Twitter and the Atomization of Teaching and Learning

Twitter was declared dead this week. It was declared dead last week. It has been declared dead before. There are important questions afoot about how the platform will evolve. As I prepare to teach an online course about Teaching with Twitter, I find myself thinking increasingly about how my focus in this course is both about what we might do inside this one particular platform and also about pedagogical approaches not specific to any one platform.

I have taught with Twitter since 2007. I began teaching “The Twitter Essay” in my classes in 2009. I have watched the platform grow and change and thrive and fester. Twitter has been the place of my most rigorous scholarship. The medium can be kind. It can also be cruel. Twitter has never been neutral. It has never been a safe space, a democratic space, or an egalitarian space. It has, for many, been a hacked public space. It has, for me, demanded I bring to it always a careful and considered pedagogy.

Pedagogy is fractal, contained at once in something as large as a course or program and also in something as small as a tweet or the first sentence of a syllabus. Its structure functions similarly at all these scales. Pedagogy emerges when we work to construct sentences and curricula in recursive and reflective ways. And the work of teaching well demands our pedagogies be flexible, not predetermined entirely in advance. Learning can not be reduced to or packaged inside a series of static, self-contained “learning objects.” Rather, learning happens in tangents, diversions, interruptions — in a series of clauses (and parentheticals) … and gaps.

Twitter offers space for dialogue. The 140-character limit leaves no room for monologues. Even a series of tweets strung together in succession creates opportunities at every turn for discussion. Each individual tweet becomes an addressable object, always a beginning and never a conclusion. In this way, nobody ever has the last word on Twitter. And a single authoritative voice doesn’t command (or drown out) the fray.

I hope Twitter’s talk of 10,000-character limits and its increasingly algorithmic timeline does not fundamentally change these things about the platform. I hope a tweet never becomes cousin to some unlovely, pre-packaged, instrumentalized “learning object.”

I have written previously about my disdain for the discussion forum inside most learning management systems. More specifically, I have written about my disdain for how discussion forums are used for many online and hybrid courses. “Write at least 250-words, citing two sources, submit to Turnitin, then post in each of two discussion threads.” As though a dynamic discussion can be scripted and rudely bureaucratized. Twitter has been a respite, the place of my most engaged and dynamic work with students. Both because of what the 140-character limit affords, improvisation within constraint, and what it doesn’t afford, paragraphs-without-break leaving no room to get in a word edgewise. Dialogue on Twitter is all edgewise.

Over the last several weeks, Digital Pedagogy Lab has been hosting an iteration of MOOC MOOC focused on what we’re calling Critical Instructional Design. From the outset of this course-like thing, Sean Michael Morris has warned against blind obedience to the pillars of instructional design. He has warned against blind adherence to constructs (like Bloom’s taxonomy or Quality Matters) that can turn digital learning into a mere exercise in “Monkey see, monkey do, monkey hit submit.”

Bloom’s Taxonomy was one of the first things I encountered as a new teacher, and it was for me rendered hollow, a recipe to follow and not a theory to critically engage. Bloom’s is too often delivered to new teachers as though it were gospel. The cruel irony is that many are asked to accept Bloom’s as established fact before they are allowed to analyze or question its use. More than once, I’ve watched an entire room of new teachers have their spirit killed by a misrepresentation and misapplication of Bloom’s taxonomy.

What would Bloom make of Twitter? What kind of taxonomy might we create for the work we do on a platform like this? The work we do on Twitter can’t adequately be contained inside a neat and tidy rubric. (A quick Google image search for “Twitter rubric” will reveal the mostly absurd things that happen when people try.) There is no established fact on Twitter, only constant churn and sway. Twitter is a space of ideas in process. The medium is all application, all analysis, all creation. It sidesteps the lowest levels of Bloom’s altogether, and blurs the rest.

Sean Michael Morris and I once wondered what might happen “if Paulo Freire made a MOOC” and, then, “if bell hooks made a learning management system.” I find myself wondering now what might happen “if Emily Dickinson made a model for instructional design.”

Twitter would be its habitat, a series of what she calls “infected sentences,” a string of words that prove to be bigger on the inside than the outside. Each word, each tweet, gesturing to something else. A series of rabbit holes. A map that looks a lot like learning. Dynamic. Playful. Networked.

Each tweet is a tiny course, a syllabus, of its own. Much madness is divinest sense.

[Image “Kanincheneule" licensed CC BY-NC 2.0]