Technology Trends

Microblogging and Relevancy

Some college professors and campus services are using Twitter simply because it is a mode of direct communication with students that is reliable and fast. Those who use the technology to communicate directly with students note that they can receive responses in minutes rather than the hours it would take using e-mail or blogs. Additionally, this kind of technology is now being integrated into course management systems.

What It Is
Microblogging technology basically brings the concept of blogging into a more direct and immediate mode. The text involved, of course, has to be condensed, and the connection is by cell phone, which means it is constantly accessible to students with phones. As many current students use cell phones for all or almost all of their communication, this is an effective method to contact students immediately on any issue or information related to the class.

David Parry (2008), an assistant professor at the University of Dallas, cited an example of a class in which one half of the students used Twitter and one half did not. He observed that those students who did use the technology were more engaged and connected overall with the course and that he, as the instructor, knew more about the students' understanding and progress throughout the course than with those who did not use the technology. Parry did note that there is something of a challenge not to over-engage with students but did propose that being relevant with students is a very real challenge in his view of teaching. The more that instructor can and does use current communication tools like Twitter with students, Parry noted, the more students will regard the instructor as relevant. When instructors do not communicate with students using these kinds of tools, according to Parry, students will likely regard those instructors as irrelevant.

What It Does
Microblogging redefines synchronous communication in learning. While conventional distance education has explored the uses of chat tools in this regard for several years and particularly the benefits of synchronous communication over asynchronous communication in support of specific learning goals, this level of immediacy is faster-paced and more direct.

This communication is via a tool (cell phone) that is always "open" and ready for students to use, rather than the conventional login protocols of course management systems. Like a blog, it is sequential and can be responded to directly and, therefore, can remain in context. Additionally, the instructor can initiate the dialog and the information flow that can truly support the flow and interactions of a class group. As I have already pointed out in an article on blogging (2005), the concept of the online log (blog) is both individualized by each student and shared with the group. It is an individual learning space within the larger group. Microblogging retains the sense of an individualized presence within the community but increases the sense of accountability to everyone in the group and also to the instructor.

As an educator, I have found over the years that students respond well to instructors who are prepared and organized and who communicate clearly. An effective use of microblogging in an instructional setting requires the instructor to function at a high level in all three areas. An effective microblogging instructor must be prepared and organized so that he or she can offer the necessary information at precise moments of impact for the student. Additionally, having clear communication skills means that the instructor is able to "strip down" the verbiage to the very minimum in order to convey exactly what he or she means in a very short space of time.

The Importance of Communication
Students most often complain about the lack of relevant information in a course or that expectations were not clearly communicated to them in the first place. Now, as an educator, I am also aware that many times the reasons for this perception are that specific documents like a syllabus have gone unread or that course sites remain un-browsed or that students simply do not pay close enough attention to what is being said so that they can relate the information to required actions.

That being said, another reality is that instructors are often not perceived by students as being either representative of their needs and lives or understanding of their questions or mindset. While some of that may be misconceptions, some of it can be very real. There are generational differences that are always with us; however, with the increasing use of new technology, even larger gaps can occur between students and teachers. Those gaps can be a direct result of a lack of meaningful conversation and a refusal to learn and use the communication tools of the day.

I would venture to say that if a teacher does not spend time learning and using a communication tool for today's students, it could be argued that it is the same as refusing to learn the language of students whom you have been tasked to teach. While the latter is unthinkable for the teacher who really cares about his or her students, the former is often excused as being too difficult, too time-consuming, or even trivial in the face of "real" learning. Yet, if we are not connecting with our students in a meaningful and effective way, we cannot be surprised that they do not hear, see, or understand what they need to. We need to learn to communicate in a relevant way if we want students to respond and stay engaged throughout their learning experience.

Relevancy and Understanding
My educational background is in the area of second language teaching. Borrowed from that field of study is the notion or "comprehensible input." This theory by Krashen (1985) suggests that if effective language is to be learned and the meaning of the language is to be understood, the input of that language has to be relevant to the learner. In other words, if the instructor has a vacuous approach to language learning that insists on grammar only or using stylized phrases and sentences, the student may memorize their use but never understand fully either the language or its use and meaning in any given context. Similarly, in this discussion of using current communications tools with students, it could be argued that if information is not provided to students in a meaningful way, the students may or may not really grasp or understand the intention of the instructor.

The central idea here is relevancy.

Using relevant examples, relevant applications of learning, and relevant methods of delivery have been the front stage of educational debate for many years. What is also important about relevancy, however, is basic communication. People in general desire relevancy when listening to or interacting with any information. Students also will immediately be engaged and interested if course information, assignments, concept building actions, and so on are presented to them in a relevant manner. That is not to say that teachers who do not use microblogging technology cease to be relevant. But I do argue that integrating this newer kind of communication and connectivity into a class of students will encourage students to engage from the first moment in any course of study.

A further relevant outcome of the use of microblogging is that it increases the sense of ongoing learning for the students. Parry (2008) said that he has found that students who use microblogging truly are aware that there are no walls to the classroom and that what happens and is discussed within the class has direct and immediate relevancy outside the classroom. Therefore, students can be anywhere at anytime and faced with study information, dialog questions, or informational announcements that keep them connected to the class no matter what. Distance education has conventionally discussed the benefits of taking the learning outside the classroom with the use of online instructional tools. Microblogging has the potential of reaffirming and enhancing that benefit and keeping students always connected and always participating.

Points To Remember
It is important to think through a course of study and the instructional design of a course before deciding to integrate microblogging. The following is a suggested guide in the use of this technology:

  • Think through the learning outcomes of your course and decide how the use of microblogging can support one or two of these outcomes. To simply add this as a way to keep connected with students without using it to enhance the community of learning would diminish the potential of the technology in instruction.
  • Realize that not all students may have a cell phone. Therefore, make sure that all students have access to the same information and the same communication from you via an online class blog.
  • Think through where the lines of professionalism are, and do not use the tool to create "cliques" of students with whom you blog more or connect more or cross the line to the "in joke group" that only excludes other students. All students deserve to receive the same level of support from the instructor. Also, refrain from referring to your microblog notes in class when you already know that a certain percentage of your students do not participate.

While it is still too early to fully explore and understand the impact of this technology on instruction, it is not too early to integrate it into an instructional space. Many students already use the technology and will, therefore, engage with its use in the class. The important and key factor, however, is to keep the learning outcomes of the course as the foundation for all instructional design and content delivery methods, including the communication tools of the course. As students are aware of the connections with their learning, the tool becomes invisible, so to speak, and the learning remains central in their focus.

References

Chronicle of Higher Education--February 29, 2008
Jeffrey R. Young, "Forget E-Mail: New Messaging Service Has Students and Professors Atwitter". http://chronicle.com/weekly/v54/i25/25a01501.htm

David Parry, "Teaching with Twitter". http://chronicle.com/media/video/v54/i25/twitter/

Krashen, S. 1985. The Input Hypothesis: Issues and Implications. London: Longman.

Reynard, R. "Blogs in Higher Ed: Personal Voice as Part of Learning," Campus Technology, January 11, 2005, http://campustechnology.com/articles/38786/

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