Sunday, September 20, 2009

Confessions of a Twitter Prof

Further to the Twitterization of Higher Education... Terri Main is one of the 10% of faculty who use Twitter for instruction. She is an 8-year veteran of online teaching, and teaches about online technologies. I asked her a few questions, and found her answers thought-provoking. Among other things, she believes social networking is on a track to change the culture of education....

BP: What differences have you seen in the 8 years you've been teaching online, with regard to student readiness and acceptance of online technologies?

TM: When I started nearly all students were first time students. They usually needed extensive orientation on the use of BlackBoard (our course management software). Now, the majority of my students have taken online classes before or at least attempted them. They rarely need help with the basics of the technology. I wish our software was more accessible from mobile devices like smart phones. I suspect that if it was, many of our students would be accessing from their phones.

BP: You're preparing to teach a class on Computer Mediated Communication, which focuses on communication in relationships. What sort of technologies will you explore?

TM: The primary focus will be the Web 2.0 technologies. We will emphasize social networking in it's various forms. We will also make excursions into the worlds of the 3-D web like Second Life and World of Warcraft as well. But much of the course will focus on how computer mediated communication is shaping all of our relationships. For instance, I was out sick a week earlier this year. Nevertheless, even though my dean and coworkers knew I was sick, they still included me in work related email discussions. Being instantly accessible shifts the concept of “time off.” We will look at such phenomenon as online dating. Two women I know in my age bracket who recently married, both met their husbands through E-harmony. Email and IM has replaced much of my face time with students. I have a daily office hour, yet I probably don't have over 10 actual visits a year. All these are changing the nature of our relationships.

BP: You use web 2.0 technologies yourself in teaching. How, and how do they help?

TM: Right now, I use them as an auxiliary to my regular contact with students through email and BlackBoard. I use Twitter mostly for my online classes. I post reminders of due dates and on campus meeting dates. I also post study tips, research and writing suggestions. I occasionally post an inspirational quote or joke. It's a quick way to post a link from the web.

With online students, I find fewer have Twitter than I expected. Many sign up just to get my updates. But then online students tend to be older. They take online classes because they have work and family commitments. They are still more email oriented than Twitter or text oriented. But a couple of years ago, I had to explain what a blog was and the words social networking would draw blank stares.

Things move so fast in cyberspace by the time anything gets printed in a traditional way, it's out of date.

BP: You're a content expert and an experienced online instructor. Where do you see technologies like Twitter and Social Networking taking online learning?

TM: Well, just to give you a hint our college is using various instant messaging and social networking technologies for emergency alerts. Following the Virginia Tech experience, authorities discovered that students were finding out more about the shootings from their Facebook pages than from the school.

Beyond that, though, I believe we will see the emergence of new ways to use these venues of communication. Right now, many instructors use them for announcements. Some are developing Facebook pages for their courses where they can post course information and get feedback from students. I can see a growing use of specialized social networks being used for educational purposes. For instance, a literature professor might require her students to keep a reading and critique list on Goodreads or a Writing instructor encourage students to network using Writer's Den.

Social networks can also change the culture of education. The interactive and informal nature of these social networks can blur the line between teacher and student. Online education already does that to a great extent. The online instructor is not the sage on the stage, but the guide by the side. Online education is primarily student driven instruction. A social network filled with “friends” does have a leveling effect.

One of the dangers of this blurring occurs when students and faculty become friends on personal networks. This is considered to be something to be avoided with current students. However, some argue it makes the instructor more accessible. Whether there is such a thing as being too accessible is the question.

BP: Can you comment on the overall effect of these technologies on relationships? Do they help or hurt, and why?

TM: I think it is a bit overly simplistic to say do they help or hurt. The answer is both. It's like saying did the telephone help or hurt relationships. Well, it eliminated the need for face to face communication and as such encouraged fewer face to face visits. However, it made it possible to sustain long distance relationships with friends and family. Many people today are reconnecting through social networks. There are several people I hadn't talked to in years that I now have as friends on Facebook and honestly know more about them now than when I knew them in a face to face setting.

Here's a good example. The advent of the automobile changed life as much as that of the internet if not more. Church is an example. Before the car, you basically went to the closest church of your denomination. That meant you went to church with your neighbors. You didn't only see them at church, but in the store, the post office and at the community events. With the car, neighborhoods became less important and “third places” like churches, clubs, bars, etc become more important. Called “Third Places” by sociologists designating a place other than work or home. You now drove to church which likely was not in your own neighborhood. You saw people on Sunday morning, maybe Sunday night or at a church function. However, that daily contact had been lost. Now, with Facebook, Twitter, Shoutlife and other social networking sites, I stay in touch with fellow church members daily. Facebook has become the General Store of the 21st century where people meet and chat.

On the other hand, relationships can develop very rapidly online. This is called hyperpersonal communication. We often find ourselves revealing quite significant personal material to people we only “met” a few days or weeks ago. We can feel a close personal connection with people on the basis of very little information. Lonely people, the elderly and teenagers are especially vulnerable to those who would take advantage of such fast track intimacy. Many people use the anonymity of the internet to become bullies saying things online they would never say in a face to face setting.

So, yes, I'd say it's a mixed bag, but on balance we have gained more than we have lost.

BP: How can someone sign up for your upcoming class?

TM: If anyone lives in California and is interested in taking my Computer Mediated Communication course (probably the only one of its kind offered by a community college), they can apply through . Applications for spring semester are being taken now with general registration commencing in late October. Those outside of California can also apply, but the cost is significantly higher. This will be a fully online class. No on campus meetings will be required.

BP: Thanks, Terri!

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