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    Commentary – Twitter

    Discussion of the Tools: Twitter

    A potentially useful new software tool in higher education is Twitter (www.twitter.com).  Twitter is a micro-blogging tool, a low threshold cross between chat and blogging, which allows users to broadcast “tweets,” messages limited to 140 characters, to a network of colleagues or friends defined by the user.  Twitter also maintains a transcript of all communications.

    Twitter is hard to explain well.  It seems trivial, but it is not.  The idea is that you can periodically broadcast brief statements about ‘what you are doing.’  Twitter is commonly understood to broadcast your messages to the world.  That is the default, but the tool is more useful to communicate with specific groups of friends, colleagues or students.  Let me describe some uses.

    It is increasingly common at presentations during IT conferences to hold backchannel conversations using twitter with colleagues to discuss elements of the presentation as it is being given.  The colleagues may be in the same session, but sometimes they are in concurrent ones.  Other times the colleagues are not attending the conference at all, but they are following along the conversation nonetheless.

    Students often hold backchannel conversations using some chat tool during class sessions.  With twitter it is possible to host a common class backchannel so that all participants can follow along.

    In my principles classes over the last year, I’ve used twitter as the medium for ‘minute papers’.  I ask students to send a weekly message identifying any topics discussed which they don’t fully understand.  If they understand all the topics, I ask them to tweet that.  I give students credit for their weekly submissions.  Since the submissions are limited to 140 characters, it is relatively easy to process them all on a timely basis.  This has proven to be an excellent way to identify common problems, topics which need to be revisited, and in general to stay in touch with my students’ learning.

    I am increasing convinced that Twitter has the potential to create ‘ambient awareness’, that sense of connection that occurs in a good (face-to-face) seminar experience, in online courses.

    In a broader context, I have found twitter a compelling way to stay in close touch with colleagues widely geographically separated.  (My group includes individuals as far away as Arizona, Vermont, British Columbia, and the UK.)   Twitter creates a level of consciousness between colleagues that is hard to overstate, all at very low cost in terms of time, effort or money.

    My blog post, “Using twitter to support teaching and learning” http://pedablogy.stevegreenlaw.org/?p=578

    For more on academic uses of twitter, see http://b2e.nitle.org/index.php/2009/01/06/using_twitter_in_higher_education

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