Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Twitter: in learning less is more

In the psychology of learning ‘less is more’. The learning industry, education and training, is plagued by overlong manuals, powerpoints, papers, books, talks and lectures. Cognitive overload is the norm, forgetting and failure the consequence. This, I suspect, is why twitter is so damn popular. It’s short and sweet.
If the internet has taught learning professionals anything, it’s the fact that most of what we do is unnaturally long-winded. In all media, the internet has acted like a massive experiment, where real people have shown their preference for information in shorter pieces. Why - because that’s how real human communication and learning works. If you sat down next to someone in a plane, asked them a question, and they replied with a 50 minute lecture, no matter how knowledgeable they were, you’d want to strangle them. So the internet has spawned media such as Twitter, Facebook, Blogs, Wikis and YouTube, all of which have brevity as a virtue. And none are as brief as Twitter.
Who would have thought?
Who would have predicted the rise of a social networking site based on short 140 character posts? People were, and many still are, baffled by the success and popularity of Twitter. Yet it was really a confluence of two already successful technologies, txting and posting on social media. It combined 160 character txting (shaving 20 characters off) with the continuous posting flow of social networking (followers as friends). You follow people you respect and they follow you. More promiscuous than Facebook or blogging, it’s like having lots of small encounters with people from all over the country or world on a daily basis. So what use is it in learning?
Twitter and learning
Twitter can be used at a number of levels in learning; personal, at events, within formal classes/courses and inside organisations. Its use as a networking and knowledge sharing tool for learning professionals is clear, as is its virtual expansion of events such as conferences, where the backchannel enhances the event for attendees and non-attendees. However, it is not at all clear that it is useful as a structured learning tool in schools and classrooms, where the effort taken to plan and execute Twitter-based learning experiences are often forced, a little artificial even shallow. However, even here, it is early days and things may emerge that prove useful.
Twitter and professional network
As Twitter use has exploded so has its adoption by academics and experts in all sorts of fields. Following experts gives you all sorts of useful ideas and links for research and assignments. In this context, tweets often have links to deeper content that allow you to connect things and deepen your knowledge and exploration. These links often lead to blog posts, articles, papers and events. It is often forgotten that twitter signposts up and coming events in the real world. Sometimes they signpost conferences, lectures, talks that are happening at that moment. Indeed, most tweets from learning professionals point towards something interesting they’ve found. In this sense, Twitter is like a recommendation engine, supplying you with contemporary ideas on your subject or profession.
Twitter as backchannel
At a major educational conference I attended in Doha, Qatar, a huge slide went up asking all delegates to switch off their mobile devices. We took a photo of the slide and tweeted it (tweetpic), saying “don’t be stupid, the sign should say the opposite”. The next day the chair confirmed that we were right. A Twitter backchannel is a virtual extension of a real event and allows participants, both at the event and beyond, to observe, communicate and share ideas. It greatly enhances the event and can be fed back into the live event, either on a screen or as questions for speakers, discussion etc.
A hashtag (#) is a collective link that collects tweets around a specific event. Many find it useful to tune into a hashtag to get the gist of a talk, key concepts, quotes and comments, without having to attend the conference. Tweeting pictures can also be useful, especially key or summary slides in presentations. Given the 140 character restriction, this is a way to get more detailed information across. We all know that talks and lectures are padded out, so this can be a useful way of getting the crystalised thoughts of the speaker.
Beyond this many tweet points of agreement and disagreement, so that critical thought and discussion becomes part of the experience. This can develop into short dialogue using Reply function). Hashtags can also be used for questions to speakers, lecturers and teachers. I’ve answered tweeted questions during, at the end and after talks. This widens the opportunity for questions to those beyond the room, as well as allowing more introverted attendees to ask questions. Some make such Tweets visible on a big screen which encourages self-moderation and gets the debate out on the floor.
So, going back to my Doha example, announce your hashtag at the start of a conference or event (It is amazing how rare this is) or several may arise, causing confusion. Then encourage tweeting. They are honest and provide a blow-by-blow account of the event. People also Tweet at the end of a conference which is also useful. So why not harvest these instead or as a useful, evaluative supplement or replacement to your happy sheets. My guess is that the tweets would be far more detailed and useful.
Twitter & courses/classes
Lots of teachers/lecturers/trainers have used Twitter to enthuse learners. Some, have students Tweet as characters, fictional and historic. The discipline of 140 characters teaches you to construct concise and sharp sentences. In language learning Tweeting short sentences can get students going in the actual use of a language. Following famous people who Tweet in the language you’re learning gives you a steady stream of relevant and realistic comments to try to translate. Or you can follow people directly and tweet in your target language. Pass the Tweet is a creative game where one person comes up with the title, the next the opening sentence and so on around the class, good fun, highly creative and a great writing task. You can go one step further and set up an account for your class. I’ve also seen teachers open up their class to outside Tweeters, by inviting tweets from the outside. Twitter chats are pre-defined periods where a question is posed and the contributors tweet answers in reply. This can be used to connect students within a class, across different classes, schools, even countries. Trips are always more interesting when photographs and comments are made along the way. So, on trips to museums, art galleries and especially journeys and field trips, encourage tweeting from mobiles.
Twitter & workplace learning
Whether it’s a project, initiative, launch or change management problem,  lots of organisational activities will benefit from being tweeted, if only to keep people informed but also for inviting suggestions and feedback. 
https://www.yammer.com/ is a Twitter clone that you can use privately, within a company or organisation to access experts, ask questions, organise events, poll or private message. Benefits reported a dramatic reduction in email and increased productivity.
One could also argue, that it’s often introduced as a bit of a gimmick and wastes more time than it saves. Twitter’s strength is its almost organic growth and use. As soon as it starts to be used in a formal classroom or training context it can seem a little forced or fake. Its strength is as an informal personal learning tool or as a backchannel at events. As a formal learning tool it’s unproven.
Twitter can also be a distraction among learners leading to rude tweckling (heckling using Twitter) and inattention. Your Twitter stream can be flooded with automated feeds from your other social media. You also have the problem of inclusion, namely two groups, one Tweeting, the other having no idea what’s happening on Twitter. It can also be more impressionistic and less coherent, than say a blog post about a talk or conference, with poor searchability.
Twitter has been boosted by the rise in mobile, social networking. This has taken it into cafes, onto trains and into conferences, lectures and classrooms. At first sight, Twitter seems an unpromising candidate for learning. Yet once we grasp its fit with the psychology of learning, its multiplicity of uses and popularity, it seems entirely relevant, as long as we don’t force it into inappropriate formal contexts.


Unknown said...

Well done Donald. In the end Twitter is a tool and when used thoughtfully can be quite impactful. This takes discipline. Similarly, PowerPoint is another tool, again impactful when used thoughtfully, draining when not. For all it's formal applications though I find Twitter to be the epitome of Social-Informal Learning; a tool for getting just what you need, when you need it with opportunity to go deeper if one so desires

Steve Wheeler said...

Thanks for this Donald. It's a useful summary of some of the most useful applications of Twitter. For me one of the most useful aspects is being able to filter out much of what I don't need and following only those people/hashtags that interest me. It does indeed save a lot of time and effort in the long run. See you soon I hope.

Anonymous said...

When you really think about what you need to know to achieve a task it generally distills down into a few key elements. Learning design has traditionally meant adding a lot of padding that we think is needed when in fact it is not. Simplicity is the key to retention and building capability. Twitter forces simplicity - a perfect medium. I look forward to using it in my future training design.

Deepak said...

Thanks for this Donald. It's a useful summary of some of the most useful applications of Twitter. For me one of the most useful aspects is being able to filter out much of what I don't need and following only those people/hashtags that interest me. It does indeed save a lot of time and effort in the long run. See you soon I hope|Thanks for the Donald. It's a useful overview of the most useful applications of Twitter. For me personally the very most useful aspects is able to filter away much of precisely what I don't require and also following only those people/hashtags that interest me. It can indeed conserve a significant time and effort in the long term. See you soon I hope. .