Eight years ago today Jack Dorsey, the co-founder and chairman of Twitter, sent this first ever Tweet and things haven’t really been the same since:
Despite initial doubts from just about everyone as to how you could say anything meaningful in 140 characters it’s hard now to imagine the Internet without the famed microblogging site. A tool which for many did not seem to have a clear use has managed to create its own impressive uber-niche in the communication landscape. But what is Twitter exactly and is there any way to use it in our classes?
Twitter Skills are 21st Century Skills
To help answer the first question, consider this 2012 article from Glenn Greenwald – certainly one of the most influential and innovative journalists out there today – in which he details a specific instance where he used Twitter to crowdsource his readers to check the veracity of of a suspicious online Op-Ed. Many saw this as an example of “further evidence … that people’s ability to verify info online is *rubbish*.”
But Greenwald saw it differently, because not only was the suspect article quickly exposed by his Twitter followers as a hoax, but:
That happened by virtue of all of the strengths which the Internet uniquely offers, and which traditional journalism precludes: collective analysis, using one’s readers (tens of thousands of people, if not more) to help with research and investigation, instant and mass collaboration with other journalists and experts, an open and transparent analytical and investigative process.
I don’t know about you, but as a teacher hearing things like “collective analysis”, “mass collaboration” and “transparent analytical and investigative process” (all variations on core 21st Century skills) gives me real butterflies in the stomach – and I’m talking about the good kind.
Nowadays we expect an article, a conference, a lecture or just about any event to come with a conversation, a comment section or a hasthtag. And we no longer think of this as just background chatter. The article, lecture or event used to be the end product but now it is the starting point for something even more important – a social conversation about what the publication or event means, what we think about it personally and where we want to take it.
There’s a name for this – backchanneling. As language teachers this probably rings a bell, because it is a term which was originally applied to spoken interactions. During a conversation a speaker receives feedback from his listener in the form of “umms”, “ahs”, “hmms”, “reallys”, “you don’t says” and the like. Though these interjections may at first seem largely irrelevant, they give the speaker some real clues as to the effect he’s having on his audience. And if you don’t believe it, try being totally silent as someone relates an anecdote to you on the telephone. Trust me, it won’t take long before you’ll hear a puzzled voice ask, “Are you still there?”
There are a number of reasons why backchanneling in virtual space via tweets has become a vital modern communication skill that we should begin to focus on with our students. Firstly, it is no less important than the spoken variety. If we are going to ask our students to come up with follow-up questions to keep spoken conversations moving why wouldn’t we ask them to practice the same type of skill in their online interactions? Secondly, it is no less important today as a genre of writing than a formal letter or e-mail, and arguably, because of the ease with which we can publish it online, more empowering and consequential. And finally, it can easily used by teachers and students to profoundly change classroom dynamics and give learners greater protagonism.
So, how do you get started? Try TodaysMeet.
First of all I probably wouldn’t start by using Twitter. While it is possible to set up a private Twitter group for your class there’s a much easier way to practice the fundamentals of backchaneling with your students. Check out TodaysMeet where you can create a room (like a temporary hashtag) for an hour, a day , a week or even a year. You then share out the URL, students access it, provide their name and join the conversation. It’s really that easy. The space is non-public, “self-destructs” after its time limit and provides you with an easy way to download the transcript to read through later or look at with your students.
And what can you use it for? Here are 3 quick ideas:
1. Increase Student Feedback and Interaction
When students are taking in any content, be that a lecture, video or even a reading text, allow them to use their mobile devices to text in their opinions, thoughts or queries. Often feedback only comes when the teacher asks “Any questions?” but we know all too well that ideas don’t always occur to us at these pre-prescribed moments, and some students tend to dominate class discussion while others avoid the spotlight. Letting them chime in when they feel like it or without having to speak out loud can help increase both the quality and quantity of interaction in your class.
2. As a Project Space
Working on group projects? Why not open up a room for each group to share their ideas or any links they think might be useful. This room can stay open for the length of the project and you can also join in as a teacher providing them with your own insight and tips.
3. To decide on focus for future classes
Monitor the discussions and use them as a springboard for future work in class. If you think you’re out of ideas you often don’t have to look any further than your own students. Social networking tools like TodaysMeet or Twitter allow us to gain some real insight into what our students are thinking, what their interests are or what they might be having difficulty with.
As always, don’t bite off more than you can chew. Start out with something short and simple which can be done in a single lesson. Begin with a discussion on the form, function and appropriate use of these mini-texts. And end up by sharing and analyzing the transcript together, picking out salient points and useful contributions. Then decide as a group how you want to use this information to focus future classes.
And most importantly, remember to think of it as not only a classroom tool but a language skill for today’s world.