Monday, February 11, 2008


It's common knowledge that you can tell how au courante a person is by the rate at which they adopt particular practices, objects, or technologies. I'm here to tell you that I downloaded the new Radiohead the morning it became available. But as far as my newest tool is concerned, I'm about as courante as a Commodore 64.

Within the past month, I've been playing with Twitter. Apparently Twitter was very, very cool last March. I never even heard of it until this January, which tells me that I haven't been reading enough articles in Wired. Or even the Wall Street Journal. But now that I know about it, you're going to know about it.

(Predictably, I came across a mention of Twitter when I was doing some reading related to timelines. A blogger who writes under the blog name kepo-ing Zz85 spent some time integrating Twitter with SIMILE's timeline. I haven't tried it for myself yet, but he left very detailed instructions on how to do it.)

Twitter is basically a platform for telling others what you are doing right at that moment. In other words, it works in a similar way to a person's status on Facebook. Like Facebook, you can view a person's status online and update your status online. One thing that differs about Twitter from Facebook, however, is that you don't have to log in to a platform to read about a person. Each Twitterer gets his or her own URL, where people can go to see the person's stream of updates. For instance, my url is You'll also notice that you can get an RSS feed from the page, so you could receive each of my "tweets" (what an individual Twitter post is called) in your RSS Reader of choice as they appear.

Once you have an account, you can watch what other people are doing on the public timeline. But where Twitter really excels is when you find friends that are also using the service. You can choose to "follow" another person on Twitter. What this means is that everytime that person updates his or her account, you receive their update on your timeline. In essence, this gives you real-time updates of what I'm doing. Yeah, I know: thrilling.

You can follow as many people as you like, which can result in a relatively noisy stream of information. Particularly idiosyncratic Twitterers have already become popular and mini celebrities. But there are also real celebrities using the service. Barack Obama and John Edwards, for example, have pages and each are being followed by more than 5000 people. What this means is that Twitter becomes an effective means for information dissemination from sources that you trust or from friends whom you want to know more about.

But let's take it one step further. And this is where Twitter differs from an application like Facebook. Twitter is cross-platform. What this means, is that while you can read and post to Twitter from its dedicated website, you can also do so using your mobile phone or your IM client. So, when I decide to go get pizza, I can text "Going to Fellini's" to Twitter (the number is 40404), and you will instantly get that update. What's more, you can choose to receive all of Twitter's updates not only on your Twitter account page or in your RSS reader but also on your mobile phone. So when I text Twitter, you'll get the update texted to your phone within a minute or so. See? Real time updating. The same principles apply when using Twitter from your IM. (An important caveat is that you have to pay text messaging charges on all updates sent to your mobile. So if you are following a lot of people, you could end up getting a lot of messages very quickly. Fortunately, you can turn off this feature. You can even schedule it to turn off at night, so you don't wake up to a lot of messages.)

The connection to mobile phones and SMS explains why you can only use 140 characters in Twitter posts. Text messages can only be about 160 characters, so Twitter allows you to have 140 of them. An added benefit of this restriction is perhaps the fact that you have to practice brevity in your writing. And, dear readers, you know that I can really use some brevity in my world.

Once you've set up your phone or IM to work with Twitter, you can use one more feature of the service, which is to "track" particular terms. If you send the phrase, "track ecit" to Twitter, then every tweet that goes through the system that contains the word "ecit" will be sent to your phone/IM, regardless of whether it originates with a person you are following or not. academhack writes about using this function during MLA to track the word "MLA" and thereby getting a sense of how Twitter was being used by conference participants and disgruntled partners/spouses who are annoyed to see their family members jet off right in the middle of the holidays. Tracking, by the way, only works with your cell phone or IM. You won't be able to track things online.

Okay, so now that we have covered how the service works, perhaps we can talk about how Twitter can be used in a classroom since that's what I'm most interested in with all these technologies. Why would you want to get your students using Twitter? Why do you want to know every banal detail about what is going on in their lives? And why would you want to get it sent to a mobile device rather than simply watching their Facebook profiles?

A good place to start thinking about these questions could be a Twitter assignment that academhack gave to a class last semester. The students had to follow his Tweets and had to sign up to follow other classmates. As the students began Twittering, academhack or academicdave, as he's known on Twitter, noticed that the result was that his class began to have conversations outside of class and that the students became more comfortable in discussion within the actual classroom. What happens, in short, is that the students developed a community and a sort of sixth sense as is discussed in the Wired article I linked above (and which I found via academhack's Twitter assignment). You can read academhack's thoughts about the assignment and about the larger implications for academia with Twitter on his blog post.

I have to credit this post for getting me to start thinking about the larger implications of Twitter for my own classrooms. Others have apparently felt this way, given the amount of attention that academhack's post has received in the Chronicle of Higher Education as well as other places. Getting to the table even faster than academhack is EDUCAUSE, whose July 2007 "7 Things You Should Know About..." document (pdf) examines Twitter in its academic setting. JBJ has recently suggested in an aside that he is using the service to reflect briefly on his teaching.

Here--at last--then, are a few more suggestions on my part for how one could use Twitter. One is to use a Twitter client like Twitbin on a projected screen while I'm lecturing. Since students will be more in listen/note-taking mode, they can use twitter to comment on what I'm saying, asking each other questions, etc. I could occasionally check the feed to see if they're following me (pun intended). This sort of meta-commentary could be distracting, but it could also provide a useful record of where I need to go back over concepts. At the same time, I could use Twitter as a free clicker/PRS system. It provides an easy way to ask a question and get students' answers readily available. Granted, you'd have to read through each answer rather than getting the answers totaled for you by software.

Another use for Twitter that parallels these two would be to use Twitter as a VERY abbreviated note-taking tool, which would allow a class to crowdsource the note-taking process. They could take notes on their laptops about what I'm saying. In their archive, they would have a collection of class content. If students are following each other, they could collectively generate a lot of notes all at once. The downside to this could be that it might be difficult to read through the notes that had been taken in this manner since you can only display so many tweets per page.

I'm hoping to think about other ways I could use Twitter in a classroom, and I'm hunting around the ol' internetz for any suggestions. Please feel free to suggest yours in the comments. There's a chance that this could be just a fad (that I'm radically late to) or not all that practical. Nevertheless, given the dispersion of mobile phones and the relatively high incidence of text messaging among our students, this seems to be a very effective tool for reaching our students on their own turf and for bringing the classroom a little closer to them.

Finally, here's a few fun things you can do with Twitter. Twittervision is a mashup with Google Maps that shows you where tweets are coming from in real time. The 3D view is a lot of fun. Twittervision's cousin, Flickrvision is even more fun, perhaps. The British blogger at OUseful Info has taken a similar approach and designed a Yahoo! Pipe and used it to geocode your tweets. Read about how you can use the Pipe here. What I like about this second application is that while Twittervision is a random representation of the sum total of Twitterers, you can use the Yahoo! Pipe to plot just your own tweets using the RSS feed from your Twitter home page. It depends on your using a place name in your tweets, however. So you'd want to be specific in what you say in order to develop an accurate representation of where you're twittering from. You can, of course, also integrate Twitter into Facebook.

And a last: Using Twitterfeed, you can have every blog post immediately broadcast as a tweet.


Testing Jan's blog said...

Here's a serious application of Twitter:

Derek said...

Thanks for the great post about Twitter. I heard about it a while ago, but I misunderstood at the time that the cell phone was the only interface with the system. Since I don't text message, I don't have a text message plan, which means I pay a dime for every text message I send or receive. So Twitter sounded like a bad idea to me!

More recently, I've learned about desktop applications that access Twitter, as well as the web interface and RSS options. I think there's some real possibilities for the service in the classroom along the lines you mention--using Twitter as a "backchannel" during class that allows student-to-student discussion. I've been using clickers for a while now and I'm a big fan, and I think Twitter offers some in-class options similar to those offered by clickers.

One option for dealing with the problem of making sense of the Twitter-stream for a class session is to rely on someone--a TA, a student--to be the "voice of the chat" (as they call this person over at the TLT Group's FridayLive web conferences). That person's job is to follow the backchannel conversation and report on it to the instructor. If there's a great question asked, he or she can put it forward to the instructor. If a bunch of students ask the same question, he or she can raise that question.

As you point out, one of the advantages of clicker systems is that the system aggregates student responses for you. That aggregation is easy with student responses to multiple-choice questions, but it's tougher with free responses. The "voice of the chat" can perform that aggregator role with a backchannel like Twitter.

Brian said...

@Testing Jan, Thanks for the link. This wasn't something I'd been aware of and it shows that there is a use for something like Twitter beyond the supposed solipsism of the hyperconnected Web 2.0 individual.

Brian said...

@derek. I very much like the idea of using a TA to aggregate the chat information for the instructor. My experience teaching in chat rooms suggests that this could be a somewhat overwhelming experience for the TA if the students really get into Twittering. But TAs live for getting burnt out on professors' crazy tech plans, right?

At the very least, as I assume happens with clickers, using Twitter can give students in a large, lecture format the ability to talk back to their teacher to a degree and to engage with the material as it is taught to them.

Derek said...

@brian: Good point about the TA getting confused. However, my sister, who is nine years younger than me, can manage about 10 independent IM sessions at once. That would overwhelm me, but I think folks in their teens and early twenties are a little better at processing multiple streams of information than we are! So one just needs to get a youngish TA to handle this task! =)