My experience of teaching in the mid-1990s coincided with the early years of the World Wide Web, a new technology that was, by turns, a cause for praise, scorn and worry. What would it become and what would be the cultural ramifications of its pervasive use? Were we indeed headed for the vision of Marshall McLuhan’s global campfire, or was the web merely a littered cyberspace of pornography and bad design (Levinson)? Acutely aware of my own inability to maintain a continually updated list of hyperlinks—a typical strategy for “using technology” at the time—I have since maintained that the best initial approach to digital media is to try small experiments. In the fifteen years since, I have heard many people articulate their technological anxieties, describing how they are “behind” the curve. My response is always, “Aren’t we all?” One of the valuable characteristics of teaching with new technologies is the opportunity for us all to continually remain students ourselves, testing and sharing best practices for new forms of engagement.
I subscribe to the media ecologies argument that Neil Postman elegantly framed in his book Technopoly: namely, that we cannot easily foresee the impact any given technology will have on culture, as it is always unfolding. It is worth considering the full possibilities as well as limitations of these tools, knowing they are more than tools. Soon enough, tools become methods, perspectives, habits. Ten years ago, few of the people in my life used a cell phone, though now almost everyone has one. I have only had a Smartphone for a few years, yet in that short time I think of it less as a mobile telephone and more as my “connection thing.” It’s how I read the newspaper on the subway, write to my family, view our photo album with my daughter or locate something on a map. These are all “old” needs, bound into one “new” tool.
While I do ask my students to turn off their phones in class, many of my favorite ways to use technology in teaching embrace the ubiquity of the contemporary cell phone. Learning happens equally, if not more, outside the classroom, and finding a way to have students begin to use their phones towards their broader learning seems a worthwhile effort. The lens through which I see digital media benefitting teaching and learning is as “part of the network of intellectual opportunities,” as Trebor Scholz has phrased it. In particular, I am in the process of testing new ways to use (and design) mobile technologies because these can help structure “out of the classroom” methods of learning, whether focused on “field research” or on making use of the odd bits of time we find here and there. Both tools I describe below are dually powerful on the Web and via a Smartphone app. Both offer alternate methods for non-Smartphone methods.
Two digital tools in particular I have found helpful in my classes: Twitter and Flickr. I have used Flickr in the classroom to both share iterations of various visual projects and to document examples of a certain topic, within the inspiring urban environment of New York City. Related to the first method, I’ve found that when students post their work on Flickr, rather than only within a class blog or account, they will often get feedback from others (usually friends) not in the class. Because this can easily become distracting or noisy, we discuss this idea a bit in class first. I regularly task my students with framing a question they want to receive feedback on before a critique, and I’ve found that when they do this online, the diversity of feedback is often appreciated, even while it tends to be less critical. An example where Flickr has been particularly helpful is in tandem with research on color theory. Using the Flickr app on their Smartphones, students worked in teams, focusing on an individual color. Each team tried to get the most examples of a color usage within a public context. Every image was tagged, so that it could be pulled into an aggregated view, where we would see all images showing how red is used in the city with attendant descriptors such as “food” or “signage.” We considered these aggregated collections as a class, and discussed how our understanding of color theory readings related specifically to what was documented by each student team.
Twitter is one of my new favorite tools, though I think the platform is in dire need of more ways to sort, filter and visualize content. Only recently has this platform offered the ability to sort people or topics into lists, which proves a more helpful way to organize particular topics. Likely by the time this book comes out, there will be a better selection of tools that are available to the public. Described as an “information network” by co-creator Evan Williams, it was originally conceived to relay short missives to a small group (Sarno). That it was designed to focus more on the process of an idea rather than its final outcome is very compelling to me. Rather than present only the final post or article, one can share thoughts along a trajectory: steps in a path, moments in one’s day. If Facebook dominates the personal social network and LinkedIn serves the professional network, one can aspire to use Twitter as the Platonic network. In discussing the way that good ideas are nurtured and shared before they are realized in moments of inspiration, Steven Johnson states that “chance favors the networked mind.”
By cultivating a “networked mind,” Twitter can help to document and share the small, insignificant, often overlooked moments of thought as they happen. Allowing these smaller moments to become a data stream, a diary of inquiry is formed, which can be updated easily on the web or on one’s Smartphone. There are two ways I use Twitter, and encourage my students to use it. First, one can curate their intellectual playground by choosing to “follow” people in the field one finds interesting, whether or not these people are known personally. These people will populate one’s Twitter screen with their 140 character “tweets.” These could be links, thoughts, shared moments, or questions. Being able to choose anyone (provided they are on Twitter) as part of one’s intellectual network makes me think of the question, “What famous/important person would you like to have dinner with?” Perhaps Twitter is not as intimate as a dinner party, but being able to set up one’s own conceptual tribe is exciting. When framing this idea to students, I like to ask them what it is they are working on, thinking about, or aspiring to do right now. Keeping a small list of key players to follow will assist one in keeping a certain focus or perspective, assuming one wants to streamline their experience. I’ve heard this type of usage described as “setting up your own newsroom, where you hire the journalists.” This method of using Twitter embraces the concept of chance, finding particular tweets that speak directly towards things one may be ruminating about or actively researching. One can respond directly to a tweet by “replying” to the author, putting an @ in front of their name. In turn, anyone wanting to respond to me could write something to @jirish.
A more structured, albeit less curated way to use Twitter is to follow particular topics, termed “hashtags,” which are designated with # in front of the word. For example, anyone wanting to see what people are saying about the 2009 gulf oil spill could follow the hashtag #oilspill. As this was recently an avidly followed topic, some individuals seized on this approach, such as Leroy Stick, who established himself as “BPGlobalPR,” with now more than ten times as many followers as the Twitter account for the official British Petroleum (BP) press releases. In a recent article detailing this phenomenon, Newsweek listed contrasting tweets and concluded that little distinction could be made between the real BP press release content and parody missives (Mascarenhas).
Twitter lists its top topics on its homepage, providing a bit of zeitgeist, though this is generally most helpful when it coincides with an important (or popular) live event. Stamen Design created a visualization tool to aggregate tweets into a visual medium. In profiling of the MTV Music Awards in 2009, each named #artist’s name was translated into a visual image of their face (Stamen Design). Jostling on the stage like competitive bubbles, the culminating controversy of Kanye West crashing Taylor Swift’s prize reception was visually documented, based on particular terms about which people were tweeting. Designed to complement the TV watching experience, this interface provides a networked backchannel in which to share commentary with friends.
Another preferred approach to Twitter often occurs while I’m attending a conference. I can only imagine how humbling this might be for presenters, as the feeds for a conference are now shown publicly within the space, in real time. Organizers have used this to solicit questions from the audience, as well as make public the backchannel of conversation that arises. While there may be critical comments, I have not witnessed the typically anonymous flames one sees in the comments of various weblogs, or on YouTube. Most conferences now offer a specific #hashtag, which allows one to see which points most directly resonated with the audience.
This last summer, I attended the Creativity and Technology (CAT) Conference and one of the more interesting things that happened during the conference was that women began to comment on the lack of women presenters on Twitter using the conference hashtag #CRCAT (Technology). The previous year, Professor Jo Ann Kuchera-Morin from UC Santa Barbara dazzled the audience with her heady presentation of the Allosphere. This year, there were virtually no female presenters. Women continued to “re-tweet” posts to this effect as a way of underscoring or echoing this concern and, by the afternoon, both presenters and the key organizer felt the need to address the issue head-on. I found this to be a compelling tactic for bringing forth the proverbial white elephant, not an easy thing to do, especially in the context of a 1,000+ person conference. There have been instances where this form of backchannel communication has crossed the line of civil discourse, as documented in danah boyd’s account of her own presentation in the Web 2.0 Expo. Ironically, her talk was very much about the challenges of these nascent technologies in providing useful contexts for social media streams. More often though, salient points of a talk or conference can indeed be effectively communicated as Twitter “diaries” of the event become shared note-taking, allowing others to tune-in or follow along while not necessarily in attendance.
The brevity of Twitter forces us to make the most of the limits of 140 characters. Many have argued this is simply too short a format to say much of interest. I disagree. One colleague uses it specifically to refine the craft of writing one sentence, shared amongst fellow writers. Another uses it primarily to share links: news, articles, images, etc. Less is more here, as the main objective is just to have new, relevant items on one’s radar that might not necessarily have been accessed within the broader framing of traditional new media.
Twitter can be a great way of documenting an experience: a trip, a project, or a quest. Open-ended documentation invites the notion that a particular end is not inevitable, seeking new possibilities for professional design challenges as well as personal interests. Currently, I hold two different Twitter accounts: one for professional/design-related items and one for my 3-year-old daughter who says hilarious stuff everyday (I do the typing). I like that this is a simple way of documenting/sharing her missives, as they happen, with her five family followers, either from my phone or laptop, and I intend to archive these in a better form as time goes on.
Below are a few ideas for specific assignments using Twitter in and out of the classroom:
Attend a talk, lecture or conference. Take notes using a given or custom #hashtag that you share with our #class. Ask the presenter at least one question (@presenter).
Cultivate a research practice. Curate whom you follow along a particular line of inquiry and make it a daily habit to share one question, idea, piece of information, or link. Add a #hashtag if there are related topics that might be of interest to others.
Select a research topic. Decide which data you will collect and tweet findings with a specific hashtag. Invite key peers or faculty into your data stream by re-tweeting a post (RT) or reply to a specific post (@author) and see if you get a response.
Look up a compelling author, designer, curator, journalist or practitioner on Twitter. Pay attention to how others show up in their data stream, as some of their active followers may also be interesting to you. RT some of their posts to a friend (@friend) to share a tweet, or comment.
In each of these suggested uses of Twitter, I argue that it is equally important to augment the practice with a weblog to capture visual and long form writing, as well as in-class discussion and presentation. I use the course blog to document more formal projects within the course, and have students respond to questions I pose related to material reviewed in class. Written response essays are also posted on the blog, which allows students to read one another’s writing and comment as well.
Within design programs, there is a need to build core requirements for students to learn how to create interfaces that may shape and extend the power of these tools, rather then using them only as consumers. All first year Design & Technology students at Parsons learn Processing, a simplified yet powerful open-source software built on Java to learn computational basics that can translate into other more specific programming languages such as C++. They must also learn core web/interaction technologies and most importantly, critical thinking and design process. As Douglas Rushkoff writes in his book Program Or Be Programmed, “Instead of learning about our technology, we opt for a world in which our technology learns about us.” While embracing small spaces (or 140 characters) which can enliven and extend our learning environments, we should not be afraid to note where these might limit or fail us, thereby inspiring or reinventing alternative tools.
“Ad Age Creativity and Technology Conference.” 2010. Web.15 February 2011. <http://www.creativitycat.com>.
boyd, danah. “spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective.” 24 November 2009. Web. 15 February 2011. <http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/11/24/spectacle_at_we.html>.
Johnson, Steven Berlin. “The Amazing Power of Networks.” TED Talks. 3 October 2010. Web. 15 February 2011. http://www.cnn.com/2010/OPINION/10/03/johnson.birth.of.ideas/index.html?hpt=C2.
Kuchera-Morin, J.-A. “Allosphere Research Laboratory,” Creativity and Technology Conference. 2009.
Levinson, Paul. Digital McLuhan: A Guide to the Information Millennium. Routledge, 1999.
Mascarenhas, Alan. “BP’s Global PR vs. BPGlobalPR.” Newsweek. 4 June 2010. Web. 15 February 2011. http://www.newsweek.com/2010/06/04/bp-s-global-pr-vs-bpglobalpr.html.
Postman, Neil. Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology. Vintage, 1993.
Rushkoff, Douglas. Program or Be Programmed: 10 Commands for the Digital Age. OR Books. 2010. Web. 15 February 2011. http://www.orbooks.com/our-books/program/.
Sarno, David. “Twitter creator Jack Dorsey illuminates the site’s founding document. Part I.” LA Times. 18 February 2009. Web. 15 February 2011. http://latimesblogs.latimes.com/technology/2009/02/twitter-creator.html.
Scholz, Trebor. “Style Guide for Thinking with Digital Media, A Pedagogy Reader in Motion.” 2010.
Stamen Design. “MTV: Live Twitter Visualizations.” 2009. Web. 15 February 2011. <http://stamen.com/clients/mtv>.
 See <http://www.twitter.com>; <http://flickr.com>.