There is still a slow simmer of resistance to the idea of academic blogging. Most of it represents a kind of knee-jerk conservatism from individuals who refuse to accept blogging as anything more than a medium for middle-class “kids” to vocalize middle-class angst. This most common form of this argument is the well-known: “why should I care about what you ate for breakfast?”
Every now and then, a scholar offers a more substantial response to the idea and while I typically find these responses every bit as wrongheaded, I do think that they deserve some careful consideration. Recently Edward Blum published a short post (on his blog Religion in American History) entitled “Academic Blogging: Some Reservations and Lessons“. The post is clear and coherent and should be considered carefully. It stems from his conversations with a group of recent Ph.D.s and graduate students who are excited about blogging as a medium as well as the author’s personal experience as a blogger.
He established six main points:
1. “Why would you give away for free the primary commodity you create?”
I suppose that I must respond to this in the name of being systematic. First, being a blogger doesn’t mean that you have to publish every idea on your blog indiscriminately! Even today scholars can be reluctant to give a paper or commit to an article a brilliant book-worthy idea. The bigger issue, however, is one already faced by the recording industry. Some circulation of free music – that is the primary commodity produced by the recording industry – actually benefits record sales. Most band have MySpace pages, websites, blogs with free downloads, or even “leak” new music to fans. If they’re smart, they do not leak the entire album, but a few select singles. In some sections of the recording industry mix-tapes and bootlegs are a primary means for unsigned artists to be discovered. Again, if all that musician has to offer is on a 36 minute mix tape, then there are likely to be problems down the line, but if a musician is smart and good, the mix tape works as a teaser that draws attention to their work.
(And it goes without saying that in a business where our rewards for scholarly production are modest, it may be that some day soon, blogging an idea and allowing to enjoy widespread, attributed circulation, could have as much currency as publishing in a very expensive book with limited access.)
2. “Peer review matters. Academic disciplines will lose all credibility without peer review; it is essential to what we do – as protection for the author and publisher, and as a way to get the best out of your work.”
Of course peer review matters! But let’s not reduce all academic production to a kind of zero sum game. A blog does not preclude writing for peer review and taking the peer review process seriously. After all, any scholars would be naive to think that all academic production receives the same level and kind of peer review. Giving a paper at an academic conference, for example, is a different level of peer review than submitting an article to major academic journal. Blogs fit into the academic ecosystem by allowing ideas to circulate in early forms. Scholars outside the humanities have already embraced the idea of “working papers” that circulate widely prior to formal peer review and publication, but as part of a parallel and less formal (but no less important) peer review process. While most academic blogs do not reached the level of a “working paper” they nevertheless offer a medium ideal for scholarly conversation and critique. If scholars are too busy or disengaged to participate in this discussion, then their perspectives will be ignored in the development of new knowledge.
3. “Post-publication review matters. Blog posts don’t get reviewed in the Journal of American History or the Journal of Southern History – books do.”
Again, writing is not a zero sum game. Articles do not (usually) get reviewed in the JAH or JSH, nor do conference papers, but these contributions to the academic, scholarly conversation are nevertheless represent an important place for academic correspondences. Blog fit into the existing academic ecosystem and expand it. Ironically, blogs are beginning to represent an important venue for post-publication review. A blogger can publish a quick review of a book at a much faster than a traditional journal. In fact, some venues, like the Bryn Mawr Classical Review have taken on an increasingly blog-like interface and represent the first word on many academic publications in the field of Classics and Ancient history.
4. “Blog posts could hurt your reputation just as much (if not more) than help it. Fascinating blog posts probably won’t get you an interview or a job, although they may make your name noteworthy enough so the committee looks at your application (although I doubt this for most positions). Articles will, solid dissertations will, fantastic conference papers will.”
Again, academic writing is not a zero sum game. Writing a blog post does not preclude writing an article, giving a conference paper, writing a book. Circulating ideas on a blog, however, gets them to a wider public. Of course, a hastily composed blog post could hurt an individual’s career, but the same could be said of a hastily composed conference paper or a poorly-considered book review. There is nothing intrinsic to the blog medium that causes an individual to say outlandish things or attack other authors. Of course, the ease with which a blog post can be circulated (via, for example, social media) and the wide audience that a blog post can have, should encourage bloggers to be sensitive to their academic reputation and the feelings of other scholars. But I’d suggest that these are good things! Blogs can accelerate certain aspects of professional development by allowing a junior scholar access to an academic conversation with certain rules of behavior and expectations.
(And I should say that I personally know some scholars whose careers have been helped by their blogs. It showed them to be far more dynamic and engaged than their slow to appear scholarly publications would suggest.)
5. “Blogs often function like the current American media: extreme, partisan, and amnesiac.”
None of these things are intrinsic to the medium of blogging except, perhaps, the seemingly ephemeral nature of most forms of digital communication. I actually like the ephemeral nature of my blog and have little inclination to make it an enduring venue for scholarly communication.
6. “Finally, and this is most apropos for our blog – this is a blog about religion and religions, the most powerful ideas, rituals, concepts, and communities that exist. As I understand the spiritual, it is the deepest core of people, ideas, organizations, and communities. Writing about it flippantly or without review or without consideration can be extremely damaging.”
This point is a good one, but I think my argument throughout this post should now be clear. Blogs have a context that dictates to some extent the rules in which the blog operates. This context is set at the intersection of a broad and ill-defined public conversation about the topic on the blog and long-standing professional and social traditions of academy. This puts the blogger in a powerful position to communicate academic ideas to an audience that is often unfamiliar with the terms of the debate and the languages and customs of the academic discourse. This position is also fraught with certain risks.
Professor Blum’s post highlights many of the risks associated with blogging (and overlooks, for rhetorical purposes I am sure) many of its benefits. It is useful to have these reminders periodically, if for no other reason than it forces those of us committed to the medium of blogging to articulate the place of the blog and blogger in the academic community.
As you might imagine, I am pretty excited that Steven Ellis’s team’s use of the iPad as their primary,field data recording device is getting some attention lately. I imagined this kind of digital workflow when I began working with Scott Moore to design the digital recording components of our project in Cyprus. Scott and I, from what I recall, always assumed a paper stage. This is what that stage looks like now:
I think that we fell back on the old archaeological wisdom that a paper stage somehow serves as a more dependable back up that digital copies. This led us to copying the entire archive each year and carrying it home (and still managing sometimes to lose copies of the original or not have them where we needed them). With a fully digital workflow, it is, of course, much easier to make copies of every stage of the documentation process and store them multiple places, and, provided that a good version control system is in place, manage these copies.
I know that I also subscribed to the idea that paper copies preserve more fully the archaeological thought process. We insisted that our trench supervisors not keep separate, personal, notebooks (they did anyway) and write directly onto our recording sheets as they excavate. The hope was that the image of the stratigraphic unit form provided the best record of the process of excavation. In fact, as much as was possible, we have sought to associate digital images of these sheets (and the trench plans of each stratigraphic unit) with the digital copies of this data. This remains a time consuming process of keying the data from each sheet and digitizing each days trench plans. Having supervised the keying of most of our field data, I can attest to the hours of time and concentration that went into producing our digital versions. It’s mostly done now, but it was a onerous process and we haven’t quite produced data with the kind of immediate transparency that we had hoped for (although it is all still possible). Using the iPad to record directly into digital form the basic data from the trench would pay immediate dividends by streamlining the data collection process.
On the other hand, I do wonder whether some of the data associated with the archaeological process might be lost. I was thinking about the faint evidence for revision that appears on our paper recording sheets – typically under various forms of erasure (usually a
strikethrough) – that preserves irregular fragments of the archaeological through processes. If Wikipedia has taught us anything, digital recording makes it possible to record this same data by recording each change to the data set and each earlier version. In effect, the digital data collection could preserve a kind of digital palimpsest of each key stroke, deletion, adjustment, mistaken measurement.
I am fascinated by this kind of micro-history and its potential to reveal patterns of behavior across an entire project and capture a more intimate look at how the archaeological method is performed.
Just for fun, I used The Archivist to capture some of the buzz about the Apple story on Ellis’s use of the iPad. The Archivist lets you download all the Tweets associated with any search criteria. For my little experiment, I captured all the Tweets that used the word “Pompeii” and “iPad”. As of 6 am this morning when I staggered into my office, I captured 520+ Tweets. I then plotted them by hour over the last few days. Here’s the chart.
They have averaged about 5 tweets an hour over the last 100 hours or so. The peek was 95 tweets per hour between 12:20 pm and 12:20 pm on September 23rd. Thus surge continued over the next hour where they had over 80 tweets and subsided to under 40 tweets later by 3:30 or so. The great thing about The Archivist is that it lets you download your Tweets so that you can data mine them using an application like RapidMiner. I didn’t do that, but I did do some simple mining. For example, Ellis’s name is mentioned in 131 of the tweets (or about 25% of the time) and about 16% of the Tweets are obvious “RT-style” re-tweets. In Tweets with both Pompeii and iPad in them Ellis’s university, University of Cincinnati, was never once mentioned nor was his project’s name, the Porta Stabia project (even in two Tweets that appear to come from “official” University of Cincinnati channels!). In the hyper economical world of Twitter, there are good reasons not to include long word like Cincinnati or relatively obscure project names. In contrast, the most common phrases is “Discovering ancient Pompeii with iPad” which was the title of the Apple article and it appeared in 62% of the Tweets (suggesting the far larger number of retweets happen than had the traditional “RT” designation). For the record, my Tweet, which occurred very early in the Tweet cycle led to only three retweets.
This is the kind of micro-historical analysis that could be possible by mining the minutia preserved in a fully digital workflow.
By the way, it’s a double blog day! I thought that I needed to do something to mark my 800th post and in the tradition of the National Register of Historic Places, I thought I’d just put up a marker (with a few links, it is a blog after all).
Thanks for reading!!
After a phone chat with an old friend yesterday, I got to wondering what an edited volume on archaeology and the new media would look like. Here are my random thoughts:
1. Dynamic. If we’ve learned anything from the New Media moment, it’s that static media is old media. The New Media – whatever that really is – is dynamic, adaptive, conversational, and unstable. It is a bit difficult to understand how a traditional edited volume that recognizes the value of the New Media in archaeology would bridge the gap between a static book form (and I would certainly count most ebooks as static, electronic versions of the Old Media) and the dynamic forms of expression that have characterized new media concepts. I could, perhaps, imagine a publication as a application for the iPad or coming wave of Android tablets that would fully embrace the nascent ability of e-readers, like the Kindle, to allow people to read collectively by providing access to other readers annotations.
2. Historical. At the same time, I’d want a volume to reflect and capture a specific historical moment in the development of archaeology as a discipline. As archaeologists, we know that excavation and documentation are both productive and destructive processes. The creation of a volume on archaeology and the New Media could embrace this destruction/production dichotomy both by preserving in some way our thinking about the role of web 2.0 technologies in our work and by destroying the web 2.0-ness of these technologies (and ways of thinking) in a static, profoundly archaeological volume. The archival tendency in archaeology could presumably accept the loss of the New Media experience for the sake of its historical description and preservation in another medium.
What do these first two points mean? An application or web site and an archive (a printed volume)?
3. Sampling Strategy. The one thing about New Media engagement with archaeological work is that range of applications and goals. Some projects see New Media as a means of publicizing their work to an established group of “stakeholders” or even working to expand the group of stakeholders by leveraging the webs infinite reach (and this is the point of departure that my project took when first experimenting with blogging). Other projects developed New Media technologies in their core project goals viewing the text-blogging or photo-blogging or video-blogging or pod-casting or whatever as central to the way archaeological research functions as story telling. The use of new media also extends from the New World archaeological practices to the deepest bastions of Old World archaeology and from the most highly restricted research oriented projects to field schools. Sampling a range of project’s that have used New Media would be necessary to document New Media in both practice and theory.
4. Definitions. The sampling strategy proposed above would help create a definition for the New Media in an archaeological context that would capture a moment in time and a discrete range of relationships between archaeological methods and media technologies. The production of an archives forms the basis for this kind of disciplinary definition that can serve as a measuring stick of effectiveness, innovation, and mark out more clearly conceptual boundaries.
5. Best Practices. There are practical concerns for using New Media technologies in archaeology. Some of them have to do with control over archaeological data and various national policies for the dissemination of sensitive archaeological information. As New Media technologies are increasingly used to record various aspects of archaeological research, there should be a set of best practices to ensure that the output of even the most ephemeral outputs are not lost. While a single set of best practices is unlikely to emerge, principles of curation would certainly provide a framework around which more practical approaches could cohere.
What are your thoughts on the design, scope, and content of a volume on Archaeology and the New Media?
Every once and a while, I get in the mood to post some metadata about my blog. I last did this at the end of April when I hit my 700th post. I was thinking about waiting until 800 to do it again, but here I am at 792 and I got just a bit impatient.
So, here’s some new metadata.
First, the summer is always a slow time for the blog. Over the last 150 days, I received 7008 visits or about 47 hits a day according to Google Analytics. These unique visits accounted for 10,047 page views or about 67 page views per day (or 1.43 views per visit). The analytics provided by TypePad claim about 1,800 more page views (11, 903), so as per usual, web analytics is a precise, but rather in exact science. The numbers reflect the summer lull, for the previous 5 months, I recorded 9,139 unique visitors and 14,559 views. Overall, I am still hanging just under 80 page views a day.
Here’s the traditional map of Archaeology of the Mediterranean World visitors:
The top 10 countries: US, Greece, UK, Canada, Italy, Australia, France, Germany, India, and Cyprus. In the US, the top 10 states were North Dakota, California, Pennsylvania, Ohio, New York, Florida, Texas, Washington, Illinois, and Michigan.
More interesting, perhaps, to my readers interested in technology is the browser data:
Internet Explorer: 28%
As a number of observers have noted, Chrome is digging into Firefox’s share. Last time I ran numbers (from October 2009 – April 2010), Firefox accounted for 53% of the browser share and Chrome was 6%. It’s interesting that since that time Internet Explorer and Safari has more or less held steady and Opera has more than doubled it share.
Over the same span of time, the different operating systems of the computers accessing my blog have not shifted much:
Linux has grown, and there have been notable shifts in the number of people accessing my blog from mobile devices with iPhone, iPod, and iPad showing marked increases as well as Android (but the overall number of views on these devices has remained small).
A bunch of people have sent me Monday’s New York Times article: “Scholars Test Web Alternative to Peer Review“. This article describes a recent trial at Shakespeare Quarterly where they eschewed traditional peer review and instead opened the review process to a panel of experts and others on the web. The process garnered over 350 comments from 41 people which the editors evaluated. Ultimately they selected the four articles for publication in a special edition of the journal on Shakespeare and the new media.
Whenever a journal attempts a project like this it attracts attention and almost inevitably provoked headlines heralding the impending end of the traditional practice of academic peer review. Most articles envision traditional peer review to involve a journal circulating an article to an anonymous pair of experts who evaluate the article’s suitability for publication in the particular journal and, in most cases, offer comments. This description of the peer review process is, of course, idealized. In reality, journals – particularly in Europe – have widely varying standards and practices for peer review with widely varying degrees of transparency. So the introduction of a new method of peer review which takes advantage of the increasing degree of connectivity on the web does not so much represent radical novelty amidst stodgy, ossified, practices of peer review, but another point along a continuum of practice.
Despite this reality, I know that any modifications to the traditional peer review practices are likely to create waves. I generally consider my colleagues across the disciplines to be fairly liberal minded folks, but it never ceases to amaze me how limited our perspectives become on matters like scholarly publishing. In fact, it befuddles me why academia struggles so mightily with the idea that “in the future” we could acknowledge the value of academic and intellectual work produced through a wide range of publishing paradigms ranging from the un-edited and un-reviewed blog to the highly polished peer reviewed journals. Of course, I can anticipate one response: with the explosion of new publications and formats, the “average scholar” struggles to keep abreast of developments in his or her field. Moreover, introducing a new layer of less rigorously reviewed material to the mix contributes to the massive quantity of material that scholars are expect to understand.
On the other hand, the rise of highly integrated and sophisticated social networking applications is making it easier to filter scholarship through a layer a kind of secondary review by colleagues. My friends and colleagues serve, in effect, as another layer of peer review ensuring the we as a group have access to “important” scholarly contributions even from obscure journals. While there is no guarantee that good scholarship will find its way through our social network, the economies of numerous eyes scanning the growing body of scholarly literature gives us a better chance of seeing things important to our common research interests.
The other traditional complaint against adjusting the peer review process is that it will ultimately undermine the quality of scholarship produced. It is as if the practice of circulating working papers, archaeological reports, pre-pubication drafts, informal reviews, has not existed for as long a peer-reviewed publications. For centuries scholars circulated manuscripts to colleagues and friends without the benefit of anonymous, exterior reviews. The major shift now is that we can democratize the process of circulating working papers by using the web rather than informal and private avenues of scholarly communication. In fact, the newly democratized practice of pre-publication circulation offers the potential to uphold the highest standards of peer review. The pressure will be on the peer review process to demonstrate the superiority of its product in relation to non-peer reviewed work. Such competition should make any benefit inherent to the traditional method of peer reviewed scholarship all the more visible.
I spent today taking photographs of the inventoried artifact cards at the Ohio State Excavations at Isthmia dig house. First off, this was incredibly boring work. It involved taking pictures of roughly 5 7 inch inventory cards for about 6 hours straight. I managed to photograph about 1500 of them. It reminded me that most of academic life is, in fact, tedious and archaeology – despite its somewhat exotic image (and genuinely exotic locales) – mostly involves a level of unparalleled tedium.
Second, it did give me a chance to muse over the nature of media in archaeology. The cards were hand written (mostly) and included a photograph of the inventoried object, pasted, generally onto the card itself. I was translating these images into a digital image, which would eventually form the basis for a textual image of the object in a relational database. The transition from one media to the next always constitutes unique challenges in any discipline and it is particularly challenging to translate physical objects like cards – which are as much artifacts as documents of the artifacts collected – from one form to the next. The most obvious loss is the physical appearance of emendations, additions, and corrections (inscribed in each instance in different hands, colors, pen types, and styles) and the attendant humanizing of the interpretative process over generations.
The cold reality of text based databases is that even if earlier notation are not overwritten (either in a graphically visible sense or in a digital sense), the human aspect of inscribing physical objects ends. And this is particularly significant for archaeology which is first and foremost, the study of material objects.
I downloaded onto my iPad – via the Kindle application – a copy of Clay Shirky’s Congnitive Surplus (New York 2010). This book has receive a good bit of attention on the interwebs, in large part because Shirky is unapologetic about the potential of the internet and particularly the potential of the internet for good. In an era where one’s status as a pundit almost depends upon a certain cynical view of the world, this book is refreshing and positive.
In short, Shirky argues that the internet provides an outlet for surplus energy that the prosperity of the second half of the 20th century has made available to us. The rise in prosperity has allowed residents of the West, in particular, to enjoy increasing amounts of free-time and leisure. Shirky contends that the number one use of this leisure time over the last 60 years has been watching television. Watching television is solitary, somewhat anti-social, and, most importantly, passive.
The rise of the internet has begun to slowly encroach on the dominance of television. Unlike TV the internet is social, provides a platform for both passive consumption and active production of media, and encourages the formation of communities with shared interests. The dynamic character of the web as a social platform functions to channel energies previously locked away in in the passive relationship between the individual and the television. The web has already begun to channel the “cognitive surplus” unleashed by the West’s recent prosperity, but hitherto squandered through passive and more or less solitary leisure-time activities. Shirky’s best example of this is Wikipedia which appeared out of the many moments of leisure enjoyed by tens of thousands of individual contributors. The result is a testimony to the aggregate knowledge of global community of individuals which prior to the internet would have found a singular, intellectually substantial expression.
While this is cool thesis, it also caused me to think about a few things:
1. I am not convinced that the “cognitive” activity that Shirky associates with the internet comes directly from surplus time spent in front of the television. It’s a great idea, but a relatively unsophisticated argument. First, people always used some of their free time in productive, social ways. Whether it is membership in a community organization, work with a church or other religious group, or serving as an elected official or a volunteer, the cognitive surplus created by economic prosperity poured innumerable areas of social and community life. As the internet allows for communities to extend beyond the institutional and social confines of traditional, place-based communities, surely some of Shirky’s apparent “cognitive surplus” comes at the expense of these other, more traditional forms of community and social organization. At the same time, there are those who suggest that the rather diffuse creativity on display on the internet comes at the expense of more economically productive pursuits. The individuals who produce LOLCats for example might otherwise be watching television, but also might be reading a book, working, learning or refining a skill. I am all for these profoundly democratic expressions of creativity, but I’d be reluctant to argue that television and the internet form a kind of zero-sum dyad. The arguments for the evils of the internet, in fact, tend not to be arguments for the watching of television, but rather arguments that the internet undermines more rigorous, local, focused, and ultimately socially responsible uses of time and talent. Shirky does little to undermine these critiques.
2. The notion of channeling surplus is always appealing, but what really matters is how that surplus (cognitive or otherwise) is channelled. The downside of the unfettered and limitless nature of the internet is that it can minimize the impact of a small contribution while still giving the individual the sense of contributing to something larger. (And I say this a blogger who regularly devotes 4 or 5 hours a week launching my two-cents into the void, and with the understanding that these 4 or 5 hours could be spent polishing up a lecture, reading another, important, argument, reading a graduate student’s paper just that much more carefully, or any number of professionally and socially responsible (impactful) activities). The radically democratized space of the internet is the most efficient venue for all forms of surplus. The “eat local” movement provides a nice model here. Just eating locally produced foods is not a sure-fire solution to ecological, economic, and ethical problems facing large scale food production in a globalized economy. In the same way, the shear scale of the internet presents significant problems for the efficient use of specialized surplus.
3. Finally, this is the first book that I’ve read cover-to-cover (so to speak) on my iPad. The most interesting aspect of this experience (aside from the fact that the iPad is a very nice tool for reading a book) is that I could where other people highlighted passages in Shirky’s book. Slight, dashed underlines showed me commonly annotated passages and clicking on the passages indicated how many people underlined that particular text. Here is a great example of Shirky’s of how the internet takes the solitary act of reading and annotating a text and turns it into a global activity with numerous participants creating a running commentary. While at present (as far as I can tell) the Kindle application only allows readers to share underlining, it would be remarkable in the future for readers to share margin notes, comments, and even links to other passages in other books. The aggregate of these activities would instantly turn any book into a critical edition.
Just a quick repost from over on Teaching Thursday:
If you read this blog, chances are that you read other blogs like it. So I thought it would be a useful exercise to crowd-source some of the more useful teaching related blogs on the web.
The three blogs that I check most regularly are:
Tomorrow’s Professor Blog aggregates a great selection of online teaching articles each day. It’s a great daily review of what’s new across the web.
Prof Hacker has recently moved to the Chronicle of Higher Education’s webpage. It deals with much more than just the “hacking” or technology aspects of teaching to include professional advice, productivity tips, and even recipes!
Not to be left out, Inside Higher Ed, offers the daily Technology and Learning Blog which covers ground similar to Prof Hacker with maybe a slightly greater emphasis on technology.
Finally, I’d be remiss not to mention Mark Grabe’s Learning Aloud blog which provides a nice array of personal technology tips with an eye toward their use in the classroom.
This is just a small sample of the vast teaching related blogosphere. What blogs do you read to keep up with recent developments in teaching? Let’s work to create a list of teaching blogs that you find useful as a resource.
Post your favorite blogs in the comments section over at Teaching Thursday!
I’ve just completed my first large scale experiments with integrating Twitter into my classroom. For those who don’t regularly follow this blog, I used Twitter in my 100 level Western Civilization at the University of North Dakota. The class met once a week, at night, for two hours and twenty minutes. Most of the students are freshmen and sophomores, with a spattering of juniors and seniors typically in the hard sciences or engineering. The two biggest problems in the class are poor attendance (I am competing with Lost and, to be blunt, the class has a vigorous in-class writing component and perhaps not the most interesting lectures) and a tendency among students to disengage sometime over the course of the semester. Because the class meets only once a week and attendance is a struggle, students tend to disengage from the class and vanish into the night until the midterm or final forces them to re-engage, but at that point it is sometimes too late to get back into the swing of things, make up myriad missed assignment, and get a decent grade in what is otherwise a fairly easy class.
Twitter seemed one way to try to engage the students on the days when my one-day-a-week, 100 level class is probably the furthest thing from their minds. So, I created a Twitter page and began to Tweet regularly. Over the course of the semester, this account acquired 111 followers, all students in my class, or over 75% of all the students in the class. Signing up for Twitter was voluntary, although I motivated the students with a vague promise to make it work the 3 minutes necessary to sign up. Over the course of the semester, I posted 152 Tweets (approximately 10 per week) which represent both public tweets and responses to student tweets. I posted several scheduled tweets each week. Generally, I’d post a quick recap to the class on Wednesday, I’d post weekly announcements on Thursday, and on Friday I would post some kind of trivia questions on my world famous “Trivia Friday”. 90% of the Tweets were directly concerning the class. The other 10% of the Tweets concerned campus activities or current events (e.g. the death of Guru, et c.) that touched loosely on classroom conversations.
I also experimented with using Twitter to provide a back channel in class. Using weekly hashtags (#H101W3 = History 101 Week 3), I encouraged students in the lecture style class to post questions or comments during class. I then had an active version of Tweetdeck on the classroom computer on which I could check students tweets or project them on the screen during my lecture. Most, if not all, of the students in the class have cell phones and many (perhaps 30%) had laptops in class.
While I was not disappointed with the Twitter experiment — after all it involved only a modest time commitment on my part (in general, a tweet took me less than 2 minutes to write so less than 20 minutes per week on average) — only a tiny fraction of my students embraced it and it did not appear to have any positive (or negative!) impact on the class. Here are some observations:
1. UND Students are not on Twitter. While I did not sample the entire class, my random sample of 25 students show that only 5 of this group use Twitter in a regular way and I suspect that the number of regular Twitter users in my class is even lower. So, Twitter is not built into these students’ information ecosystem. My morning routine involves starting Tweetdeck and scrolling quickly through my Tweets, but this seems unlikely to be the case for our students. As a result, Twitter appeared to the students as “something extra” and, as a result, an inconvenience rather than a helpful supplement to their already existing information network. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, students resist anything that they see as a work increase, even if we make clear how these additional “burdens” advance learning objectives.
2. Shared Commitment. Twitter works best within a community of people with a shared commitment to engaging one another and the topics at hand. In other words, Twitter is not a particularly efficient tool for one-to-one communication between faculty and a student or it is at least no better than email. Twitter facilitates community interaction in which students can respond to one another or interact with each other in a public way. Because my class only met once a week in a lecture hall setting, had an prevalent lecture component, was rather large (100+), and encompassed a wide range of students of different academic years and standings, there was little existing community for Twitter to facilitate. As a result, students did not, in general, respond to each other, but penned tweets generally directed toward me and usually in response to a specific query. A parallel trend appears in my efforts to encourage the use of Blackboard’s wiki tool to produce study guides and class notes. A few students work hard to create a nice set of notes, and the rest of the class become passive consumers. Despite the bribe of points, there is no shared commitment to the class that would support the collective effort to create a body of notes. Neither Twitter nor the Wiki is enough to create community.
3. Techniques. Despite my efforts to give the students plenty of instruction on how to use Twitter, my students still struggled with things like hashtags (used to mark posts as belonging to a particular week or lecture), and we never used retweets or replies. This contributed to the one-way nature of the Twitter conversations especially as I was the only one responding to anyone in the class.
4. Technology. Finally, students compartmentalize technology. Most of the tweets in my class come from “the web” which I assume means through either their desktop or laptop computer as opposed to a mobile device like a phone or smartphone. In other words, despite the recent concerted interest to integrate social media with mobile devices, very few tweets and almost none from first time Twitter users came from phones (either as text message or Android/WinMo based apps — we do not have iPhones here in North Dakota). This was disappointing because I thought Twitter would be widely accessible from mobile phones and, as a result, sufficient democratized not to leave less technophilic students at a disadvantage. Another technological issue that arose was the slow speed of Twitter searches made it hard to capture Tweets on specific lectures during class time. As a result, students were not able to create a realtime back channel, but only one delayed by 10 to 15 minutes which over the course of a 2 hour class is significant.
So, while my first experiments with Twitter in the class did not produce the social media plus education utopia that I had hoped, it did highlight certain weaknesses in the class as I now teach it. I need to work to create more of a community in the large lecture class if I want to tap into this community with tools like Twitter or wikis. These tools do not create the sense of community, but only serve to manage it. At the same time, I need to find ways to communicate the technical aspects of Twitter more effectively so that students can maximize the effectiveness of the medium.
I am excited about the prospect of integrating Twitter into the online version of my Western Civilization I courses this fall and spring. Since the students already expect to interact with me and their fellow students through an online medium, there might be a greater sense of value assigned to the simple Twitter interface (as compared to the more cumbersome blackboard interface).