Some Professors' Jitters Over Twitter Are Easing
Discussions Expand In and Out of Class

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.

At its best, professors said, Twitter creates a virtual collective stream of consciousness, a real-time flow of sometimes funny, sometimes newsy, sometimes thought-provoking observations, photos, conversations, documents, questions, videos and links. Because Twitter is public and searchable, people can find information and share it with others, spreading it virally.

Twitter makes it easy for a chemist at Johns Hopkins to share ideas, for Harvard University to broadcast updates about research and for scores of people to tweet their way through academic conferences. Those online conversations are often more interesting than the forums, several professors said, and continue long afterward.

Danna Walker, who teaches at American University, wants to use Twitter next semester to let students ask questions or give feedback during class. "I thought, 'I'll hit 'em where they live.' They're used to communicating this way -- via text-message and Facebook -- so this would be a great way to get them engaged in class. At least, that's my theory."

Students at Duke University were required to tweet and upload clips of movies they watched over a weekend after reading books about film theory, said Negar Mottahedeh, an associate professor. "They were constantly engaged in the work of the class," she said.

In a large introductory class, it is difficult to give each student individual attention, but online comments meant they could challenge and support one another, too, making learning less top-down, more collaborative. Mottahedeh was thrilled with the result, concluding that because their class work was public, they were much more conscious of what they were writing, more serious and more engaged than previous classes.

Twitter has reached into elementary school classrooms as well. Students at the British School of Washington have been sending out tweets at the end of many of their classes, giving them a chance to reflect on what they just learned and creating a concise archive of their lessons.

"Romeo and Juliet meet and kiss for the first time -- do we believe in love at first sight?" a recent tweet asked.

At Hopkins, Knudson uses Twitter as an extension of the classroom, asking students to raise questions, hold discussions online, keep up with breaking news and share links to interesting stories. She believes the limited number of characters allowed is a useful way to remember to choose words carefully, cut clutter and realize how much can be said in a small space, like a haiku.

There are people known for their writing on Twitter. As one example, she pointed to Arjun Basu, who has thousands of followers for his short-story tweets: "The marriage ended somewhere on a two lane road south of Cleveland. The kids in the backseat sensed it too. The kid in the trunk had no idea."

"As a child he delivered newspapers. As an adult he delivered bad news daily. Because he was a negative person. And the world's worst surgeon."

Matt Dozier, a graduate student of Knudson's, was surprised by her assignment but likes that his classmates then talk about class even after it's over. He tweeted updates from a symposium on ocean science and conservation on Capitol Hill recently, finding it intimidating at first to write about complex topics within the length constraints. And without the luxury of listening to an entire presentation, it was hard to decide what to highlight.

"It was good practice to pick out interesting things that are happening live and try to get them across as quickly -- with the most impact -- as you possibly could."

He enjoys watching Twitter evolve as people keep finding new uses for it and is surprised it has taken hold. "It's not something that would have occurred to anybody that this would be useful at all," he said.

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company