Blogger. Jaiku. Plurk. Tumblr. Twitter. Wiki. Yammer. What do these terms have in common, besides being near-nonsensical one- or two-syllable words of questionable spelling? As you likely know, each is the name of a different type of social media. Such media are proliferating in our time. Our relationships to social media range from the happily addicted to the warily apprehensive to the harshest of critics. Umair Hague, for example, recently wrote in the Harvard Business Review that social media have led to relationship inflation (and thus debasement), disempowerment, and exclusion (Hague, 2010). Zachary Cohen, in his own blog, wrote of the mixed bag that social media comprise:
One of my biggest fears about social media is that it will become what so many other transformational technologies and cultural forces has become: an exemplar of the lowest common denominator in our society. And I fear this because I believe, to this day, and as I have for several years now, that social media is one of the most powerful “things” to happen to, and in, our society. I believe it is a democratizing force. And therein lies the rub, because as you democratize anything, a society, a company, the quality and character of whatever it is that is being democratized diminishes. At least initially. (Cohen, 2010)
I too initially viewed social media with a skeptical eye. In blogging you can at least use complete sentences. But I dislike Facebook for much more than touching base with an occasional “friend from the past.” Microblogging seemed even more ridiculous to me: language cut down to such bite-sized pieces that no true meaning could be shared. The English teacher in me revolted.
Then I got hooked on Twitter. Becky Ellis, a colleague at the Open High School of Utah, suggested that it was a phenomenal tool for personal development. Indeed it is. And I decided to take it into the high school classroom (online high school classroom, that is).
First I had my students “tweet” on symbols they each were following in Lord of the Flies. For example, “p. 21. Conch used to call assembly. Represents community, unity?” That was enough segue for at least some of the students to continue to share their thoughts about the literature we were reading via Twitter. We already shared very detailed posts with each other in a BrainHoney discussion board each week. But Twitter allowed them to quickly share immediate thoughts. As we read “The Lottery,” students reacted on Twitter with an emotional force that died out by the time our discussion moved to the formal discussion board. Now, even as I write this, some of my former students are remembering our “convos” about Lord of the Flies:
We literally attacked twitter with symbols and irony! Ahh good times =D
I decided to try using Twitter when I taught History 201 (World Civilization to 1500 AD) at Brigham Young University last summer. The first student to post to Twitter after I explained that we would be using it for our class enthused:
College class with twitter? Yes – History 201 at BYU.
In “#hist201” we used Twitter to extend the conversations we had been having face-to-face, and to share links and videos that were pertinent to lecture. That class developed a strong sense of community and willingness to communicate; perhaps it is just my biased perception, but I think in part it was because of conversations carried on beyond the walls of the physical classroom.
I will teach “Intro to Middle Eastern Studies” (MESA 201) at BYU next semester. You can bet we’ll be tweeting…this time about oil and water and the effects of European colonization and that elusive peace.