There were two remarkable events generated in the Twitterverse in the last few years. The first is #BloomsdayBurst, the live tweeting of James Joyce’s Ulysses on Bloomsday (June 16) 2011. The second, more recently, is #Beow100, the efforts of a Stanford medievalist, Elaine Treharne, compressing Beowulf into 100 tweets for her course on the various manifestations of the work. The remarkable outputs of both #BloomsdayBurst and #Beow100 offer insight into Twitter’s potential as an educational technology – far, far beyond the view that even the most Twitter-philic teachers have of it as a “cool” way to communicate with students.
#BloomsdayBurst is an event. Live and crowd-sourced, Joyce fans around the world could follow the action – sorry, “action” – of Ulysses as it happened. As an aside, Ulysses takes place on a single day, June 16th, 1904, the day that James Joyce met his future wife, Nora Barnacle. Given Ulysses’ status as a modern epic, that one day has taken on understandably mythic proportions for literature fans. For #BloomsdayBurst, countless Joyce scholars threw their minds at chronologizing the individual actions across multiple stories in the narrative. Those who signed up to participate knew what to tweet and when, and every other fan was able to watch the story unfold in real time.
#Beow100 was simpler to coordinate – Treharne took the time to summarize the oldest extant work in the English language into 14,000 or fewer characters. Beowulf has 3,182 lines, so this must have been quite the task. I’m not sure entirely how it was shared with her class, but regardless of whether it was an event activity or not, it offers an amazing opportunity for Treharne’s students to learn.
Twitter is medium-shifting. It is intertextual even while breaking down textual boundaries. But on top of that, it is participatory and real-time. Twitter is likely the most-underutilized EdTech tool currently available.
First, Twitter is reductionist. The constraints of microblogging challenge you to break down your thoughts into their barest essentials and reproduce them in a publicly consumable format. Twitter shifts students into a different medium and as a result, it forces them to pay attention to the message, not just the medium. The 140-character constraint is makes for such an extreme shift in medium (relative to simply having summary essays), it’s almost like asking students to write a piano sonata about a work. Every précis we’ve ever had to write in school, every summary, even the first sentences of the classic five-paragraph-essay assignment share this purpose. But while précis and essays encourage students to become writers, Twitter encourages students to become poets. Sure, some students will turn this into a Wikipedia exercise. Give them a day to craft a 140-character summary of a chapter and they’ll take a minute to spit something out. But give them 30 minutes in class, or spend 5 minutes pushing them hard on word choice, and there’s potential for brilliance. If even one student becomes captivated by the potential for the English language to become shackles or wings, this exercise will have been entirely worth it.
Second, Twitter is participatory. This is one of the most exciting elements that Twitter provides. Hashtags (like #Beow100 or #BloomsdayBurst) allow for constructed communities in the swirling vortex of the Twitterverse. Imagine an assignment where kids get to tweet the events of a story similar to #BloomsdayBurst. They sit at their computer screens watching their fellow students express narratives in ways that they themselves would never have thought. They get to understand how other people read books like the Great Gastby and what resonated with them. It’s a great psychological exercise that helps them see why canonical works are classics – they mean something different to everyone. Twitter lets you break down school walls and bring the social element of the classroom to students at home. While homework forces kids to think about your subject, participatory communities like Twitter (or Edmodo discussion boards or group projects) allow students to think about your subject but with the added encouragement of group learning involved.
Lastly, Twitter is experiential. It’s real-time nature, the constant live updates, and even something simple as having students hit CTRL+R to refresh a page engages students more than traditional homework assignments. With the Gatsby example above, even though everyone has his/her assigned chapters or characters prepared in advance, without any interaction with peers, the experience becomes impossibly suspenseful. We all know the story, but we have no idea how our classmates read it or how they would choose to express it. By confining students not just to the medium (140-characters) but also to the timeframe with real-time participation and updating, you add another level of critical thinking that makes the learning experience still more engaging.
Obviously, Twitter is great for microblogging. Twitter facilitates communication. It has replaced every other form of news consumption I have. What I haven’t seen EdTech enthusiasts reference with Twitter is how it can be used to encourage learning and how it creates enthusiasm for a subject matter. A podcast I follow – Girls in Hoodies – recently discussed a uniquely “now” phenomenon that we are privileged to experience, namely following celebrity feuds in real time. John Mayer and Perez Hilton sniping at each other through Twitter became something the entire world could literally sit in on. People grew closer to celebrity personalities (or drew farther away from them) based on unfiltered, live interactions they have. That can be appropriated by teachers to make the learning experience equally engrossing.
Twitter should be about more than just communicating schedules to and collecting homework assignments from students. Twitter can be participatory, experiential, and challenging all at the same time – and that makes it a perfect tool for the classroom. For other EdTech products like Edmodo or Canvas (or D2L or even Facebook), I encourage you to explore building in this sort of functionality into your own platforms.