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testing twitter despite my better judgement

Twitter BirdHaving recently returned from the 4Cs conference, I’ve got all kinds of new ideas swimming around my head. A few of the sessions I attended addressed creative uses of social networking technology in the classroom. One such session focused on Twitter. Now, I have to say I’ve never really gotten the concept of Twitter. For those not in the know, Twitter is a social networking and messaging service that is built on the premise of answering one simple question–“What are you doing?” The idea is that we communicate all the little, inconsequential things of our everyday lives with a broader audience of folks who care to “follow” you. Such little updates (limited to just 140 characters at a time) are beamed to your friends’ computers or–more likely–their mobile devices.

Why would anybody care that I’m drinking a cup of coffee or clipping my toe nails?

The Twitter system is built on SMS technology, which is basically text messaging. Hmm. Interesting, I suppose, but a little strange. Why would anybody care, for example, that I’m drinking a cup of coffee or clipping my toe nails? On the one hand, if I’m honest with myself, I can see allure the of knowing such things about people you care about. Sure, often I’ll be going about my busy day and stop for a second to think about a close friend or family member and wonder where they are at that exact moment and what they are doing. The Twitter marketing talks about how knowing this information helps us feel closer to people. That’s true, I guess. But also the emergence of such a service like Twitter (and many social networking technologies of late) is kind of sad in a way. Why not just call the person to arrange a cup of coffee together, or dinner, or a visit at one’s home? Are these too just arbitrary conventions? Perhaps, but at least they put you face to face with another human being.

Can the alienation that weighs upon us in our postmodern human condition be lifted by the likes of Twitter?

The level of happiness that one has in his or her life is almost certainly dependent on the quality of his or her human relationships. This has been studied and proven. So, I see Twitter then as attempting to fill a void many of us have in our lives–a void of human contact. Can the alienation that weighs upon us in our postmodern human condition be lifted by the likes of Twitter? Can the computer successfully mediate our human relationships and put us in contact with others in meaningful ways? I’m not so sure. It continues to seem artificial to me, but is that simply because it’s relatively new?

All right, despite my doubts, I will remain open-minded and will experiment with a healthy dose of skepticism. At 4Cs, the presenters talked about using Twitter to build community in their classrooms–and especially in their online classes. The idea is to introduce students to a way of communicating that is familiar to them without co-opting the social networking technology of their domain (i.e Facebook, etc.). It doesn’t seem that Twitter has hit the traditional college student demographic just yet, and yet it is so familiar as it resembles the Facebook status feature and can be used simply through cell-phone text messaging (another favorite activity of the college student).

In online classes, students often complain of feeling isolated and alone in the class, despite a teacher’s best efforts to engage them through the discussion board and other means. What they are missing is the social feel of the class–chatting with their classmates before and after (and during) the class, meeting friends, and building relationships. We hope students come to our classes for the education, but what keeps them there are the social relationships. (Ahh, there’s that point again about the connection between the quality of our lives and the quality of our relationships.) If Twitter were implemented in an online course as a means of communicating generally, would feelings of interconnectedness increase?

We hope students come to our classes for the education, but what keeps them there are the social relationships.

Such forays into Twittering in the classroom need not be entirely extracurricular (although I suspect they should be, at least in part). One of the 4Cs presenters had her students keep a reading log via Twitter, requiring at least 200 tweets over the semester. At the end of the term, the students were asked to reflect on their Twitter timelines to write a final essay about their growth or insights as a reader. I can see the sense of such applications. I’ve experimented with having students keep blogs for similar purposes but with little success. Perhaps 140 characters at a time will feel more doable for students–especially if it means they can do it while walking down the hallway staring at their cell phones. I think to really make Twitter useful for teaching and learning, though, the basic “What are you doing?” prompt needs some revision. I’ll be open to trying contemporary fad technologies if my students will be willing to respond to this question: “What are you thinking?”

The experiment has begin. Follow me at twitter.com/writing101net.

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