptions, but Twitter is full of some great surprises (as long as you follow the right people!)
At this point, as a classroom application, I think Twitter is fairly limited. In lots of ways it’s far too “open” to use in the classroom. At any moment any kind of word, inappropriate or otherwise, or any kind of link can show up taking any element of control out of this for the classroom teacher. Micro-blogging, unlike blogging, makes it difficult to take things back. Students are less inclined to think, edit, etc. their 140 or fewer characters post, as compared to writing and editing their blog post before publishing. Even then, a blog post can be edited and tweaked, whereas a Tweet is out there, forever. A student that writes something inappropriate will have no opportunity for recovery. In yesterday's newspaper, it was noted that just this sort of thing happened. Chief of Staff for the Wildrose Alliance (Stephen Carter) mocked premier Ed Stelmach's speaking style and was later made to retract his comments.
This is not to say I didn’t come across some interesting ideas about how to use Twitter. Will Richardson talks about the New Jersey teacher that uses Twitter as a way for students to micro-blog (journal) what they see on a field trip. Or the teacher that uses Twitter as essentially a way to replace Senteo devices in the classroom. Students can tweet their responses to instructor questions and teachers can get immediate feedback on student understanding. This works of course only if students have immediate access to user stations or cell phones which of course is often a whole other debate.
In fact looking for ways that I might choose to use this service with my class proved to be difficult. Even when authors such as Laura Walker suggest using Twitter in schools, they are really talking about professional development and not student use. Of Walker’s list of “9 reasons to start using Twitter in schools” eight are clearly functions of PD. Only writing concisely (140 characters or less) could directly apply to students.
On the professional development side, I’ve already hinted how I think Twitter can be useful. One of the more fascinating things that I read was in the Time article about #hackedu. This “Twitter conference” that began with 30 or so people in room and grew into a meeting of the minds around the world was simply astonishing and another example of how Twitter, like vinegar, has been morphed by its users.
The obvious thing that stands out about Twitter and what likely speaks to its appeal is that it is a very good marketing and self promotion tool. This makes it very appealing to business people and entrepreneurs and will likely eventually be the economic engine that sustains Twitter. I could get into the annoying, mundane aspects of Twitter (I don’t need to know that Mack Male is sleeping – although I understands why he does this) but for this post I want to focus on interesting and positive (mostly) aspects of Twitter.
Twitter is also obviously a very useful tool in terms of immediacy of information. For this reason it can serve as a news reporting service of events as they unfold, or for getting real-time updates of traffic or for communication in the event of emergencies. Interestingly, this last point is sold in many of the articles you read about Twitter, but given the number of times over the past couple of months that I’ve noticed Twitter to be over capacity, I wonder how its servers would hold up in a real emergency situation? I recall not being able to get information from places like CNN.com on 9/11 due to Internet traffic issues.
As technologies seem to merge, the idea and reality of multiple interfaces is something else that will help to sustain Twitter. I no longer have to be at my computer to read information, to give and get updates, it’s right there on my cell phone. This, along with the integrated nature of Twitter with blogs, facebook and just about every website out there, it makes it so pervasive. The fact that I can link my “tweets” to my blog so easily makes this a useful feature.
In an information culture, we want the most up to date information possible. Where else to get the most “trending” information than from a place like Twitter that actually compiles what is trending? I can now be “up-to-the-nano-second-cool”! How else would I have stumbled upon this. Related to this, Twitter seems to be a great tool for asking questions and getting immediate (and diverse) answers. Forums obviously have their purpose, but if you don’t want to wait around for a reply, ask your question in the twitterverse.
I’m aware that other social networking applications have other tools designed to enhance their usage, however, I think Twitter has a leg up here (thus the vinegar analogy) that is unique. Many of the apps for things like facebook to me seem like distractions, whereas the ones developed for Twitter seem to be based more on functionality. Below is a list that is no where near exhaustive. Just the ones I stumbled upon and tried during the last couple of months. Mindboggling in lots of cases:
Twitgoo – I can’t even remember what I did to use this service. In all of the things I tried, this was perhaps the second creepiest! I tried to upload a photo through Twitter and my PhotoBucket site. I did something (again, I don’t remember what) and suddenly a picture of my daughter was in “twitgoo”. I could see it, and below was a counter of how many times the picture had been viewed by other twitter users. Within seconds, 30-45-60-100 people had viewed this picture of my daughter and then, as other pictures were added, my daughter’s photo moved down the scroll and suddenly was gone and there were no more views. This blew my mind, because first of all I didn’t intend to post this picture in this way (I didn’t know the service existed) and secondly there was no way for me to stop it from happening.
Twitterlocal, twellow – thanks to @mastermaq and his elluminate presentation for sharing this information with us. These tools have been fascinating, particularly in light of Mack Male’s suggestion that you follow local users. Twitterlocal (I have it sitting on my desktop right now) shows tweets from anyone who lives within 16 kilometres (or 10 miles) of my IP address. This is somewhat creepy, but it’s definitely allowed me to connect with some people I wouldn’t have found otherwise. This could be an interesting application in the school setting if not for the unpredictable nature of the tweets. One guy, for instance, always uses profanity in his tweets.
A positive example of how this could apply in school is on Thursday morning there was an article in our paper about one of bridges being refurbished and also questions about how City Council was going to fund a new events centre. One alderman is an avid Twitter user posted, “don’t believe the paper, there will be no tax hikes!” From there a real-time debate evolved on Twitter around this issue, with one of the decision makers. This would have been great for grade 6 students to see.
Hash tags – again thanks to Mastermaq for helping me to understand these as it has changed how I use Twitter and how I search for things on this service. This is another prime example of how the web becomes almost self-organizing. The hash tags have allowed me to truly access the most current information on the topics I’m interested in and more specifically have directed me towards other people I want to follow.
#FollowFriday – these little events that seem to happen in the “Twitterverse” are things I’m still trying to understand. Even though it was suggested elsewhere that Twitter can help us become more concise writers, I think it actually encourages us to be more slangy or even more coded writers. In a lot of ways tweets have developed into another language and you need to be able to decode it to understand it.
Qik – I picked this up from @courasa. Got to watch two minutes of video of him watching the luggage return area at what I think was Pearson International. Weird. Voyeurism perhaps, but the potential of this is really interesting. Being able to communicate with others (friends, experts or otherwise), truly see what they are seeing is fascinating. There are some obvious drawbacks or concerns with this as well, but used responsibly this could be a great tool.
Retweeting – at first I didn’t get this, but soon after following this for a bit, you can grasp the potential of RT. Word can spread infinitely and quickly through retweeting. I find something interesting and tweet it to my 15 followers, who in turn RT to the 300 of their followers who RT to 30000 of their followers. Information can be pervasive almost instantly.
Uber twitter – I mentioned that twitgoo had creepy factor #2, well for me this is #1. It surprises me how many Twitter users use and share this information. Essentially giving away their global position through their Twitter account. When I can see that someone is tweeting from 1201 Southview Dr. SE in Medicine Hat, AB, Canada, I think this is creepy and in some ways irresponsible. If we are teaching kids about online safety, this service has to be at the top of the list. There are other tools that are similar to this like http://beta.twittervision.com/ or http://twittermap.tv/ that allow you to get a perspective of the global nature of Twitter without the safety element issue.
Tweet Deck – Twitter has obviously spawned many platform applications. I downloaded and tried tweetdeck and it really helped me to better understand how to use Twitter and probably made me a more efficient user. From being able to easily use services like bit.ly to being able to organize my followers, this proved to be a great tool. On the flip side, it was a bit of a resource hog and something you probably couldn’t install on school computers.
Mr. Tweet – I found this through Joyce Valenza’s blog and have just recently subscribed to it so I don’t have much experience with it yet. From what I can understand, Mr. Tweet will provide me with suggestions of people to follow based on the people I currently follow. It will also suggest me to others if we share the same interests. Dr. Valenza has found it helpful, so I hope I do as well!
So, maybe I could coin my own term and get it out there. How about #twinegar? Think it will take off? In the end, I’ve found #twinegar to be 3 parts useful, 3 parts strange and mundane, 1 part creepy, and 10 parts interesting. I look forward to using this tool more and thinking of how I can embed it into my school usage. For now it will likely remain a tool that has served as a very good PD tool and one where I am more of a lurker than a content generator.
Canadian Press, (Nov. 21, 2009). Wildrose in twitter trouble, The Medicine Hat News.
Krishnamurthy, B., Gill, P. & Arlitt, M. (2008). A few chirps about twitter, WOSN ’08. Retrieved Nov. 18, 2009 from http://www2.research.att.com/~bala/papers/twit.pdf
Richardson, W. (2009). Blogs, wikis, podcasts and other powerful web tools for classrooms (2nd ed., p. 90). Thousand Oaks, California: Corwin Press.
Walker, L. (2009). Nine reasons to twitter in schools, Tech & Learning. Retrieved Nov 18, 2009 from http://www.techlearning.com/article/17340