- By Linda L. Briggs
David Parry, assistant professor of emerging media at The University of
Texas at Dallas, insists that Twitter can be a valuable academic tool.
The following article, "Micro Blogging with Twitter", appeared on
our website on March 5, 2008.
ACADEMICDAVE, aka The University of Texas/ David Parry, uses Twitter to take his
students’ learning beyond the four walls of the classroom.
TWITTER is a software tool that allows
users to continually post (or "tweet") very short text messages
to the web from computers or mobile phones.
These quick public messages simply describe what a user
is currently doing or thinking. Twitter's appeal has mushroomed,
making it a much-discussed new technology, and
highly popular with 18- to 25-year-old users.
Depending on your point of view, Twitter is either a cool
new way to connect, or yet more online noise. But Twitter as
an academic tool? In this interview, we talk with David Parry,
assistant professor of emerging media at The University of
Texas at Dallas, who has blogged about using Twitter in
CT: I've registered with Twitter and poked around a bit,
and it's fun, but I'm not sure I see the academic value.
Parry: I'll say two things about Twitter in academia. One,
its uses in academia parallel its uses in the business
world. It's a networking, water-cooler-talk kind of environment
where you don't see people every day,
but you feel connected because you get updates
on what they are doing in their lives every day.
Also, it's a mixture of the insightful plus the mundane.
So students will send me "I am looking for
rain boots" or "I am going to meet someone at a
coffee shop to pick up something that I just
bought on Craigslist," along with the insightful,
where they'll say something like, "Oh, I saw this
news item on TV that relates to what we talked
about in class."
Do you find that students really are posting
some insightful things?
Yes. Students use Twitter as a way to talk about
their classes. Often, the chatter will turn to talking
about schoolwork, because that forms so
much of what students' lives are about. But
also, it gives me a sense-- and I think it gives
the students a sense-- of what a person is like
outside of the classroom. Knowing that substantially
changes the dynamics of what goes on
inside the classroom. I think people end up
being a lot more comfortable with classroom
discourse, and they get a sense that the instructor
isn't just someone who comes in and talks
for an hour-and-a-half twice a week. It has the
very positive effect of altering the classroom state-- to not be contained by the four walls, or contained
by meeting just twice a week.
So students get to know you better, and they get to
know each other better outside the classroom?
Yes, but Twitter isn't some sort of kum-ba-ya, touchie-feelie
thing. It's hard to describe without doing it, but you get
this sort of sixth sense that there are other people out
there in the world to whom you are connected, who are
doing things all the time. And you get a sense of what
Following my grad students, for example: When I see
them on Monday, I don't feel like I'm just seeing them on
Monday. I have a sense of what they've been doing
between class times. That's when Twitter becomes really
valuable, and when you start to see its most significant
value: when you're following people who you know, but
don't see enough to build the close relationship you
What has student reaction been to your use of Twitter?
As a caveat, I should say that I teach in a program called
Arts and Technology, so the students I'm dealing with are
not only tech-savvy, but they're really smart. Of all the
things I did during the fall when I introduced Twitter--
including blogs, Wikipedia, a whole range of new technologies--
Twitter was by far the class favorite. It was most
often mentioned on course evaluations, and it's also the
one that stuck the most. Out of a class of 20, there are five
who still use Twitter heavily, and five who occasionally use
it-- so we're talking 50 percent who still use it. In that
sense, it was well received by students. Also, one of the
things I was trying to teach in that class was that it's not
about the nodes in the network; it's about the connections
you can form between pieces of information. So a single
blog post doesn't do you any good; it's the blog post connected to another blog post that creates the network.
What kinds of reactions did you get to your blog about
ways to use Twitter academically?
A lot of people built on my post in terms of, "Oh, here are
some things you haven't thought of." People came up with
some interesting uses, in particular about teaching large
lecture classes, which I've never taught. And some were
skeptical and critical: "I don't want to keep up with what my
students are doing when class is over...." So I respond: Well
then, don't. But for me it's an effective teaching tool that
can change the rules of the classroom. So I'm going to continue
to use it.
Twitter gives students a sense of what a person is like
outside of the classroom. Knowing that substantially
changes the dynamics of what goes on inside the classroom.
What are some of the ways that you've found Twitter to
be useful in the classroom, and what are some of the
The biggest benefit is the one I've already mentioned:
the way it changes classroom dynamics. The second would
be the way that it can serve both as a means of analysis and
an object of analysis, especially in a media studies type of
class. The third most interesting way to use Twitter may be
this: We're always trying to teach students, especially in
their writing, that context determines meaning. And
because Twitter has very refined rules about what you can
do-- posts of only 140 characters, for example -- it's developed
its own sort of discursive grammar set. That can serve
as an example of how rules can be productive for communication
and also can limit communication.
As Twitter gains ground, do you think we'll be seeing
more Twitter participants with some real substance?
"Newmediajim" is one of the people I tell students to follow
first in Twitter. He's a cameraman for NBC, who often
gets to work wherever President Bush is traveling. He's a
marquee example of how mixing the mundane with the
relevant gives people more insight into what's really
going on. I have a much clearer picture, from following
him, of what it means to be on Air Force One and create
a shot; of camera pools and all this other journalistic stuff.
You get a sense of him as a whole person.
The same cycle that we saw with blogs, where at first
they were just personal live journals with no social value,
we've seen in Twitter. But now the tech community is figuring
out how to do other interesting things with this different
form of communication.
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