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Teaching Twitter

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.

Teaching Twitter

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 class.

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 they're doing.

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 really need.

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 benefits?
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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