Exploration and Critique of the Arguments in Support of Using Twitter for Learning (An Essay)

Tim Berners-Lee, while talking at the MIT Technology Review Emerging Technologies conference, recalled that, when he set out to develop the Web during 1990s, he envisioned a technology that could serve as ‘a collaborative medium, a place where we can all play; a place where can all meet, read and write’ (2004). Since the origination of the Mosaic Web browser in 1993 and the evolution of World Wide Web with the incremental features it gathered over the following years, which Tim O’Reilly cumulatively termed as Web 2.0 (Tim O’Reilly, 2005), Tim Berners-Lee’s vision of a collaborative medium became a reality. The Web has been ‘transformed from a static information medium to worldwide communication platform’ (Martin Ebner, Conrad Lienhardt, Matthias Rohs and Iris Meyer, 2010, pp. 92). The new affordances of Web that allowed users to contribute in ways of writing, posting photographs and videos, editing the existing information, building connections and making friends, etc, resulted in its rapid growth. For example, at the time of this writing, BlogPulse(2011) identified more than 154 million blogs, Facebook(2011) has more than 500 million active users, and Wikipedia(2011) is ebbing with 9.25 million articles in 250 languages. This growth in Web usage, the immediate dissemination of information, and manifold connections resulted in the so-called ‘network society’, a society whose social structure is made of networks powered by microelectronic-based information and communication technologies (Castells, M. 2004, pg. 4). The businesses took the advantage of these networked societies and went global, transforming the industrial economies into those based on knowledge and information. Eventually, this had direct and immediate impact on the purposes of education and the skills pupils need to thrive in the changing economy. On the other hand, not so co-incidentally but independent of the changing demands of the economy, years of research into existing educational practices and the theories that informed those practices resulted in an emergence of new ideologies like social-constructivism, communities of practice, cultural-historic activity theories, etc. These ‘constructive’ and ‘situative perspectives’, as Mayes and Freitas (2008, pp. 18-19) explain, proclaim that learning occurs at three levels of situatedness: first at social-anthropological level, second at a group level, and finally because of the relationships between individuals. At these three levels, undercurrent theme is that of social interaction and relationships and a belief that dialogue and activity are central to learning. To facilitate this situatedness and collaboration, learning professionals, specifically in e-Learning, are attempting to utilise the affordances Web 2.0 technologies, or in other words social software, provides.

On the other hand, empirical research also provided valuable insights. For example, Arthur W. Chickering and Zelda F. Gamson (1987), in their research into years of educational practices, list out seven principles for improving higher education to address the need for the following six forces in classroom training: Activity, Expectations, Cooperation, Interaction, Diversity, and Responsibility. These insights also indicated at the need for an active, situated, and collaborative learning experience. Moreover, the recent hubbub on imparting the so-called 21st century skills (AMA, 2010) to students along with the traditional 3R skills, for example creativity and innovation, communication and collaboration, critical thinking and problem-solving, etc. (4Cs), and the urges to make the learning more social (John Seely Brown and Richard P.Adler 2008), increased the pressure on educationists to look for the ways to cater to the needs of the changing learners, needs, and ideologies as illustrated above. Naturally, not only as most of the above mentioned changes were impacts of the digital technologies, but also because of the affordances the new technologies provide that cater to societal and individual aspects of learning, learning professionals, both in formal education and workplace learning, turned to the ICTs for the possible solutions of meeting the needs of the present day. One of the prominent technologies that are being experimented nowadays is Twitter.

With over 175 million registered users and almost 600 tweets (messages) per second, Twitter is the first and most successful microblogging Website offering social networking services (Twitter, 2011). Starting as a project at a San Francisco company, Twitter grew with a lightning speed. The growth in its registered users from Feb, 2008 to Feb, 2009 was a staggering 1382 % (McCarthy, 2009), and this exponential growth indicates at the popularity and the possible uses of this technology. Twitter is a multi-platform capable, part microblogging and part social-networking site (EDUCAUSE, 2007). Though Twitter shares most of the other social-networking sites’ features, as Tim O’Reilly and Sarah Milstein (2009) describe, it has some unique features. Firstly, messages or tweets are limited to 140 characters and they are public. Secondly, as messages are public, anybody can find anybody and can subscribe to or, in Twitter jargon, follow any other Twitterer’s stream of tweets. Thirdly, as mentioned above, Twitter can be accessed from any platform – including mobile phones, PCs, desktop clients, and other Websites – and tweets can be delivered in real-time. These features, Tim O’Reilly adds, can help in easy writing and reading and anytime anywhere access to information. Suzie Boss (2009) mentions that, as the profiles and tweets are public and that any Twitterer can find any other’s profile and check their interests, it helps in being connected to like-minded people. Thus it results in professional or social-network building (Drapeau, 2009). While most of these claims are true, Twitter might be daunting for new users because of its own jargon, mechanisms, and the need for the brevity of the tweet (Arceneaux and Weiss, 2010). However, it might take considerable time to understand the mechanisms and fully exploit the features such as retweeting and yet meeting the 140-character limit, grouping messages using hashtags (# symbol combined with a term common to similar tweets), addressing a particular Twitterer using @ symbol, sending direct, personal messages using the prefix d followed by the account name of the other Twitterer, and chatting with or gatherings of Twitterers as Tweetups. Yet, to mention Tim O’Reilly again, after some dedicated time, users will start realising the real value of Twitter, the ‘most important communications tool […] since e-mail’ (2009). The above mentioned features such as ubiquitousness, accessibility, affordances to professional networking, brevity of messages, ability to group pieces of information, and the collaborative and social activity surrounding these features invited educators to exploit Twitter to academic purposes.

As mentioned in the initial parts of this essay, to comply with the contemporary theoretical ideologies, changing nature of learners and their needs, and the changing nature of demographics of societies, educators attempted to incorporate the concepts like social presence using the traditional LMSs (Joanna C. Dunlap & Patrick R. Lowenthal, 2009). They state that using Twitter to bring in the social presence within their online instructional design course had considerable advantages, such as immediacy of the answers or feedback, access to professional help, bettered communication between students-students and students-faculty, information sharing, and personal connections among students. Apart from these societal advantages, they go on adding that, use of Twitter in their online class resulted in improving students’ writing skills, in terms of conciseness and writing for an audience, connecting with communities of practice, and maintaining relationships. However, most of these advantages, it might seem, can be facilitated by any other social networking sites. The advantage Twitter has over other social-networking tools, to generalise, is the affordance to follow any one without the consent of the one being followed. Still, the claim that Twitter increases writing ability cannot be completely true as the necessity being cryptic might lead to unconventional, abbreviated language. Moreover, the questions arise as to how formal writing skills, such as essay writing skills, are honed with the use of Twitter. While it appears the (traditional) discussion forums in LMSs are better at simultaneous reflection and improved academic writing skills, the only affordance of quick access and personal connectivity will not justify that Twitter is better for improving writing and cognitive skills such as consciousness and reflection.

Prof. Gráinne Conole and Dr. Panagiota Alevizou (2010), in their literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in higher education enlist the reported academic uses of Twitter. They say Twitter is used as a:
• ‘broadcast medium’ (helping in sharing opinions, distributing information, promoting the self, maintaining relations, and marketing)
• back channel
• crowd-source of news and evidence
• ‘mechanism for surveying and gathering opinions’

Ramsden, A. (2009) presents two scenarios, and in turn two academic applications of Twitter, that can support some of the uses of Twitter as mentioned by Conole and Alevizou (listed above). In the first scenario, Ramsden summarises how Dr. Sabah Abdullah, while lecturing Economics, used Twitter to send links to relevant online articles and news to supplement the existing reading list. While this task of dissemination of relevant information can be done using the VLEs or e-mails, Ramsden says that Twitter helps in reducing the number of steps to be taken in that process and in quicker dissemination. This use of Twitter as a broadcast medium does have advantages in terms of quicker sharing of views, news, and resources, but as the mechanism to retrieving this important, useful information is very limited in Twitter. Twitter’s search is limited only to a week’s tweets (precisely 1500-tweets and 7-days old). To save the information for a longer usage, one has to resort to other tools such as Searchtastic, SnapBird, Topsy, etc. This can negate the advantage that Twitter helps in reducing the number of steps in dissipation of information.
In the second scenario, Ramsden proposes using Twitter as a back channel, a form of informal conversation among students during or after a lecture or a seminar. He mentions that this form of usage of Twitter, updating statuses and sending tweets with their thoughts on the lecture, helps students participate more, teachers in finding patterns in student understanding, etc. These tweet-based conversations, he suggests, can then also be used to inform the curriculum design. But, as mentioned earlier, the short-life of tweets poses danger to any wish to using information for a longer time. Moreover, idea of tweeting (which is driven by the impetus to share) and not note-making (which helps in self-reflection and recall) can result in loss of critical reflection on the lecture or the talk and the urge to tweet and follow what others are stating does negatively affect the concentration the student requires. However, instead of using Twitter more directly and not as a back channel can help in increased student participation and conversations (Dr. Rankin, 2009).

Java, Song, Finin, & Tseng, 2007, while talking about Microblogging in general, and Twitter n particular, mentioned that they can be used for:
• Information seeking
• Information sharing
• Friendship-wide relationships

Aspden and Thrope (2009) interviewed 15 students to study their twitter usage for informal learning experiences and data collection. Usage of Twitter, they mention, helped students in acknowledging the informal learning opportunities, building consciousness around their utilisation of time, and making these learning experiences public, etc. On the other hand, researchers like Ebner, M, et al (2010) discuss the importance of process-oriented learning and the contribution of microblogging sites such as Twitter. They say that in process-oriented learning, the emphasis is on the matter of learner’s own attitude and the opinions of others. This view of process-oriented learning means the teacher should be a facilitator rather than didactic, providing valid information to the students and helping them with proper environment while structuring the learning activities quite loosely. They add that the teachers should provide chances for open communication that allow free-flow of information among students, anytime anywhere. They conclude that microblogging sites can support the aforementioned learning conditions for process-oriented learning. They also say it helps in building informal learning environments also.

While there is no clear cut definition for informal learning, it is accepted that most forms of learning are mixtures of formal and informal learning. According to this understanding, informal learning can also take place in education institutions, when motivation is focused on solving (real-time) problems with little pedagogical guidance. So, one of the major components of informal learning is that learners’ motivation devoid of any teacher participation. When there is formal learning, learners are motivated but most of the influence is from the teacher. In informal settings, learners are motivated to solve the problem and are mostly unaware of the fact that they are learning. They are actually solving a problem. Learning is undercurrent. Where as in formal settings, the concentration is distributed on learning outcomes and the process (questions like how we are learning, who is teaching, what are the resources, how we are proceeding/forwarding, etc.) Social networking sites help in building the necessary connections and seek information on solving problems real-time. Here, advantages of microblogging over other social networking sites are its increased easiness in access and contribution to information exchange. The short and to-the-topic information can be published from any medium and it can pop-up in any other social media application. The numerous widgets available over the internet allow clipping any important information, passing on any hyperlink, and it can help in categorization of information. So, all in all, twittering is a sort of weblog, bookmarking, facebook, all combined into one, though not fully, mostly with immediate access to information from anywhere anytime. However, on the flip side, information seeking especially is limited to followers. Though in search results one might stumble upon a certain query and might be willing to share their bit of knowledge, it is serendipitous.

Another form of informal learning that happens over Twitter is chatting. Basing on a dedicated hash tag and at an agreed-upon time, like-minded Twitterers get together and start pouring in their ideas through their tweets. They retweet so that updates reach out to larger groups of people beyond followers. Some of the popular chats on Twitter are #journchat, #litchat, #educhat, #learnchat, etc. These chats help transforming microblogging to a real-time chat room with multiple users and hundreds of tweets. Whereas IM may limit to communication between two people, microblogging can help communication among many, and as mentioned, retweeting allows spreading the information beyond follower boundaries. However, there are still the risks of spammers and information overflow. Nevertheless, Twitter does facilitate for informal learning.

Despite the above discussion on possible educational advantages of Twitter and their flip sides, further questions and concerns surrounding its use in formal education still remain. As mentioned above, twittering during a formal class can distract the students. A more constructive way of using these sorts of communication technologies for discussion on classes or seminars will be to use them after the class and only after critically reflecting upon what is being told. Moreover, the time it might take to get used to tweet, urges to sounding interesting in order to gain the attentions of the followers, the word limit, lack of educational value of some of the trivial status updates, lack of privacy, possible addition to tweeting, and various other things cast shadow on Twitter’s usage for rich, critical educational practices. The recent Pew Internet research (2010, pp 3) clears out most of the questions where it says, “Teens are not using Twitter in large numbers. While teens are bigger users of almost all other online applications, Twitter is an exception.” The report says that only 8% of the internet users of aged 12 to 17 use Twitter. This is a very low number to consider a formal application of Twitter in secondary and higher-secondary classroom. Couple of other questions this factual insight brings up are whether all the students who do use Twitter would want to use it for academic purposes and what alternate technologies the students without computer or laptop access in the formal education settings can use to facilitate tweet discussions. Still, there is no empirical evidence that using social networks are better than the existing and tested VLEs.

At workplace also, with similar advantages in bridging connection among workforce and providing affordances to informal learning in terms of following like-minded, more experienced people, Twitter has further constraints. One of the several problems using Twitter in business is that of security (Zhao, D., Rosson M, 2009). Confidential organisational information can be mistakenly shared outside the company’s firewall. Moreover, as people tweet their personal and professional insights in one single account, the mix of tweets surely results in much annoyance for some of the followers and unnecessary information overflow. To avoid these glitches, and to exploit the uses microblogging allows, companies are now resorting to fire-walled social-networking sites like Yammer (e-Learning Weekly, 2009). The Faculty Focus (2010), in their second editing, surveyed nearly 1,400 higher education professionals on their use of Twitter. Out of the 1,372 respondents, only 35.2% used Twitter and the remaining percentage of professionals ether never used it or stopped using it after giving the application a try. When these professionals were asked to predict the trends for the coming academic year, just above the half percent (56.8%) of people mentioned Twitter’s use in education will grow, where as the rest of the group either maintained that it will stay as is or the usage will decrease. Though the survey highlights that the adaption rate of Twitter has increased from yester year, the present trend shows a clear divide between the usages of Twitter. On the other hand, Twitter topped the 100 Tools for Learning list that Jane Hart compiled after 545 responses to her survey (Jane Hart, 2010). Twitter maintained its first position from previous year. However, these surveys hint us towards a disparity in the academicians’ usage of Twitter. The point here is that, along with factors like student motivation, accessibility, and other issues, it is also important that attitudes of teachers also should favour the use of Twitter in formal education.

In this ‘networked information economy’ (Benkler, Y, 2008), it has become evident that everyone has to be a continuous learner, learning from day-to-day situations, learning from friends and experts and practices. While Twitter certainly facilitates these connections and provides affordances to share knowledge easily, its adaption into formal education needs to be, on the grounds of strong, multi-faceted empirical research, cautiously implemented.


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