Don’t Fear the Twitter

web20It’s never a good idea to approach the unknown with an attitude of fear.  It distorts the subject from the outset and almost always results in judgments that emphasize worst-case scenarios rather than what is possible.  Such is the case when schools try to figure out how to introduce and/or regulate student behavior on the internet – especially in the case of those websites that fall under the heading of web 2.0.  I am talking about websites such as Facebook, Twitter, Delicious, etc.  The problem is generational or at least the perception that there is a difference between the level of comfort and ability when it comes to maneuvering through the web and understanding specific sites.  I say this because most of my students are not aware of the many sites that enhance networking beyond Facebook and MySpace.  The other day I conducted a poll among my students and out of 75 only 2 had ever heard of Twitter.  I inquired into a few other sites, but the results were pretty much the same.  My point is that our assumption that the younger generation is necessarily more web savvy than us is a lot of nonsense.

My school has been dealing with the problem of how to teach students to better utilize web 2.0 technology for the past few years.  Much of the discussion stems from utter ignorance of what these sites offer or they are preoccupied with nightmarish stories of suicide associated with Facebook.  A few of my colleagues have Facebook pages, but it doesn’t extend much further that that.  Part of the problem is that unless you have someone on staff who works with this technology in the classroom and who can explain it to those interested it is a waste of time to talk about it.  We recently paid an “expert” to discuss these sites with the entire faculty during one of our workshop days.  It turned into a complete waste of time owing to the fact that there was no hands-on time for the faculty and how this technology connects to different subjects.  It turned into three hours of, “Look at me and what I can do and what you can’t do.”  To me, web 2.0 represents a new way of thinking about your relationship to others as well as how we collect and disseminate information.  That necessarily impacts how we think about our roles as teachers.  But because it is a process or way of thinking these tools must be introduced and slowly integrated with careful consideration. 

Beyond blogging I’ve only become interested in these sites over the past two years and I’ve been thinking quite a bit about how to utilize this technology in the classroom.  It seems to me that networking sites are part of the reality of Thomas Friedman’s “flat world.”  It’s here to stay and we better educate our students on how  best utilize it so as to allow them to collect valuable information, compete in a global market, and break down barriers that up until recently have seemed to be impenetrable.  As a blogger it is easy for me to see the possibilities given that my site has put me in touch with people from around the world.  Through continued contact with my readers, and links to other bloggers, I now have access to information that has added significantly to my knowledge of a whole host of topics.

How we utilize these tools in the classroom must be decided by each instructor.  The challenge for me has been to figure out how these tools can enhance what I already do and what works.  Nothing that I’ve experimented with has yet to supplant my basic approach of utilizing primary sources and encouraging classroom discussion.  It is convenient, however, to be able to Skype with an expert in a given field right in the classroom or collect information via RSS Feeds or search for photographs in Flickr via tags. 

Until we start to see these sites as tools that can enhance our lives as well as our students we are not going to be able to talk intelligently about it.  More importantly, we would have missed the boat on introducing these valuable tools to our students.  It’s not about what students will do, but about what they can do.

9 responses... add one

Kevin, Some extremely good points… I was especially interested in your mentioning the workshop. An hour or two just doesn’t cut it when it comes to grasping the significance of the technology. Yes, you can see some of the basics, and you might get some “oohs” and “ahhs,” but there has to be hands-on. Even then, everything can’t be digested by a person (most folks) in one sitting. I’m of the mindset that you need to have someone on staff to keep the creativity in instructional design and technology flowing… hint, hint, LOL.

My personal frustration with history in relation to Web 2.0 is the way that (at least it seems) many are mired in traditional practice and are thinking of the Web as another place to expand that practice, but they aren’t thinking about the greater potential that is here. To put it in the terms you use, a lot of people still think the world is flat. The Web is not simply another piece of paper. Web 2.0 changes not only the meaning of interaction through writing, but the meaning of writing itself (not to mention the nature of both the author and the reader). Three courses have made a significant impact on the way I look at the Web… 1) hypertext theory and its applications, 2) interaction design, and 3) digital rhetoric. While digital history was by no means the focus of these courses, in my mind I have always been looking at the readings and coursework through the lense of an historian… and I think I’m seeing way outside the box now, at least in terms of how many historians look at (and in some cases, “fear”) the Web.

I have some YouTube pieces I will be posting in a few days, especially since I haven’t posted much on the art of digital history in some time.

Kevin,
Is your school librarian tech-savvy at all? If so, that might be a good place to start thinking about implementation.
I think it makes sense to talk about blogs, wikis, and other web 2.0 tools in the classroom– there is a lot of great material out there. Podcasts, Flickr Commons (photos from the Library of Congress and elsewhere), the American Memory project, and much more. I’m sure that I don’t have to tell you that there are tons of resources, particularly for American history classes.
I think that Twitter, or Facebook could evolve naturally from a conversation about collaboration that starts with students using blogs to journal and then from building a collaborative wiki. A discussion about evaluating sources (web or otherwise) could easily translate to evaluating the value of information transmitted by various Twitterati, and could definitely include a discussion of what to share/what not to share in a public space.
I guess it boils down to this: these tools are not going away, and I think it’s a good idea to teach students how to use them in a safe and responsible way. Not all parents/school board members will agree with me, and that’s ok. However, I would urge those folks to poke their heads up out of the ground and look around: students will need to be fluent in Web 2.0 in order to participate in the world around them. Why not start learning in a safe environment?

Kevin, the fact that your school is even talking about how to help students use 2.0 technologies puts you light years ahead of most schools, where the conversation is how to prevent students (and staff!) from using the same features.

I work a lot with public school teachers in Teaching American History grants and often show them cool internet resources that they could use–if they were allowed to. But for most of these teachers YouTube is blocked by the district filtering software. Most blogs are blocked. Web based email programs are blocked. Sometimes all video is blocked. And all kinds of random sites are blocked for reasons no one can explain. And don’t even suggest they download Google Earth of Firefox or whatever–they cannot install programs on their machines, they have to ask the school technology person, and the answer is no.

You get all kinds of reasons when you ask about these inane policies, but it comes down to irrational fear (what if Al Qaeda uses our network to look at boobies?), incompetence (few schools can afford a competent technical staff, so they get incompetent ones) and laziness. Just set your webfilter on “kill” and sit back, secure in the knowledge that no parent will ever complain that their 17-year-old son saw his first picture of a naked woman in the school computer lab.

Larry,

Thanks for that reminder.

Robert,

Absolutely, the only way to implement this technology is to have someone on staff who can work with teachers throughout the year. The alternative is to continue to bring someone in from the outside for a day-long project and that only serves to alienate more teachers and leave them feeling even more inadequate. As head of the history department next year I am going to make it a point to focus my people on first becoming comfortable with some of this technology and only then begin to talk about how it might be utilized in the classroom.

Heather,

Luckily we do have a librarian who is familiar with these tools so she will be an incredible asset next year.

Kevin,
My hat’s off to your efforts to introduce technology to students in a learning environment, especially with a focus on history material.

Here’s another alternative to consider that’s more advanced 2.0 technology, still under finishing touches from My Family, now operating under “The Network Generations, Inc.” Perhaps its the Network concept in a collobrative shared effort of a Moderator (teacher) and the Members (students) that may have a lot of potential in broadening many horizons of learning.

What if you were able to incorporate all facets of Web Technology: A Message Field with either Text or HTML using an Outlook Format, Create a Doc in Word and Paste the Published Output in Message Field, Add a Voice Comment to the Message Field from calling an 800 Number with PIN, Adding Video Posts, Upload Photos and Seperate by Albums, Add Tags to Posts to Pull Together Associative Material, Include a Calendar of Events, and a File Cabinet to Upload – PDF’s, Word, Excel or any other Native Application. When the Members (Students) sign on – they leave a Member Name and Sign on Time.

From a Collobrative Effort, Many Members on a Military “My Family” site have shared resources which have produced some very fine history of Military Intelligence from Vietnam. I have been a sponsor of a Military Intel Site from Germany for more than 7 years, and some of the members have visited thousands of times. Our History from the Cold War and the Hot War in Vietnam is being recorded by the Men who Participated in the efforts. The Civil War can be an excellent Forum for the new “My Family 2.0″ Blog Forum. Check it out with a Class and see what kind of results that you can achieve.

Good Luck with your History Classes, and I am sure there will be many from your class that will catch the same “Bug” or “Love of History” that I caught back in 1961.

Bobby

Bobby,

Thanks for the encouragement. It’s definitely a walk on the slippery rocks. I will definitely check out the site.

Thanks for the post. My introductory social science students have been working on a group blog this semester, and it’s going surprisingly well for a first-time experiment. In the fall, I’m considering using some of the techniques that Jeremy Boggs at GMU has been using (e.g., having my survey students create blogs and write Wikipedia entries), and I think at some point it would be a great idea to develop a student-generated US History survey text using wiki software. That’s a pipe dream at this point, but it’s the sort of thing that might actually work well in collaboration with students from other universities, colleges and (nudge, nudge) high schools….

Maybe something like this already exists, I dunno. But I’m tired of assigning textbooks that students don’t read, and I think the web 2.0 stuff would actually measure some things (namely, time and effort) that students routinely argue aren’t being reflected in their grades. Conversely, students who do well without putting much effort into a course would not be able to coast by in this sort of format….

Dave,

Sounds like a great idea. I have some of the same concerns re: textbooks. I plan on moving all my classes to blogs next year and hope to utilize a number of web 2.0 tools.

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