A Quick Take On Twitter As A Learning Tool

Can Twitter be used as a learning tool, in conjunction with — or independent of — the classroom? Rather, as David Parry says, the better question would be: “Is there a type of communication I want students to practice more, and can Twitter help me accomplish this goal?” The question is interesting because there is no obvious reason for the phenomenal popularity of microblogging. Who could have guessed that a 140-character combination of links and words, broadcast at will and read at random, would become a preferred communication medium?

The character limit does enforce an economy of thought and word, but otherwise — in the context of learning — there's nothing obviously attractive about the microblogging format.

One significant way in which Twitter can work towards learning is by getting people to join a conversation. The format and medium can generate and sustain a dialogue, between like-minded people who are interested in the same or similar things at a given time. Imagine students taking a professor’s course, encouraged (or even required) to use Twitter — for such things as agreeing upon questions before a class meeting, discussing what was most interesting about a topic or lecture, and sharing interesting links to further reading about a topic.

But such examples of the “conversations” that Twitter facilitates need a context. With no specific context, Twitter has the extraordinary ability to mislead. 

As John Ridley says in a much-criticised post on NPR.org, Twitter can be a free-for-all. We all know about the volume of potentially useless information that rides the Twitter wave masquerading as substance. That apart, consider two problems with the Twitter format and the microverse it creates:

  • It does not, in general, take much thought to create a tweet. Combine this with the more-common-than-not desire for popularity, and you have a recipe for anti-learning.
  • Along with focus, following the right persons is key to getting something useful out of Twitter. But “the right persons to follow” very easily becomes “the people I want to follow.” This is similar to the closed-universe situation on Facebook: One sees the people, ideas, and interests they have always been seeing.

Twitter is a tool and a communication platform. Any tool brings along its baggage: It has the potential to modify behaviours and needs that seem unrelated to the tool; the more powerful the tool is, the more true this is.

At first glance, microblogging appears to be a potent tool for social and informal learning. But without an authority to give a Twitter conversation a context, it can easily slip into inanity.