Some Professors Losing Their Twitter Jitters

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, June 26, 2009

Mary Knudson requires students in her medical writing class to Twitter from a scientific conference and to write narratives in no more than 140 characters -- academia in disposable snippets.

Not only does Twitter teach students to write concisely with its strict limit on the length of posts, she said, but it also enables them to share valuable information -- links to stories about scientific discoveries, Web sites with new research and other material she never would have come across on her own.

Before she adopted Twitter, Knudson had to overcome her own reservations about the technology. It destroys the ability to spell, she said, as vowels are dropped or numerals used in place of words. She doesn't want her students to write online from conferences about medical discoveries, preferring they take time to consider the studies and discuss them with other researchers.

Adapting their teaching to take advantage of new technology, a small but growing number of college professors are using Twitter to keep discussions going long after class is over, share research, pose questions and gather information. Some use it to keep students engaged in large lecture halls by fostering a running online dialogue during class.

Some employ it to show students how technology is changing their field or changing history. Some, like Knudson, who teaches writing to graduate students at Johns Hopkins University, are using it as a writing tool -- encouraging students to write concisely and in a way that's engaging enough to retain readers.

Although many professors initially dismissed Twitter as another contributor to information overload, the site has gradually gained credibility as academics recognize how it can cultivate ideas and help gain knowledge from the crowd.

But the effort still baffles some, who know the site best for its cramped syntax and constant babble of thoughts posted by users ("stale bagel this morning," "2 tired 2 mow lawn"). They see it as the antithesis of intellectual discourse.

"Twitter is really about instantaneous notification. Class is supposed to be about deliberation and depth," said Siva Vaidhyanathan, associate professor of media studies and law at the University of Virginia. "It's beyond me to imagine a valuable use for it in the classroom."

Some have privacy concerns, saying that students should be able to explore ideas in college without a public digital record. Such services as Blackboard allow professors to communicate privately online with a class of students.

Others believe that the experimentation with Twitter is the latest sign of a real shift in education, away from a professor lecturing students to a more democratic and wide-ranging exchange of information.

"It changes the dynamic of the way people teach and the way people learn," said Monte Lutz, a visiting professor at Hopkins. "It encourages people to connect with each other. It can be almost a Socratic dialogue, in real time, in the class."

The effort comes as the technology has gained enough users to become a force for change. Just look at the way things are unfolding in Iran, Lutz said, where people around the world have been using Twitter to protest the recent election results. "People realize how quickly this has changed the way people communicate," he said.

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