The Twitter Challenge

by Robert Pondiscio
June 29th, 2009

Is Twitter in the classroom a gimmick?  Or can it really be an effective teaching tool?  I’m agnostic.   

“Using Twitter in a classroom setting can bring challenges, but some educators and students think it’s a tool that can boost the learning process,” notes a typical piece in U.S. News which goes on–also typically–to offer exactly no compelling examples.

I’ve been writing about teaching and technology in one form or another for over 15  years, so I’m no Luddite.  If it works, I’m in.  But I’ve yet to hear of an example of using Twitter in the classroom that uses it to deepen understanding, not just for bells and whistles.  So here’s a challenge:  give an example of effective use of Twitter in a K-8 classroom. There’s only one rule:  you may not use the phrase ”student engagement” in your reply.

28 Comments »

  1. I’ve done this with grades 9-12. It’ll work in 6-8 as well.

    Teaching Source Evaluation via Twitter.

    1. Give students a topic/question and have them seek out online sources that they’d use in a typical term-paper bibliography.

    2. Students then Tweet their sources with a hashtag like #bibsource09.

    3. Now — and this is the part you can only do via Twitter and realtime search — students are responsible for checking the validity and authority of each source, ranking them 1 – 10 and reTweeting.

    4. All done, the students will go through the Twitter Search a second time and rate the best five sources from the top peer-ranked sources, but this time, for each source, the students must include two hyperlinked cross-references to support their ranking.

    5. Finally, those final rankings will be Tweeted.

    6. Class discussion will follow as we dissect the Twitter feed answering the question: What makes an online source authoritative?

    I have high school students who have told me that this was the first exercise they’d ever done that actually helped them understand what a good online source really was.

    - Shelly

    Comment by Shelly — June 29, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

  2. Maybe it’s a generational thing (I’m Gen X not Y) but I *HATE* Twitter, IM, texting, any of the “instant communication” type stuff. I prefer an electronic medium that allows for at least a modicum of deliberation in one’s message.

    Comment by Crimson Wife — June 29, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

  3. Interesting the USNWR article starts off by profiling a graduate of Burlingame High in my neck of the woods. Burlingame High is ranked in the bottom 30% of schools in California with similar demographics. Even though it has an affluent, mostly white and Asian student population, only 56% of its seniors are deemed “college ready” by the CA Dept. of Ed.

    Perhaps the teachers should spend less time tweeting and more time teaching…

    Comment by Anonymous — June 29, 2009 @ 10:28 pm

  4. Shelly,

    The project you describe certainly sounds valuable and fun, but at the risk of nitpicking, does it really require Twitter? Checking the validity of online resources is not dependent on Twitter. Isn’t it just a means of the students “sharing out” their findings? Nor is Twitter an essential resource for determining the value of a particular resource. Perhaps I’m missing something, but this is exactly what I keep seeing–Twitter for Twitter’s sake, not as a means of deepening understanding. Am I correct in saying that the understanding in your lesson is driven by the class discussion of what makes a resource reliable, not tweeting about it?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 30, 2009 @ 7:03 am

  5. Robert,

    I don’t doubt that some new technologies might open up all kinds of new possibilities, for example: http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/top-news/?i=56389%3b_hbguid=02dfb311-1332-4160-89ab-5e3d86c31ddd

    Twitter? Hmmm. What do you think of this:
    http://www.travelinlibrarian.info/2009/06/twitter-in-classroom.html

    Would love to get your critique.

    ~Nathan

    Comment by Nathan — June 30, 2009 @ 9:50 am

  6. Nathan, per the video you linked to, I wouldn’t quibble with the idea of using Twitter to involve more college students in a large lecture hall class in a group discussion.

    But my “challenge” was aimed at K-8 classrooms. My gut tells me that in those cases it’s more about engagement (the “cool factor”) than as a means to deepen understanding. There’s a link of the page you cited with a slide show on 25 ways to use Twitter in the classroom http://www.slideshare.net/travelinlibrarian/twenty-five-interesting-ways-to-use-tw?type=presentation

    Some of the examples are clever, like asking how famous people might summarize their ideas in a tweet. But again, the challenge is really to demonstrate how the technology improves understanding more than a more conventional lesson, or even other technologies.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 30, 2009 @ 10:25 am

  7. Robert,

    Good question. I think the thing you might be missing is that Twitter is actually a form of communication. So, what we’re looking at in the relatively simple project I use to teach source evaluation is really research, assessment, and evaluation via a form of communication.

    That’s important because the students are growing up in a time where the forms of communication themselves are becoming a way of understanding things — or at least one filter for viewing the world. In other words, we’re getting into an area where there is little distinction between communication and content. For better or worse, I think our students need to be able to evaluate the situation. Twitter is the most viable tool for doing that.

    I taught source evaluation in the traditional way for years (I’m a Classicist, after all!!), but the instant realtime search aspect of Twitter (combined with Twitter apps) really opens up new avenues.

    In a way, this is all prelude to the changes that are going to come about via Google Wave and later with the development of the Semantic web. It’s about thinking about tech not as external and auxiliary to learning, but integrated as naturally as a piece of chalk.

    I hate bells and whistles. I’m currently blogging from the NECC on an ancient iBook G4 laptop. What I’m looking for are effective Web 2.0 tools that help extend the content of my courses into new dynamic ranges for discussion within and without the classroom.

    You are more than welcome to stop by anytime. Maryland is nice in the autumn. See what we’re doing first hand. There’s just some stuff that you can’t describe in a blog comment. Like what learning looks like.

    best,
    Shelly

    Comment by Shelly — June 30, 2009 @ 10:37 am

  8. Thoughtful reply, Shelly and thanks for it. I’m deeply sympathetic to the idea of integrating technology not as an end in itself, but rather as you put it “as naturally as a piece of chalk.”

    But let me ask you to expound on your observation “we’re getting into an area where there is little distinction between communication and content.” What exactly do you mean?

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — June 30, 2009 @ 10:48 am

  9. I think what I’m talking about is a situation where what we used to call meta-content is now available in real time and instantly sharable on an iPhone.

    I’m talking about picking up on the idea that meta-content (where communication and content is the same thing) is so prevalent in our kids’ lives: from Amazon reviews, to Web Kins, to the comments filling up their Facebook walls. Once the kids recognize it for what it is, they can engage it in a way that activates the intellect; the process-understanding/recognition/analysis/evaluation of meta-data and critical voice becomes part of their prior-knowledge skills set (i.e. prior-knowledge not of content, but of critical recognition…). All of this has structural implications for the development of critical and analytical skills.

    That said, as a teacher of Latin and Art History, I’m in no way against teaching the canons of history and literature. Rather, what I’m for is engaging with the essential questions posed by Plato, Seneca, Abelard, Vasari, Rousseau, and Hegel as well as the essential questions posed by Bob Dylan, Miles Davis, Chuck D, and Lucinda Williams.

    I’m for big questions.

    I’m also for a broad view of teaching with whatever is in front of you.

    Comment by Anonymous — June 30, 2009 @ 11:25 am

  10. Education in 140 characters or less.

    Choose the characters well.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — July 1, 2009 @ 9:23 am

  11. Shelly (I think),

    When you say:

    “they can engage it in a way that activates the intellect; the process-understanding/recognition/analysis/evaluation of meta-data and critical voice becomes part of their prior-knowledge skills set (i.e. prior-knowledge not of content, but of critical recognition…)”

    I get a little lost. I’m a pretty smart guy I think, though perhaps a little stronger on the science then the liberal arts side – but I’m really having a hard time unpacking your paragraph.

    Is there any way you could try to simplify it a bit – make it more concrete?

    Thanks!

    Nathan

    Comment by Nathan — July 1, 2009 @ 9:51 am

  12. @Nathan

    Sure. Think in terms of baseball (my favorite terms). A great catcher not only knows the rules and where to throw the ball, but also knows which pitches to call on which batters. The former is the core content every catcher needs to know; the latter is the meta-content that is constantly changing but vital to know if you want to be successful.

    Social media used engagingly is a powerful and direct way to stimulate sharper techniques and critical functions for dealing with the meta-content. So, if I could give a social media brain implant to any of my ballplayers, I’d give it to the catcher.

    After a while, like in a catcher who’s been around a bit, that meta-content recognition becomes second nature. That’s the way I want it to be for kids: using social media should be as second nature as using a pencil.

    Shelly
    (ps – I can never figure out Robert’s reply settings and it often tells me I’m me, but posts me as anonymous. Hmm.)

    Comment by Shelly — July 1, 2009 @ 10:09 pm

  13. @Stuart

    Don’t forget that much of what Twitter is used as, for example in the ed tech community, is a method of virally sharing links to articles and online projects throughout broad networks of educators, admins, policy folks, techies, etc.

    140 characters is deceiving.

    It’s really about links, networks, and the sharing of information.

    Shelly

    ps — if you are interested in learning more about how teachers are using Twitter, feel free to follow me at @TeachPaperless .

    Comment by Anonymous — July 1, 2009 @ 10:16 pm

  14. What’s special about Twitter — as compared to email, blogs, etc. — for “sharing links”?

    As for wanting kids to be familiar with “social media,” I’m not too worried that today’s high schoolers will be up to that task, just on their own. I’m far more worried about the fact that when I walk around a university library today (as I do on a weekly basis when I’m looking for sources), I never see any students looking for books. They’re all downstairs in the computer lab, often looking at Facebook. There’s an enormous an enormous amount of information in books that either isn’t available online at all or that is more readily assessed (as to validity, etc.). But the trend is to be willfully ignorant of all that. And I’m worried, if I might be blunt, that there are high school teachers out there who seem to be encouraging that trend.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — July 2, 2009 @ 9:53 am

  15. You raise an interesting point, Stuart, which gets to the heart of my discomfort with Twitter, and technology in the classroom in general. Too often, what happens is we “privilege” the technology, so that interacting with it becomes and end in itself, rather than a tool to enhance an deepen understanding. The best example I can give you is actually not a tech example at all, but it’s a good illustration of the phenomenon. My school, like many, went gaga for Accountable Talk. The idea is not bad. Kids should be able to have rich, nuanced conversations about books. Only that’s not what happens. Every time a kid says “I’d like to make a text-to-text connection,” or “I’d like to add on to what Jose said,” we smile to ourselves, pleased that our kids are learning conversation “moves.” If the connection or the elucidation was vacuous or content-free, we rarely notice or care. We’re so pleased to hear our phrases parrotted back to us, that we forget that the conversation is supposed to about something. It’s the triumph of structure over content.

    So to with Twitter. I don’t accord books a special place in the pantheon over other media. It’s a delivery mechanism for the content. And I think we forget that whether it’s books, the Internet or papyrus scrolls, it’s what’s on them that matters.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 2, 2009 @ 10:37 am

  16. I don’t accord books a special place in the pantheon over other media. It’s a delivery mechanism for the content.

    I somewhat agree, but I’d phrase it as: each type of medium may have its own special place in the pantheon. In terms of education, the Internet is far better than books for showing pictures and videos (from Google Earth to NASA photography to nature videos). It’s also useful for interacting with people — say, emailing someone to ask about research suggestions and the like. And being able to search to find a specific piece of information is wonderful.

    But the Internet has some serious disadvantages too: by far, most people are using it for purposes far more trivial or outright harmful than the ones I listed. People’s attention span on the Internet is amazingly short, which is why everything written about how to have a successful website says that you shouldn’t write anything longer than a few paragraphs or at most two screens-length, because most people won’t read it.

    Books are far better for presenting a coherent and sustained argument backed up by numerous facts and sources, and doing so in a way that tends to be more trustworthy than the typical website (the Internet is full of cranks and conspiracy theorists who face no barriers to putting out misinformation.)

    So it’s a quandary: I think kids should be taught how to use the Internet without falling prey to unreliable information. But I think it may be even more important to teach them that they are cutting themselves off from a world of information if they ignore print sources.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — July 2, 2009 @ 11:45 am

  17. Agreed, Stuart. That’s why I was curious about Shelly’s lesson at the start of this thread. What makes it powerful? Is it Twitter? Or is it getting students to wrestle with what is — or is not — an authoritative source?

    I do detect a tendency to treat online information differently than print, and to think that we need special training to discern bias and misinformation in online information. In part this might be true. Anyone can post anything online; in print there are traditional gatekeeping functions that may lead us to assume (mistakenly, I would argue) that just because something is set in type, it’s trustworthy. All that said, the best defense against being led down the garden path is not learning to manipulate information online, but a rigorous and well-rounded education that enables us to think critically about who is telling us what and why.

    This came up when we were talking about 21st century skills earlier this year.

    http://blog.coreknowledge.org/2009/02/05/21st-century-skills-and-the-tree-octopus-problem/

    A little content knowledge is more powerful than all the media literacy under the sun.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 2, 2009 @ 11:57 am

  18. @Stuart

    What it sounds like from your example in the library is that the kids haven’t learned how to use social media in an effective way. Which is exactly why I integrate it into my class.

    Social media is whatever you make it. It’s not some monolithic thing that tells you what to do. It’s fundamentally anti- (as opposed to ‘un’) essential. You need to understand the structure of the medium before you can use it for any purpose other than the mundane.

    I’m wondering if you and Robert are on Twitter. I’d be happy to help you get started. It’s actually kinda tough to explain the beauty of why it works… you just have to try it out and experiment. Maybe it’ll work for you, maybe not.

    Is Twitter going to make you smarter? No.

    Can the connections you make via Twitter make you more engaged and the content/mata-content you acquire via Twitter make you smarter? Sure.

    As for the 21st Century Skills debate, it’s a bit more gray than I believe a lot of folks think. Here’s my statement back in early June after a lot of thought being both a Liberal Arts teacher and a proponent of ed tech: http://teachpaperless.blogspot.com/2009/06/21st-century-skills-my-personal-mission.html

    best,
    - Shelly

    Comment by Shelly — July 2, 2009 @ 4:06 pm

  19. What it sounds like from your example in the library is that the kids haven’t learned how to use social media in an effective way.

    If that’s what you perceived in my comment, I must have been unclear. What bothers me about the university library scene these days is that kids haven’t learned how to read books in an effective way, or indeed at all.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — July 2, 2009 @ 4:30 pm

  20. @Stuart

    “What bothers me about the university library scene these days is that kids haven’t learned how to read books in an effective way, or indeed at all.”

    First of all, (and take it from a king of wild generalizations), that’s a wild generalization.

    Second of all… there are plenty of extremely strong text collections online that have interactive features and aid in developing the sort of information fluency that kids are going to need to navigate the Web as the century moves forward. The Library of Congress just opened their ‘Teaching with Primary Sources’ service: http://www.loc.gov/teachers/

    Check out what they offer and you might start to understand why kids in your library aren’t pulling books off your shelves.

    Shelly

    Comment by Anonymous — July 2, 2009 @ 4:45 pm

  21. <<< the sort of information fluency that kids are going to need to navigate the Web as the century moves forward.

    Shelly, your Classicist bona fides notwithstanding, this is exactly the kind of statement that leaves me scratching my head. For the life of me, I can't wrap my mind around why the ability to work with information materially changes the moment it is digitized.

    Here's my (perhaps overly facile) sense of it: Let's say I'm an antiques collector. I can spot a bargain at a tag sale or an auction. Does eBay negate my skill? Not at all. It's just a different venue in which to deploy my expertise. The difference maker is what I know about the subject.

    The "skills" that enable us to make meaning from primary sources have nothing whatsoever to do with their appearance on a screen 12 inches from our noses. It is--and always will be--a function of what we know or learn *about those sources* not the medium in which they appear.

    If someone invented a 21st century hammer it wouldn't dramatically change the training and experience a contractor would need to build a house. Nor would anyone suggest that "tool fluency" is now the soul of carpentry. And so it is with information literacy. It dramatically expands access to information. It doesn't change how we process it.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 2, 2009 @ 5:00 pm

  22. Check out what they offer and you might start to understand why kids in your library aren’t pulling books off your shelves.

    That kind of website is wonderful. Still, I don’t see any disagreement with the fact that most people have very short attention spans when they’re browsing online — and constantly praising Twitter, of all things, bolsters that point more than anything I could say. So what will be the point of putting these wonderful lengthy sources online if most people don’t have the patience to read anything longer than a paragraph?

    Comment by Stuart Buck — July 2, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

  23. @Stuart

    I don’t think short attention spans are something new. Otherwise, we’d have generations of kids who grew up actually finishing Melville, Proust, and Steinbeck.

    Again, 140 characters is misleading. It’s a matter of the links that you can share and search in real-time. Really, try it out. If you don’t like it, no skin off my nose; but it might turn out to be more useful than you think. I’ve got a number of great librarians who I share ideas with via Twitter, and I’d be happy to include you in that network.

    @Robert

    “For the life of me, I can’t wrap my mind around why the ability to work with information materially changes the moment it is digitized.”

    In that statement you are totally correct. I agree, material has been digitized online for twenty-plus years; that’s not the change I’m talking about.

    But things have changed rapidly in technology over the last two years or so. And I’m not talking about hardware software. I’m talking about the fact that the Web itself is changing; and that reflects a change going on in the way billions of people are using it.

    And there’s a point at which things are about to go exponential (if, as some would argue, it’s not gone there already).

    I’m talking about what’s coming down the pike. I’m talking about how that is going to directly influence both the ways our students access material and the way they process it.

    I’m talking about the Real-time Semantic Web.

    The live searches available via Twitter Search and Twitterfall are a hint of what’s coming. The collaborative construction of information in real-time via Google Wave is a hint of what’s coming. The work at MIT with collaborative, participatory, augmented reality is a hint of what’s coming.

    We’re standing before the floodgates and we have no idea what’s on the other side.

    ***

    Also, Robert, I’m glad you brought up eBay because that’s a good example. You said:

    “Here’s my (perhaps overly facile) sense of it: Let’s say I’m an antiques collector. I can spot a bargain at a tag sale or an auction. Does eBay negate my skill? Not at all. It’s just a different venue in which to deploy my expertise. The difference maker is what I know about the subject.”

    Here’s the thing. I collect guitars. I used to be able to buy them in little shops here or there and get decent deals.

    For the most part, that world doesn’t exist anymore. The only place you can afford to find deals on vintage guitars is online. The difference in my buying habits had nothing to do with my knowledge of the subject changing; it had to do with the environment changing.

    We may disagree on this, but to make an analogy: I think preparing our kids only with the content of the subject without integrating the skills required to navigate the reality of the changing environment does them a disservice. The result is tantamount to a guy who loves vintage guitars and is incredibly knowledgeable about them, but who can never manage to buy one because he’s in the dark as to how that system works.

    I’m for holistic education. Content + Skills + an appreciation for change and the ability to be flexible. I wouldn’t expect to give anything less to my own students.

    - Shelly

    Comment by Shelly — July 2, 2009 @ 7:09 pm

  24. Saw this on Twitter today. It may apply but not sure what it is about. Perhaps you could contact @Bligoben for more info.

    Any primary Canadian classrooms looking 4 collab with international classrooms? Please see @Bligoben for possibilities.

    Comment by Sue Davis — July 2, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

  25. <<< I think preparing our kids only with the content of the subject without integrating the skills required to navigate the reality of the changing environment does them a disservice.

    Then I think we agree, Shelly. I’m not suggesting that the technology is irrelevant, but I do think I’m on solid ground in saying it’s of lesser importance that the content. Too often (to bring this full circle) I fear we focus on the technology and view the content as mere “stuff.” Your expertise with guitars allowed you to seemlessly transfer your knowledge to a new medium. Your expertise with a medium would not allow you to transfer your knowledge to guitars.

    Given that a technology has to be user-friendly to become ubiquitous (my words, but Stuart’s point), the learning curve on content is steeper than the learning curve for social media. I would argue as teachers we need to calibrate our teaching time accordingly.

    Comment by Robert Pondiscio — July 2, 2009 @ 8:04 pm

  26. It’s true that attention spans were never uniformly long, but that’s really beside the point, which is whether shifts in technology may cause attention spans to diminish. Do you really think that it has no effect for a kid to spend hours upon hours consuming information in bite-size chunks and rarely reading an actual book? Many things that are really worth knowing — whether world history or human anatomy or advanced physics — will demand that a student be able to pay attention to dense texts for long periods of time, along with memorizing quite a bit of what is printed there. There’s no way to learn those things by flitting around between 140-character posts and blog posts and Youtube videos and Facebook updates and all of new timewasters that people come up with.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — July 2, 2009 @ 9:56 pm

  27. @Robert

    “…the learning curve on content is steeper than the learning curve for social media. I would argue as teachers we need to calibrate our teaching time accordingly.”

    I think this is where our disagreement still lies.

    You seem to be suggesting that on the one hand you have content and on the other you have social media. And, because social media is ‘user friendly’, teachers should calibrate their attention to content.

    What I am saying is that social media should be fully integrated into the ‘process and event’ of what we call classtime. In other words, it’s not about taking a certain amount of time to ‘teach’ social media. It’s about modeling the use of social media through the act of and for the purpose of teaching content. And then the students engage with the content via the tool of social media.

    Though this discussion started concerning Twitter, and I gave an example of a simple but proven effective way of integrating Twitter into a lesson for the purpose of teaching online source evaluation, perhaps a better example of social media with profound implications for the classroom is Diigo.

    Diigo is a social bookmarking tool that allows users to save, highlight, comment on, and share knowledge and criticism directly onto text existing on the Web. Students therefore have the ability to read, say in my case, the first paragraph of the Gallic Wars in Latin (available online via Latin Library). Each student could then individually mark up the text with comments on grammar, vocab, proairetics, historical reference, etc. Once the students are finished, we can throw all of their work together and will have produced a completely collaborative annotated version of the text.

    How is this different from doing it on paper?

    Because that annotated version will then be seamlessly shared, merged, mashed, refigured, and distributed throughout all of the standard social media and Web 2.0 tools we use in class including Twitter and Google Apps, as well as specialty sites like Pixton and ThisMoment. Most importantly, the work and the student reflections on the work are kept in the students’ individual blogs which act as sort of a transparent notebook / digital portfolio. I encourage the students to exchange comments and create dialogues there just as you and I have done here, both within and without the physical classroom.

    The extensions of dialogue and consideration into the social media fabric produce something that is quite impossible within the constructs of a traditional paper classroom — namely an ongoing real-time 24/7 transparency of process between students and teacher which facilitated by a cool hand will result in greater individual engagement within the broader discussion as well as greater breadth of learning (meaning the old Classical ideal of horizontal learning) given individual approach, and whathaveyou, towards the subject matter and the discussion.

    I realize it is all too easy to just talk about this, which is why I really do invite you to take an active part in Twitter as well as other social and participatory media. Only you can see if it works for you. In addition, I plan to start Ustreaming courses in the fall.

    I stand by my conviction that it’s not enough to just write Twitter or whatever media off as a tool to be ‘used’ to teach something; rather, as I’m sure you have encountered in blogging, it becomes something of the daily fabric of life and more of a metaphor for a way of approaching the world. Engagement with social media in education and the full integration of social media within the learning environment promotes active participation in the very real ubiquitous media of culture in a way that behooves us as teachers to get beyond the old dualism between content and skills.

    - Shelly

    ps – I’d write more, but I feel like I’m taking up too much space here. Any further comments thoughts on this train of thought I’ll post over on teachpaperless.com . Always an exuberant discussion. Cheers.

    Comment by Shelly — July 2, 2009 @ 10:12 pm

  28. simple but proven effective way of integrating Twitter into a lesson for the purpose of teaching online source evaluation

    The problem for us outsiders is that your example seemed incredibly inefficient (either that or your students aren’t citing more than one or two sources). If each student has a list of 50 sources, I can’t comprehend how it would make sense for them to send out a collective 1,000 Twitters about the sources, as opposed to sending one mass email (for example) or perhaps creating a wiki. And in the example, it seems that Twitter is for some reason overshadowing the importance of actually knowing anything about the topic in question.

    Comment by Stuart Buck — July 3, 2009 @ 10:00 am

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