The media hype about the transformative potential of new digital technologies gets louder and louder. But how might this narrative around education technology — particularly social media tools — run counter to the ways in which these tools are used in the classroom? Is “social” welcome in the classroom? How do students (and in the case of this article, students who are teachers-in-training) view social media? Do they view it as a technology that will enhance teaching and learning? Or do they view it as something that’s about the things they do and say when they’re not at work or in the classroom? University of Prince Edward Island PhD student Bonnie Stewart writes about her experiences teaching teachers to use Twitter, raising important questions about “openness” in and out of the classroom.
Earlier this year, the New York Times announced that the English language curriculum of American schools is going digital. In a refrain growing wearyingly familiar, textbook companies and other major corporate incumbents – including Amplify, the featured Rupert Murdoch-owned venture – are promising nothing less than that they “will change the nature of learning across the country.”
This is the cultural narrative around education these days. Whole curricular areas are being digitized and packaged and sold back to educators as revolutions. Amplify is touted as incorporating games and embedded video, and is cited as offering “the ability for teachers to see if students really understand vocabulary words when they use them in Twitter-like hashtags and other social media contexts.”
Maybe it’s schadenfraude, but if Twitter and social media are genuine goals of the Amplify English curriculum, Mr. Murdoch may have met his match.
Twitter: The Final Frontier?
I teach teachers. And in courses that focus on communications or technologies, I require my students to use Twitter.
It’s one of the hardest things I do.
I’m not a Twitter fan in any true geek sense of the word – I don’t find the platform elegant or appreciate the growing corporatization of the space. Still. Real-world audiences and supported, hands-on practice and reflection are foundations of my pedagogy. Twitter happens to be full of real, interconnected, hospitable networks of educators engaged in the kind of hands-on, reflective, participatory learning that articles like the one about Amplify pay lip service to.
And teachers, if you want students engaging in participatory learning in school, you’ve got to model it.
I teach with Twitter – in as safe and supported a context as I can scaffold – so that the teachers-to-be in my classroom can then go out into their own careers and classrooms able to make experientially-informed decisions about hype and digital technologies. I teach with Twitter so that these teachers will be able, if they choose, to model real participatory learning with their students.
Mostly, I teach with Twitter to counter the narratives The New York Times keeps selling us about education and technologies.
Web 2.0, We Hardly Knew Ye
Ten years ago, I would have thought things would be different by now. The hype back then was for Web 2.0, which signaled the potential of user-generated content and peer-to-peer networks. A far more likely candidate to actually “change the nature of learning” than anything packaged for consumption by today’s edupreneurs, Web 2.0 was practically an archetype for collaborative, student-centered learning.
Yet, a decade later, education – and society – increasingly take up the Internet as if Web 2.0 never happened. Sure, there’s research suggesting that the networked, 2.0-style practices of connecting, sharing, and collaborating are key digital and web literacies for today’s learners. Yes, participatory platforms like Twitter make it easy to teach those literacies, connecting students to active, supported educational communities beyond the walls of the classroom. And indeed, such networked practices do align with the student-centered learning approach that educators have espoused for decades.
In spite of all that, a generation of young adults appears broadly convinced that social media has NOTHING to do with learning.
The Cognitive Dissonance of the So-Called Digital Natives
How did the idea of an open, participatory, educational Internet get left on the shelf?
Part of it is the stories we tell ourselves. The narratives surrounding what gets reported on as the next big technological innovation in education are not accidental. Major players attend to major players, in the attention economy of the 21st century, and what we’re fed as a steady diet of education news tends to serve the interests of those major players. Rupert Murdoch owns newspapers. What he sells to schools counts as news.
That’s not the only reason networked learning stories don’t get told, though. The other part stems from a single story, and the way our culture left a generation to navigate networks entirely on their own.
In my Bachelor of Education classes, preservice educators’ reflections and ruminations are ripe with what must be one of the most persistent stories EVER in the ed-tech hype cycle: Prensky’s idea of digital natives. His assertion that the kids ‘these days’ just take to technology naturally and differently has been largely debunked, to the extent that even Prensky has distanced himself from the term, but the truism that youth love tech lives on. Like the teacher interviewed in the NYT article on Amplify, educators continue to tell themselves that reading via tablet must be a step in the right direction, because it’s “natural for young people to have this technology in their hands.”
Yet, each term when I ask my B.Ed students to take out their devices and use them as more than consumption or entertainment tools, I meet a sea of anxious, bewildered, vaguely horrified faces.
Make no mistake: the majority of my 38 Education students this term are Prensky’s so-called digital natives. They would have been, on average, eleven years old when the narrative first burst into the hype cycle in 2001.
They spent their adolescent years being treated as digital natives. Between the assumption that they navigated tech better on their own, and the strict taboos around teacher-student friending that leapt up on early social networks, most have had few real models for open, participatory networking. Facebook does not foster a sense of social media as a potential professional learning space: Aunt Shirley and the people you happened to go to high school with seldom share a vast number of lesson plans or educational resources in the run of a day. The majority of these young teachers-to-be have no experience of social networking in the peer-to-peer production sense. Instead, they come to the idea of Twitter steeped in the pervasive cultural messages that social media is making us lonely or stupid or toxic or whatever the accusation of the month may be.
This cognitive dissonance is staggering: these earnest, sincere young teachers almost universally espouse ideals of student-centered pedagogy and meaningful, real-life audiences for student work. They believe their students want to do stuff with tech. But they themselves don’t, not really. They are acculturated to respond to the idea of online networked engagement fostering and enhancing student-centered learning as…ludicrous.
How to Start Teaching the Twitter-Resistant
For me, anticipating and understanding pushback over Twitter was key to using it successfully as a teaching tool. The first time I tried to scaffold it into a B.Ed class, I made it optional…an add-on I hoped might complement the class and allow students to build a backchannel for communications and contributions.
The silence was deafening. Even when I taught them how to livetweet each others’ presentations, their bafflement at why a person would livetweet a lesson or a discussion was evident. Twitter, they were very clear, was for celebrity gossip and what people had for lunch.
Instead of giving up, I dug in. We talked about their discomforts, and assumptions, and about how these compared with what they were seeing in the Twitter streams I helped them curate for themselves. I made it clear they only had to give it eight weeks. My goal in teaching Twitter is not to make networked converts of my students, any more than my goal when I teach The Academic Essay is to make them into published scholars. I want to help them learn skills and mindsets through which they can learn and express their learning, full-stop. Since social networking is very much an experiential learning medium, I make it an experience. And just as I do with writing, I make it mandatory.
But I also make the risk of failure very low: their Twitter grade is a simple satisfactory/unsatisfactory, based on clear minimums. So long as people make the effort to show up and try, they cannot fail. The majority of them, in fact, shine: the class hashtag creates an ambient discussion space that allows them to take leadership roles, share resources, and strengthen relationships with each other.
I encourage 10 to 20 tweets a week, with at least 70 total over our nine-week intensive term. The scale can be intimidating for students at the outset, but what it achieves is a robust, conversational class hashtag that achieves the critical mass required for Twitter to actually make sense. I ask students to comment on articles we read, to share other articles they find, to talk with each other and RT each other and – for those who choose public rather than private accounts – to connect and try to talk with at least three educational leaders outside our classroom. I also require them to participate in at least one hashtag chat throughout the term, whether an intensive real-time experience like #edteach, for preservice teachers, or an ongoing asynchronous venture such as #edchat. In the midst of a long Canadian winter, doing classwork from home has benefits:
What Teaching with Twitter Takes
Teaching with Twitter requires two key things from me as an instructor.
First, I need to be present. A lot. I engage with my students, I populate the hashtag with resources and RTs related to our course materials, I model what it is to be an engaged educator on Twitter. I connect students to the generous professionals in my network wherever I can, and try to create real-world activities that they can promote and take pride in – my most recent class capped our term with a live, student-run webcast with Scotland’s Radio Edutalk. I check in with them privately if I see them drop off in participation. And I work hard to ensure they feel their efforts are seen, and valued:
Second, I need to let go. Not of my responsibilities to the class, but of the sense of control that I’m accustomed to inhabiting in relation to it. Students get to take real ownership, and we all benefit, as we did this winter when students used both Twitter and class presentations for intercultural exchange:
The traditional classroom system privileges the teacher as authority. We’re trained from childhood to pay attention when our teacher raises her voice or flicks the lights. There’s no equivalent process in social media. When you open things up to a platform that enables public backchannel discussions and subtweets, you change the power differential more than is comfortable, sometimes. Twitter encourages overt performance of discontent and questioning in a way that the classroom simply doesn’t, unless you’re in Dead Poets’ Society.
That’s the thing about working in the open. You can’t simply dim the lights and hush everyone. You’re part of something, and you may be guiding something, but you don’t control that thing. Networks are not hierarchies. It isn’t necessarily easy. But in terms of student-centered pedagogy, it’s real.
Enhancing my classroom teaching with Twitter is not a revolution. You’re not likely to read our story in the NYT. But that’s okay. Just know it exists. Just know there is more to digital education than consumable packages of curriculum and empty promises of change.
Addressing the dissonance
- How do Bonnie Stewart’s observations about teachers’ reluctance for “social” coincide with those by danah boyd’s arguments about teens and social media? If we (only) fear for teens’ safety online, for example, will schools ever move towards fully embracing the Web?
- How might school leaders better support teachers so that vulnerability and openness are seen as pedagogical strengths and not professional weakness?
- How do we build better and more supportive networks online — those in which teachers and students alike can fully participate?