April's issue of Journal of Computer Assisted Learning has an article that claims to provide the first experimental evidence that using Twitter as part of university courses can increase student engagement and improve grades. It's based on a study with 125 first year pre-health care professional majors. Half the class used Twitter for educational purposes as part of their course, while the other half did not use Twitter and thus were confined to the terribly old fashioned world of non-Twitter-based social networking. All students completed a pre- and post-test survey of engagement. Guess what? Tweety students were significantly more engaged and got better grades than their non-tweety brethren.
Now, I am not normally one to bemoan the decline of educational standards but this compels me to shake my grizzled head sadly. I'm not particularly against the use of Twitter as another tool to help to teach a course, but the use of Twitter in assessment in this study is curious. The students in the experimental group were assessed on assignments which asked them to tweet a total of 12 messages. That means they had to write maximum1680 characters. I occasionally impose word counts on students for their essays but never character counts! I fondly imagine that they had other assignments to complete for this course but you never know. It might go some way to explaining how the grades for the experimental group were higher: It isn't reported how the control group were assessed but there's a chance it was on more than 1680 characters worth of thought.
Yes, we want students to feel brave enough to contribute their innermost thoughts to a class discussion. Yes, we want them to get to know each other and form study groups. Yes, we want them to be in touch with staff and get instant feedback on queries. Actually, do we really want that? Should we be swift to embrace another way for students to relentlessly hound academics to suit their own agendas? (“Dr. Judy, why have you not given me feedback on my essay yet? I gave it to you a whole hour ago!”)
But surely we also want our students to surpass goldfish in their capacity for sustained thought. Universities should be in the business of producing students who can build an argument, express complex ideas, debate controversial topics, and generally prove themselves to be capable and eloquent users of their native languages. It seems to me that Twitter is not the tool for that job.
I leave you with a slogan from a Despair wear t-shirt: “Twitter. Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.” This neatly sums up my response to the JCAL article in fewer than 140 characters and thus undermines my point.
It's unfortunate that so much education technology research chases the latest tech gadgetry. We could be developing innovative systems that the mainstream markets won't ever. Or at least treating new technologies as tools towards better solutions rather than prepackaged solutions looking for a use.
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