After discussing our recent experience’s with MOOCs, the last part of our third Technology Enhanced Learning session focused on the use of Twitter. For homework, we’ve been asked to engage in a Tweet Chat, a group twitter conversation on a particular topic, thoughts on which come at the end of this post. Before coming to that I thought I’d highlight a few of the conversations that emerged in the classroom as a result of the request that we all sign up to Twitter and use the platform for this exercise, because I think they are interesting exemplars of the frankly rather old fashioned attitudes to technology and social media in higher education.
When this assignment was introduced our tutor asked how many people in the class were already regular Twitter users, the result was only a handful of people out of the twenty or so present. This opened up some interesting conversations about people’s attitudes towards social media, both as teachers and users in their own right. The familiar reasons for not wanting to use social media were raised. Issues of data privacy and online footprint (echoing the residents and visitors exercise done in our first session) revealed that for many people there was concern about how much information could be deduced about them from their social media accounts. Another issue raised was that of the noise of social media, and the fact that 99% of what occurs on Facebook or Twitter is completely inconsequential information which only serves to distract. Both of these concerns are legitimate, but also I think represent a fundamental misunderstanding of how to use social media.
As well as learning to use a social media platform the way it was intended, part of your responsibility as a user is to get to understand what risks a given platform presents, what information the owning company is looking to extract in return for your use of it, and finally how you can game the platform to use it for purposes other than its original intention. Keeping these in mind I think you can start to mitigate the inherent risks involved in social media (and the web in general) while also looking for ways to maximise the potential benefit. Clearly if the benefit dosen’t exceed the energy you put into it (at least over the medium term) then either you’re not using a platform the right way or it’s not the right platform for the sort of thing you do. I’ve found Twitter pays off in terms of the work that goes in, whereas some other platforms like Facebook usually don’t. Likewise in terms of the amount of useless content on social media, I see my accounts as projects in curation where I filter what comes through to me through the tools available. I’m fairly ruthless about who I follow on Twitter, and a large part of that is trying to keep my feed to mangeable flow of useful information. That’s still an ongoing project and something that might sometimes lead to hurt feelings if I don’t follow someone back, but it’s key to getting the benefit from these products (and they are products, not services).
From here the classroom conversation developed into a bigger one of the behavioural impact of technology on students and the learning atmosphere. It was a commonly held view in the room that mobile phones and their like have no place in the classroom. It’s an idea I have often encountered in higher education but still can’t completely reconcile myself with. As someone who has doodled his way through more than his share of lessons, I know that anything can be potentially distracting, and my secondary school maths workbooks are testimony to this. Banning pens and paper because of this capacity to distract would be considered inappropriate, and I see phones and other technologies in similar terms, as something which can and should be used to further learning and engagement in the classroom even at the same time as acknowledging that some students will allow themselves to be distracted by them. Besides being impractical, banning these things also doesn’t show much respect for students who are after all adults who need to learn to take responsibility for their own behaviours (but that’s not to say I won’t sometimes challenge or call out a student who I think is using their phone for something unrelated to the current classroom activity). It’s also worth not underestimating the ability of students to multi-task, I spent most of this third TEL session working on my laptop, taking notes, looking up references and so on at the same time as following along with the discussion.
One such reference was to John Locke’s book Why We Don’t Talk To Each Other Anymore, which I haven’t yet read but seems to make a familiar argument for the importance of speech and the challenges posed to it by technology (this superficially calls to mind Jonathan Crary’s book 24/7: Late Capitalism and the Ends of Sleep which makes a similar argument about another core human practice). While there are certainly arguments against technology in the classroom, those I heard during this session felt too generic and draconian, and didn’t readily enough recognise the benefits these technologies can have if you’re prepared to make them part of the session, I also think it’s important to challenge the notion that spoken conversation is intrinsic to forming trusting relationships. As part of my online teaching I work with the same students sometimes over the course of two years, never having met and sometimes not even knowing what they look like, but I would still say the connection can sometimes be as strong as those I have with my full time face-to-face students. In other words, perhaps we actually need to widen our definition of ‘talking’ rather than trying to desperately preserve it as the domain of direct unmediated speech alone.
Turning back to Twitter, on Wednesday evening I joined the Learning and Teaching in Higher Education Tweetchat. Started in 2014 this weekly session brings together teachers from across the globe to discuss a particular topic related to Higher Education. In this case the topic was e-portfolios, quite relevant to some of the other research I’ve been doing on online collaborative platforms. Like most social media platforms Twitter has it’s own etiquette and I quickly discovered the Tweetchat’s have their own in turn. It felt like a bit of a free for all at the start but gradually made more sense with people prefixing their tweets to make it easier to follow what questions they were responding to. One thing that was notable was that while people responded to questions set centrally and posted by the LTHE Tweetchat account, these responses didn’t seem to engender that many conversations. I have to admit that for my part I didn’t really help with this, as after a solid days teaching I didn’t really feel I had the mental energy left to do much more than lurk and read people’s Tweets as they came in. I wonder how typical this is of these Tweetchats or whether people are normally more discursive. In conclusion, devoted Twitter user though I am, I can’t see myself becoming a regular Tweetchater, but it was still a useful experience and one I might refer students to if I come across relevant discussions in the rather enormous lists of Tweetchats that exist.