Twitter as a metaphor for learning

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?


7 Replies to “Twitter as a metaphor for learning”

  1. I love your “climates of possibility” view of a classroom. This is what all of us see when we first enter a classroom, and I suspect that it is what children see as they enter school. Reigning in these possibilities can only hurt, not help our own PD and children’s educations.

    So what’s the climate on Twitter? Sometimes chaotic, sometimes meaningful discussions, or a link to a discussion that needs more than 140 characters.

    Let’s just keep the possibilities open!

  2. Very interesting post. I’ve seen the same as Christian Long – isolated groups of like minded people who really have nothing new to share because they all think alike to begin with. I hope this changes. People should not consider it automatically offensive to differ from others. I think it is through open discussions regarding our differences that we learn.

  3. A nice perspective on twitter. I am learning a lot from the site regarding terms and new products and new ideas to write on for my site and I started a blog and learning the ropes. It does pull you in and I like using summize to search terms to find relevant tweets instead of the search function at twitter that takes forever to get thru and see who is active.

    I imagine once homeschooling starts in Sep my time will be limited and for now just exploring it at various times of the day. I never knew what Blog Her was and actually have mixed feelings on it since there are some professionals who go there and others seem to party and I think that reflects bad on other mom bloggers.

    I am mixing it up and networking and meeting and gathering data. Good post, made me stop and think about this new site I am spending far too much time at, but meeting others at the same time.

  4. It isn’t just twitter. I’ ve been experimenting with many Web 2.0 tools for a couple of years. Always, I try out a tool, play , explore, then look for the purpose. Purpose to use it in a project, with a teacher, with a student. If I don’t find the purpose, then I move on. Maybe someone else will find the purpose and I will come back. It is an experiment in learning. I like it. I don’t “blame” or “congratulate” the tool, I use the tool.
    Thanks for a great post about making meaning.

  5. homophily is a potential hazard in any social community – academic, hobby, intellectual, political, etc… one of the great things about tools like twitter is the disruptive capacity – its so easy to challenge and subvert group think… homophily can only operate in climate where someone isn’t willing to take a risk…

  6. Good points above. My thinking is that different people do better with different modes of learning. My guess is that adults who have a broader base of prior knowledge and are adept at finding and taking in new information will get more out of tools like Digg and twitter. They are used to grazing quickly over newspapers and internet stories and making associations.

    I enjoy twitter because I can control the volume and relative quality of information that moves comes in, and usually have a pretty personal connection to it. I have all but stopped using RSS feeds because it just takes too much time. The difference with Twitter is that you have have no expectation what you will discover when someone posts a link, and it’s often new. Of course, twitter users are usually people who are interested in social networking in the first place, and I think that’s why number and quick growth of social networking tools is explosive–connections making more connections among people who want to experiment.

    If you want kids to learn to learn in an unstructured, intuitive way, then twitter could be a good tool, especially if they are following peers (and educators who know who their audience is). If you prefer controlling the content of education, then twitter may waste more time than it is worth.

  7. What a powerful and inspiring comparison. I consistently find it amazing to hear from a range of adults, including teachers, the deficits in our students just as they themselves are saying things like, “Oh, I didn’t get that the first time”, or “I lost that memo”, or “Do we really have to…..”. Adults (who are good at their jobs) do not hesitate to question things when they are unsure, or question decisions made, or at least try to have them clarified. Why is it that we do not always create that same environment for growth and skill development for our students?

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