Twitter in the history class, and the "uni" in "university"

My colleague Carl Flynn forwarded me a link yesterday to a YouTube video documenting Professor Monica Rankin’s use of Twitter in her history class at the University of Texas-Dallas. (Yes, he used Twitter to do it–all about the recursion, folks.) I retweeted the link, and Derek Bruff at Vanderbilt sent me a link to his very thoughtful and extensive analysis on his blog. It’s worth considering just that layer of social-network interaction, which is still news to many people in higher education and which is also a great answer to the question of “why should I invest time in social media?” Even though I’ve been in this space for many years now–my fifth-year blogging anniversary is coming up on June 27–I still marvel at the ease and power of the social life of shared experience, let alone information, that this platform enables.

But back to “The Twitter Experiment,” which you can view here.

In addition to the many fine thoughts and questions Derek offers in his comprehensive analysis, two things stand out to me.  One is the way the work of the TA is positioned. As Derek notes, the TA really does become part of the instructional team. In fact, I’d say she’s almost a “research assistant” and “teaching assistant” at the same time, with the object of her research being the class itself. I can’t help thinking such an arrangement makes for an excellent apprenticeship in mindful teaching and the possibilities of research on classroom practice (aka “the scholarship of teaching and learning”). Another standout for me is the YouTube video itself, especially when it’s considered as an interdisciplinary project. As the videographer (Kim Smith, aka “kesmit3”) writes in the YouTube sidebar and in her blog post about the project:

She [Professor Rankin] collaborated with the UT Dallas, Arts and Technology – Emerging Media and Communications (EMAC) faculty and as a Graduate student in EMAC I assisted her in her experiment.

I documented the experiment for a digital video class with Professor Dean Terry, @therefore, and assisted Dr. Rankin in the experiment as a part of my collaboration and content creation course with Dan Langendor, @dlangendorf.

How do I cross domains with thee? Let me count the ways. The videographer collaborated with both the TA and with Dr. Rankin. Indeed, I’d say the videographer herself became a kind of TA for the course. The collaboration was part of her work for yet another course on “collaboration and content creation.” The documentation of the experiment was part of yet another course, this one in digital video. And these cross-pollinations were repeated at the professor’s level, too, as Dr. Rankin worked with experts in the Emerging Media and Communication faculty at her university to understand the potential for Twitter and to shape the experience for her students. Apparently the usual wrangling points of FTEs and who-gets-credit-for-what were resolved early on. Kudos.

And now the potential collaboration is taken to an even higher level, as the documentation is on the open web, on the most widely used platform for video, freely available for anyone wanting to understand, emulate, tweak, mashup, or otherwise adapt these techniques and ideas. Oh, and the video’s been viewed over 17,000 times since it was uploaded in early May.

Obviously, Michael Wesch’s example has been very instructive along these lines.  I’d like to see even more of these five-minute videos relating innovative practices using social media in the classroom (and in the informal learning outside of it). Perhaps these little videos could become the “learning objects” we’ve been waiting for: not so much reusable modules of course content as cogent expositions of provocative, innovative practices in teaching and learning. No matter what the public effects, however, I’d argue that the project has catalyzed and demonstrated exactly the kind of domain-crossing, interdisciplinary co-creations our schools need to invent, model, and propagate among our faculties, staffs, and students. I hope the Twitter Experiment goes viral–indeed, it already has in my own Personal Learning Network. But what I really hope will go viral is this kind of academic creativity and partnership. We’re only scratching the surface of the “uni” in “university.” This project offers us a glimpse of a way forward, inspired by some of the powerful ways in which new media can help form and spread communities of practice.

Now, what if a university’s official website, often a project centered on “branding” and and search-engine-optimization, were to be reimagined as a site for information sharing and social mediation? There’s a great example of just such a project going on right now, and I’ll be blogging it very soon. Stay tuned.

EDIT: Blog comments can be very rich, and some great stuff can emerge in a long thread without being very visible or findable. On Kim Smith’s blog post,  all the way at the end of the comments (so far),  Dr. Monica Rankin links to her full post-course analysis of the experiment. Great reading, and another great example of the way these social media work recursively: publish, subscribe, get responses, and let the responses elicit even more material. As I’ve said before, it’s very much like a library in a time-lapse photograph, all the books calling forth other books in response….

It’s also interesting, for me at least, that I’m about 22 days behind on this. Even when these experiments are reported widely, it takes a whole network of social media channels to keep the word going out. There’s no old news here, just network effects and continuing relevance.

3 thoughts on “Twitter in the history class, and the "uni" in "university"

  1. Just to add to the twitter-fun, about ten minutes after you tweeted about this post, I saw this tweet from a Drupal developer and all-around awesome person I follow ( @linclark ) — that is, even more awesome than the usual awesomeness of Drupal developers 🙂

    recommending Twitter to an .edu client for knowledge sharing, anyone have any good articles or posts about using Twitter in academia?

    I pointed her to your post, and a little while later she tweeted back:

    @patrickgmj thanks! just showed the video that he had linked ( to the Web Producer on the project, she’s super excited!

    This is why twitter won’t kill blogging!

  2. Dr. C! As a member of our campus Home Page Editorial Board, this grabbed my attention:

    “Now, what if a university’s official website, often a project centered on “branding” and and search-engine-optimization, were to be reimagined as a site for information sharing and social mediation? There’s a great example of just such a project going on right now, and I’ll be blogging it very soon. Stay tuned.”

    I’ll look forward to this, although a bar talk would be even better. My .02 is that the marketing, branding, and SEO elements are important at least for the home page, which in our case is specifically targeted at people who aren’t already part of the campus community — i.e. prospective students and other recruitment and external audiences. This being said, even an externally focused homepage can & should provide open windows into the rich experience people have once they’re here.

    Along a possibly related line, are you familiar with the IKE project (Integrated Knowledge Environments)? If not, check out
    Our man Al G is part of this endeavor. 🙂

  3. Nicely done, Gardner. I had seen the video of Monica Rankin’s twitter experiment and had already forwarded it onto a number of people. My sense of it was – cool, great example of twitter at work with students. Done. But now that I’ve read your blog post and traveled the links you provided, I have an entirely new understanding of it (yup, blogging, twitter, and youtube distribution working together to amplify each other – sweet). Rankin’s own analysis along with Derek Bruff’s excellent post provide additional nuanced layers and thought-lines to traverse. You are so right that the intricate cross pollinations and collaborations were what made this so succesful, pointing, once again, to whole new set of skills we all need to hone. Oh, and love your idea of instructional-experiment videos as “learning objects” to be shared and leap-frogged.

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