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Discovering the Force of Technology and Social Media in Schools

Discovering the Force of Technology and Social Media in Schools

Written by Dan Laird
April 29, 2013

 “For my ally is the Force, and a powerful ally it is.” –Yoda

Modern technology is certainly a force for change. Our ability to access information and reach out to others across the globe is continually improving and growing at a rapid pace.  I can still remember as a kid hearing about the future invention of the video phone at Epcot’s World of Tomorrow display.  Twenty years later, I’m complaining that I need a new webcam for my computer because mine is too outdated and grainy and I’m too lazy to hold the one in my iPad or phone.

Much like I had to learn how to use the card catalogue at the library, kids today need to be aware of and learn how to use the technology that exists so that they have access to the infinite amounts of information available to them. However, technology in schools faces a number of different battles in today’s day and age.  Of course, the biggest issue is the availability of it and the ever widening gap between those who have and those who have not.  There are schools with wifi and iPads for every student and schools without so much as a functioning computer lab for 500 students to share.  The biggest obstacle is obviously money. However, the next biggest is the stigma that technology is too entertaining to be educational.

“Yes. A Jedi’s strength flows from the Force, but beware of the Dark Side. ” – Yoda

In the beginning of the modern technological age, everyone was relatively on the same playing field.  Technology was simply visual.  From film projectors to TV/VCR combos, just about everyone could access one.  They provided access to information, demonstrations, and general stimulus.  Ironically, the more resources that became available, the more some questioned the legitimacy of them as an educational tool. Is it making teachers lazy? Is it simply a means for a teacher to take a break? Clearly, there is concern about the Dark Side of technology in education. In regards to videos, my district requires paperwork listing the covered benchmarks for any videos longer than five minutes.  Although today’s political attacks on education cause many of us to look at this measure as more bureaucratic distrust of teachers, I’m willing to accept it as a compromise as long as this is the extent of any difficulty required to use technology.  But it rarely is.

For years, my school had turned the internet into a locked door without a key.  Every site was blocked in an effort “to protect our kids.” In broad strokes, more generic reasoning and energy was focused  on what the students should not have access to at the expense of numerous invaluable resources.  Requests could be made to unblock something for the day, but with one person running the entire technology department, there was no guarantee that it would be unblocked by the time you took your class to the lab.  Sites that were unblocked today could be blocked tomorrow.  The New York Times website was blocked once because it had a crossword puzzle and crossword puzzles are games.  Many teachers simply gave up on using the lab at all for anything other than word processing.  I was one of them.

“A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” –Yoda

Even when money and availability aren’t an issue, educators need to be advocates for the 21st century digital classroom.  If we simply sit back and leave these decisions to those who are overprotective or simply uninformed about various technologies and working on assumptions, our students will continue to fall further behind.  Schools may be the only opportunity many students have to access these resources. If we severely limit what we offer in schools, these students may never be exposed to it.  If students do have access to technology at home, we risk students viewing school as an outdated, archaic institution.

My initial goal had been to educate the students about modern (and, in most cases, popular) digital literacies (specifically Twitter) being used today, have them assess them, and eventually advocate for themselves if they deemed they could be useful tools in the classroom.  This morphed into a lesson on digital literacy awareness when I discovered our replaced technology department took an unannounced reversal regarding internet blocking.  (Imagine a teacher introducing the topic of blocked resources to a class by demonstrating how Twitter is blocked only to type in the web address and have it appear unblocked and ready to use.)

The first step was to find out what my students already knew about Twitter.  For starters, only a few of them had accounts but they rarely used them.  When I asked them what it was for, the most common response was “posts like Facebook.” How can a social media survive if it only does a fraction of what a much more popular social media does?  

Teacher: “How could a site with only posts be useful?”

Student: “You’d pay attention more to what people said.”

Teacher: “What do you mean?”

Student:“There’s too much going on on Facebook. Posting is just one thing you can do.”

Don’t blame me. I’m just an interpreter. I’m not supposed to know a power socket from a computer terminal. -C3PO

The interesting thing about middle school students is that they have a tendency to run on impulsive autopilot.  When I asked them why many of them spend so much time posting on Facebook, the initial response was, “I don’t know.” To be fair, this is a pretty common middle school answer for just about any question if you don’t prod them along.  With that prodding, it became clear that the students simply had something to say.  They had been interpreting their feelings on different issues or events and writing without any prior thought as to why, for whom, or with what expectations.  All they were doing was “just sayin’ stuff.”  The application of writing curriculum was staring them right in the face and they hadn’t even known it.  Unfortunately, “just sayin’ stuff” is the over simplistic view most adults have on social media platforms.  It defies logic to assume that one of the most popular venues for student writing is a waste of time.  Is it because it is popular and therefore not educational? Is it because the students don’t even think of it as writing?  Is it because it looks nothing like a five paragraph essay?

“A Jedi gains power through understanding…” -Palpatine

Middle School students argue all the time but it doesn’t mean they are masters at the art of argument writing. Students post all of the time but it doesn’t mean there isn’t anything to be learned about doing just that.   We don’t necessarily teach topics such as fiction and poetry writing because we expect them to continuously create stories and poems throughout their lives.  However, we do expect them to read throughout their lives.  From books to song lyrics, knowledge on how to create them increases understanding and enjoyment of them.  So is “posting” any different?  Like any other form of writing, there are rules both written and understood for different digital literacies and usually they are connected in some way.  For instance, the biggest of the written rules for Twitter is that each “tweet” may only be a maximum of 140 characters.  Much like its cousin the text message, it is understood that abbreviations and other various shorthand is perfectly acceptable.  The general rules of written grammar are excused in order to include more material in a limited message.  

Of course, many worry that the lack of structure could cause a decline in formal language.  As discussed in a recent TED Talk with John McWhorter, writing and talking are not always the same thing.  There is usually a little less elegance in our impromptu speaking than in our planned written words.  But most evolution of language from structure to slang is a result of speaking.  For what may be the first time, people are afforded the opportunity to write as they speak and with that we are witness to the evolution of communication.  From the fast paced evolution of the meaning of “LOL” (showing literal laughter to showing empathy) to the development of topic transitions in writing with words such as “slash,” texting and Twitter have become a microcosm for watching how communication develops.

The key is in understanding that we can have more than one literacy.  When I introduce a lesson on narrative writing after a lengthy period of teaching argument writing, my students do not assume that everything they had learned up to that point was incorrect.  They understand (or are reminded if they do not) that different occasions require different styles of writing and that each style of writing has its unique traits.  Because tweeting looks more like a distant cousin than a brother or sister to the traditional styles, it is often dismissed as having no use.  Like any other style of writing, tweeting or texting only has certain occasions when it is appropriate.  As far as the dismissal of traditional rules of grammar when tweeting, I always tell my students, “You have to understand the rules before you can break them.”

“You must learn the ways of the Force…” – Obi Wan Kenobi

So what can I do with it?  There are a number of useful lessons that can accompany the use of Twitter.  Perhaps the most useful learned skill is paraphrasing.  In order to accommodate the 140 character limit, Twitter users need to be succinct and right to the point.  Like any style of writing, there should be no confusion as to what that point is.  This can easily be combined with an editing lesson.  Here are the steps I give my students to answering what I can “Twitical Thinking Questions”:

  1. Answer the question how you normally would.
     
  2. Decide what keywords you feel are necessary for your answer.
     
  3. Eliminate or rephrase “wordy” parts of your answer.
     
  4. Are there accepted familiar abbreviations for keywords in the Twitter community? (e.g. “Ss” for students in education tweets)
     
  5. Are there understandable texting abbreviations that can be used? (“Gr8” for “great”)

The goal is to get the students to really focus on a correct answer as opposed to filling space.  This exercise is also very useful in seeing if students understand what they have been taught.  In one easy cross-curricular activity, the students were asked to paraphrase the Bill of Rights in tweet form.  With a follow up conversation, not only do the students have to demonstrate understanding, they also begin to see the danger of over-simplifying which seems to be a root problem in current issues regarding debates on American rights.

A similar exercise is what I like to call “Twitter Theater” in which students recreate a scene, or in some cases whole stories, in the form of a Twitter feed.  In this assignment, students make Twitter the setting of the story and change the conversation to a series of tweets between characters.  I usually use this Microsoft commercial to demonstrate the idea.

Once again, the students demonstrate understanding of the characters’ meanings and purposes through paraphrasing.  In addition, students can also demonstrate character analysis through hashtags (#) which could describe a character’s moods or internal conflicts.  Students usually have fun in making characters relatable including inventing their Twitter handles.  Here’s an interesting take on a famous line in Romeo and Juliette:

“O Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo?”

becomes

@starcrossedromeo Why couldn’t you be adopted? #lonely

Although used to express one-time-only unique “bonus” thoughts like the one above, hashtags are also used to help catalogue posts of a similar topic.  This is also how users who do not follow each other can participate in conversations with each other.  Popularly used during live events such as award ceremonies or Presidential speeches, users can follow live thoughts of others by using an established hashtag for the event.  Although following the thread of a conversation can be difficult with multiple users, it does allow users to interact with people from around the world.  Also, the hashtagged conversations can be searched and used for historical purposes later on.  

Twitter also provides a nice reinforcing lesson on the need to give credit where credit is due.  In the educational battle to avoid plagiarism, we ask our students to cite sources.  The world of Twitter is no different.  Twitter allows users to repost, or retweet, the posts of others.  By default, Twitter will add the abbreviation RT followed by the Twitter handle of the original poster before the message.  Because the abbreviation and handle may push the post over the character maximum, there is another accepted Twitter abbreviation, MT or modified tweet, which allows the user to inform readers that changes were made in order to reduce the amount of characters used. Although a relatively simple lesson, the practice of using these abbreviations encourages students to be aware and protect the creative property of others.  

“Who is more foolish? The fool, or the fool who follows him?” -Obi Wan Kenobi

One of the more interesting people that I follow on Twitter is Ricky Gervais.  He is an avid fan of Twitter dedicating a large percentage of his tweets to the topic of religion and atheists, which he is.  Because of the sensitive nature of the topic and most likely because he approaches it with an abrasive comedic style, he is flooded with responses that either support or look to debate with him. Perhaps what caught my attention more than the conversation itself is the fact that Ricky Gervais has that conversation with them by responding as well.  Keep in mind that Ricky Gervais is an A-list celebrity and  these people are random strangers.

This led me to develop a little social experiment for my class to carry out.  Much like the understood rule of text messaging, the written rule of Twitter is that posts must be short.  After a brief poll of both students and staff, I discovered that people are more likely to respond to a text than answer a phone call.  This is mostly because, with text messages, the user is excused from the formalities of conversation.  He can get right to the point without being considered rude.  Because short messages is the written rule of Twitter, could this be why complete strangers are finding themselves in conversations with celebrities?  Since a person is not allowed to say much on Twitter, are people more likely to say something to more people?  My class decided to put it to the test.  

The first step was to create a class Twitter account.  An account with educational purposes may further persuade others to take a few seconds of their time to respond.  And so was born @LairdsLearners.  The second step was to find people to connect with.  I asked each of my students to come up with three people with whom they would like to communicate and ask one question for each of them.  I encouraged them to shoot for the moon and reach out to people they most likely would never encounter in their lifetime.  I received an extensive list of celebrities, athletes, authors, and other assorted experts in their respective fields.  

Tweets were addressed and sent.  Step three?  Simply wait and see what happens.  One important conversation that came about dealt with cyber safety.  Like any social media service, there are red flags of which students should be cautious.  We discovered that our account received followers for which there was no explanation.  After close examination of those accounts’ profile pages, we identified those red flags which indicated that we should block them.  Among those red flags included profile descriptions that consisted of nothing but a vague url, tweets that amounted to gibberish or were sent to multiple people, and “celebrities” that did not have verified status.

Although we only received responses from a small number of our “test subjects,” we did manage to learn a few things and develop further hypotheses.  Perhaps one of the most exciting results came almost immediately after  sending the tweet.  One of my students was a fan of a digital music composer named Blake Robinson (@syntheticorch) who became famous for making orchestral arrangements from video game music themes. My student had an idea for Robinson’s next musical project theme and asked if he would be interested in covering it.  Within five minutes of sending the tweet, he responded that he had considered covering it, too.  Although the exchange was relatively simple, my student was excited by the fact it happened at all.  What was more interesting to the class is that Blake Robinson lives in England.  The students’ world just became a whole lot smaller.

We did receive other responses.  The American Veterinary Medical Association (@AVMAvets) was nice enough to provide one student with a resource for picking a good school.  However, our biggest success came from authors.  It turns out that writers were the most responsive with our literacy project.  Again, the exchanges were simple, but the students were fascinated to get inside knowledge of the thought process and planning of some of their most favorite literary series.

The future of our Twitter experiment is loaded with possibilities.  We will most likely continue to reach out to others like a message in a bottle but I have also made plans to use our account as the means for setting up a pen pal with a former student teacher who has taken a job in Alaska.  Regardless of what we come up with, I know that the students are actively engaged with the possibilities and continue to ask me everyday for updates.

“Don’t underestimate the Force.” – Darth Vader

In the end, it is important to recognize that a technology providing a source for written communication for millions of people around the world should not be dismissed just because it is labeled as a popular social media site.  After all, we want written expression to be popular and we certainly hope it makes our students more socially connected with the world around them.  

Although there was concern originally about the lifespan of Twitter, it has proven that it is not a short lived fad.  Television broadcasters display their Twitter handles as frequently as their names.  Twitter’s impact should not be dismissed easily either.  It played a role in the democracy movement in Egypt.  It created a five minute long stock market crash when the Associated Press’s account was hacked and posted about an apparent explosion in the White House that injured the President.  Comedian Stephen Colbert did an entire segment teaching former President Bill Clinton how to create and use a Twitter account on national television.  In fact, Colbert may have summed it up best when he said, “There is always room for Twitter. It’s the Jell-o of human expression.”

@LairdsLearners

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