Monday, February 13, 2012

Why Twitter--as an Instructional Technology?

Asked to give a presentation on instructional technology recently, I chose Twitter as my test case. I chose to talk about Twitter to make a few points. 

And using Twitter to talk about Twitter seemed to underscore my points--so that approach seemed good.

My general point was: the tool or technology does not matter; the goal matters. Any tool can be plugged into the teaching and learning process: almost any.

Does anyone really believe there was something magical about slate and chalk? Or pencils? No. These were convenient. The former were re-usable. The latter were long-lasting and could also be erased. Why use an overhead projector and marker rather than a chalkboard and chalk? You can re-use your 'overheads,' as people called them.

The tool doesn't make learning happen: the people do--the people and the design of the learning process.

second point in tweeting about Twitter was to explore the tool or platform itself.

One of the most important things students can get from their education today is:  platform-flexibility or tool-flexibility.

Back when I taught face-to-face--I now support others' face-to-face teaching and only myself teach online--I taught a course which involved an interesting exercise. Students experimented writing in different genres or formats. Students wrote in the style of: a software manual, a children's book, a movie review, etc. They chose the genres.

The course topic was non-academic writing about television: books like Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television.  So one of the course questions was: 
  • How does the mode, style or genre of writing relate to what's being said? 
  • What can one say (or not say) about television (for instance) in the genre of advertising copy about cigarettes, as opposed to say, a cooking recipe?
One student from this course now manages social media campaigns--especially on Twitter. Twitter did not exist when he was in college. Another one of these students is now a journalist and photographer. There were no photography courses in our 'digital media' program.

The point is: college graduates are not learning software tools. Our liberal arts training is not primarily technical: it's not about tools. Likewise, when I was a college student, we did not spend any time in our writing courses discussing different models of typewriters or fountain pens. College graduates are learning (among other things): how to write on different platforms, to use different tools  for communicative, strategic, expressive, aesthetic and other purposes.

There will always be new tools. The question is how to use them effectively. If you know how to do that, the tools cease to matter--except as you can exploit them.

--Edward R. O'Neill


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