Twitter and learning

I recently spotted a tweet that links to a study with the comment that “Encouraging kids to use twitter [sic] apparently reduces learning.”

I’m committing the cardinal sin of commenting on a paper after only skimming it, BUT there are a few things that I have to say in response to this article and this take on the article. (This is the sort of thing that I’d do in a tweet thread except that I’ve started regularly deleting old tweets, and I want to hold on to these thoughts for later).

First things first: it wouldn’t surprise me to find out that Twitter is not the ideal tool for teaching literature to secondary students. My goal here isn’t to defend Twitter as a learning tool—at least not in this particular context. The core of any good educational technologist’s understanding of our field is that the relationship between technology and learning is highly complex. Some technologies are better suited for teaching and learning than others, some technologies are better suited for teaching and learning certain content areas for others, some technologies are better suited for teaching and learning in particular ways than others, some social contexts are better suited for supporting teaching and learning through technology than others, and the permutations could go on and on and on. So, while my credibility and reputation as a researcher do hinge—in part—on the assumption that learning does happen through Twitter, I would hope that my credibility and reputation as a researcher would entirely disappear if I argued that Twitter is always well-suited for learning everything. So, whether or not the article actually defends that conclusion is actually of relatively little interest to me.

Instead, what I’m concerned about is how we talk about the conclusion of the article. The idea that Twitter “reduces learning” is, in my view, an unhelpful simplification related to what James Paul Gee described in his 2003 book What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy as “the problem of content”:

The problem of content is, I believe, based on common attitudes toward school, schooling, learning, and knowledge. These attitudes are compelling, in part because they are so deeply rooted in the history of western thought, but, nonetheless, I think they are wrong. The idea is this: Important knowledge (now usually gained in school) is content in the sense of information rooted in, or, at least, related to, intellectual domains or academic disciplines like physics, history, art, or literature. Work that does not involve such learning is “meaningless.” Activities that are entertaining but that themselves do not involve such learning are just “meaningless play.” Of course, video games fall into this category.

Not just video games, but also Twitter. So, as Gee describes above, the common understanding of learning (even among many education researchers!) is in terms of the acquisition and retention of information that is associated with an established content area. While this is an understandable approach, it also fails to acknowledge the vast majority of learning that humans engage with. In contrast, consider everything that an Italian secondary student would likely need to learn to use Twitter as part of their learning: How do hashtags work? What’s a “thread” and how do I create one? What do different emoji mean? What are some standard abbreviations that I can use to stick to 280 characters but without confusing my audience? The Apocalypse Soon episode of the fantastic Reply All podcast is a tremendous example of how rich and complicated Internet culture can be, and the Trust the Process episode does the same thing for sports culture.

Now, one might argue that this knowledge isn’t valuable. Fine, no problem. I don’t know that I’d disagree with that, and Gee might not either:

The alternative perspective starts with the claim that there really is no such thing as learning “in general.” We always learn something. And that something is always connected, in some way, to some semiotic domain or other.

Therefore, if we are concerned with whether something is worth learning or not, whether it is a waste of time or not—video games or anything else—we should start with questions like the following: What semiotic domain is being entered through this learning? Is it a valuable domain or not?

In short, there’s no problem with arguing that what people are learning through Twitter in a particular context isn’t valuable… but you shouldn’t suggest that learning isn’t happening. In fact, my examples above suggest that Twitter is only valuable for learning about Twittery things, but that’s not necessarily the case either. Twitter might genuinely be helpful for learning things that are valued in a literature class but aren’t being picked up on the standardized test used as an instrument in this study (though I frankly wouldn’t be surprised if it weren’t, either).

So, the way to talk about this Twitter study isn’t that it “reduces learning”—it’s that it reduces performance on a particular standardized test. The next questions that should emerge, then, are: 1. What should students be learning in literature classes? 2. Does this standardized test measure those things?

Answering these two questions—and comparing them to expected affordances of Twitter as an educational technology—would help us understand how much faith to put in this study’s results and whether we ought to carry out the study a different way to truly measure Twitter’s contributions (or lack thereof) to a literature classroom. However, even if answering these questions suggests that Twitter isn’t the best tool for the job after all, the additional insight gained through those questions will be of tremendous value to teachers, researchers, and students. The point of Gee’s argument (and my repetition of that argument) isn’t to say that we should be teaching Twitter and video games in school—it’s to say that learning is a much richer and broader phenomenon than many teachers, researchers, and students give it credit. It’s to push teachers, researchers, and students to recognize that because so much is learning, we need to think hard about what is worth learning. It’s to invite us to ask questions about what the role of school is in a democratic society and how it should be structured accordingly. It’s to help us recognize what learning we’ve traditionally devalued based on our own prejudices, social standing, and cultural values and to think hard about how we can change that.