The feeling of twitter as a metaphor for education

Repost from July 2008. Still relevant today!

OK, my turn. Obsession over Twitter, a microblogging tool that’s a favorite of millions thousands hundreds of edu-tech-bloggers, is running rampant over at Will Richardson’s blog Weblogg-ed – What I Hate About Twitter.

Will is ambivalent about his own reaction to Twitter, and the 103 (and counting) comments range from agreeing, explaining, dismissing, and accepting various theories about what Twitter is and should be.

In my experience, Twitter is a nice place to hang out with people. Sort of like Second Life without bumping into things. A lot like a lunch room. Twitter is simple to use and gives you 140 characters to say something, anything. You see everything your “friends” say, and you can choose your friends based on any criteria you like. So loose groups of people tend to form who have similar interests.

On Twitter, the flow of tidbits is fast and completely random. Depending on when you show up, you hear about mundane details of people’s lives, work highlights, baseball color commentary, requests for help, and more than a few musings on educational technology. Not surprisingly, when you get a bunch of people who live, work and sometimes breathe education and technology, the conversation trends that way.

On Will’s blog, the conversation about Twitter is fascinating. People love Twitter, hate Twitter, can’t stand the cacophony, want it to be neater and more organized, accept Twitter for what it is, and much much more.

But my thoughts are going elsewhere today. I’m thinking about Twitter as a human laboratory — as a metaphor for learning. Twitter is what it is. How people react to it is a mirror of how they manage their own experience and their own needs.

Imagine if we let children manage their own learning like this?

How many kids get the chance to express their needs in their learning process. Clay Burrell says, “I tend to jump in, swim around like a fish in a wine barrel, then flop out to dry up for a few days or weeks. Then jump back in again. I love the playfulness, the sharing, the relationships.”

Is there every a time we let students “swim around” in learning and then have a chance to reflect, to think, to catch their mental breath?

Nate Stearns says, “Twitter doesn’t work for me, but I know that’s more about me than anything else. I like longer bits to digest” Do we ever give children this choice?

Jarred says, “I often feel a need to “keep up” with the high-frequency tweeters out there… How many students are paralyzed by the competitive nature of many classroom activities?

From Christian Long, “The more we seek to create Twitterquette, the more the organic joy of it all becomes watered down so that only a small group of like-minded souls are willing to hang out.” From kindergarten on, school becomes increasingly structured and less joyful. In the end, only certain kinds of students thrive in this environment. We label these like-minded souls “successful” and denigrate the wandering souls with punishment, ever-more boring and structured courses with even less chance to find what might spark a love of learning.

You could read every single comment and create parallels about how most school experiences are so different than what we expect for our own learning.

Hopefully, you’ve realized by this time that I’m NOT advocating Twitter for the classroom, or even Twitter as a necessary part of an educator’s professional development. Far from it. Nor am I advocating that learning should all be freeform and lacking a guiding hand.

Some students can take the always-on, highly organized and structured nature of the classroom – but many can’t. What can we learn from Twitter to allow a more natural, unstructured mix of learning and socializing that might actually feel soothing to some students?

The “feeling” of Twitter may actually be what many educators hope to encourage in an inquiry-driven, project-based classroom. The thrill of getting an unexpected answer to your exact question. The ability to choose when to jump in and when to hang back.The excitement of an intellectual gauntlet thrown down and picked up. Watching experts do battle and learning that there are words to express your own inner thoughts in a more intellectual, accomplished way. Watching people verbally implode and thinking, “I won’t do that!” Socializing in a group and celebrating the common goofy humanness of all different kinds of people.

Educators who create climates of possibility in a classroom sometimes make it look easy, but it’s far more tricky than it looks to guide groups of students in goal-oriented, academic tasks while still allowing them to drive their own learning. I talk to teachers all the time who have been tweaking project assignments for years, subtly changing minor details of timing, instruction, environment and tools to increase the level of student agency while also increasing the quality of student work. It’s difficult, painstaking, rewarding work.

What might Twitter teach us about creating these learning environments?

  • The rewards of serendipity
  • Making it simple to participate, contribute, or watch
  • The importance of socializing
  • Choice
  • Freeing up time constraints
  • Questioning whether imposed rules increase or limit participation

Your thoughts?

Sylvia

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