Pointless babble or social grooming?

There’s a kerfuffle on Twitter at the moment about a study of Twitter that found that “Twitter tweets are 40% [pointless] babble“.  I know, I know, another new media self-referential navel-gazing situation.

But it serves as a good example of a really important point about teaching with new technology.  Teachers have to be immersed in digital technologies if they’re going to make good use of them in learning.

There’s lots to criticise about this particular study in terms of its methodology, and I’m sure other blogs will oblige if you really care.  (I personally was quite amused at the great examples of way-too-precise percentages and of trawling findings out of obviously too-small datasets that appear in the ‘full’ PDF report – and also mildly entertained at the way they pad out the report with cut-and-paste stuff, including the silly ‘Teens don’t Tweet’ story that danah boyd demolished.)

But these fish-in-a-barrel shortcomings don’t really matter: in broad-brush terms, it’s probably roughly right that traffic on Twitter is about 10% self-promotion and spam, 10% of news broadly considered, 40% conversation, and 40% ‘pointless babble’.

Fundamentally, though, this study (almost) entirely misses the point of what people on Twitter experience.  It sampled the Twitter public stream, which is the total assemblage of what everyone using the service is producing.

But what looks like ‘pointless babble’ isn’t pointless, if it’s from people you know or care about.  It’s social grooming, it’s keeping in touch.  It’s what most human conversation is about.  If you think this stuff is pointless babble, you’re really not going to enjoy parties.  Or indeed be likely to maintain fulfilling personal relationships.  On Twitter, you get to choose whose ‘pointless babble’ you want to follow.  Almost nobody who actually uses Twitter uses it by reading the public stream.

If you learn about Twitter by reading these sorts of reports, you’ll get a bizarre view that really tells you very little about what it’s like to use as a service.

And this brings me to the general point about teaching with new technology: you can do the most methodologically sound research about Twitter you like, but without a decent appreciation of what it is to use the service, you’re going to struggle hard to make sensible use of it in teaching.

Now I’m certainly not arguing that research in to new technologies is not valuable to teachers: it’s hugely important.  (And I would say that, it’s a large part of my job!) But without a practical perspective – and I suspect that means personal experience – it’s all but impossible to use research to devise good learning experiences for actual learners.

It’s like the old caricature of book larnin’ that has someone teaching themselves to swim by reading a book, without ever setting foot in the water.  It’s self-evidently ridiculous. Cutting-edge research in to swimming is helping to create swimming costumes that dramatically improve swimmers’ speed. Would-be swimming coaches who stay abreast of that research might think it would be a good idea to get their hapless learners to wear those for their half-hour learning sessions … failing utterly to appreciate that the gains only come to elite swimmers, and that it can easily take up to half an hour to struggle in to the high-tech suits.

This is very similar to Martin Weller’s Pathetic Sharks argument (see p21/22): if we don’t dive in to these technologies, we run the risk of being like Viz magazine’s Pathetic Sharks, who looked scary, but were too scared to actually go in to the water.

And it’s what I was getting at in my all-time number one hit blog post, We Have A Mountain To Climb.  The surface issue there wasn’t Twitter, but me being the only laptop user in a lecture, and thus annoying everyone else in the room when I banged away on my keyboard.  (Ironically, the subject of the lecture – given by the OU’s then-VC – was an eloquent argument that ‘scholarship in this university, in this century, has to be irrevocably tied to the technology and knowledge media‘.)

The deeper issue is identical: Most teachers in higher education are not getting practical experience of digital technologies.  It’s just not part of their daily practice.  They’re not immersed in it; many have barely dipped their toes in.  Even if we could get the very best ed tech research to their fingertips (hard enough), they’re never going to make great use of new technologies in their teaching without that practical experience.

Changing the everyday practice of educators is going to be hard. But we have to do it.

Higher Education is in the early stages of a transformation that’ll be at least as profound as the upheavals that digital technologies are bringing to the music and newspaper industries.  There’s a huge opportunity – and a huge challenge! – for us at the OU and in other universities to lead innovation here.

If we don’t, we’re in real trouble. But if we can ride the wave instead of letting it crash over us, it’s going to be extremely exciting times for teachers and learners.  And to do that, we – as a community – have to be practitioners in the space we’re trying to innovate in.

Update: danah boyd is riffing on the same silly Twitter study, effectively as ever.

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Digital residents and digital tourists

I think we should stop talking about “digital natives” and “digital immigrants” altogether. It’s unhelpful and unclear. A better distinction might be between “digital residents” and “digital tourists”.

I’ve never liked the terms “digital native” and “digital immigrant”, as introduced/popularised by Prensky, and the “born digital” idea as applied to people (rather than, say, media artefacts) is profoundly problematic. I’m not the first or only person to raise this – lots of people have criticised it. (And with very flaky Internet access at the moment, I can’t link to or cite to them … which is a bit annoying but saves me the bother – good job this isn’t a proper academic paper.)

Firstly, there’s important moral issues in appropriating language about indigenous people and human migration. I really don’t think the parallels are helpful or instructive here.

Secondly, there’s the fact that the categories are not fixed in generational terms: as is widely attested, there are plenty of retired-age people who have great facility with digital technologies, and spent large amounts of time online, and plenty of teenagers who struggle with them and find them overwhelming and alienating. (And the particular application to students starting at university is particularly problematic: the proportion of mature students is not negligible and is rising.)

Thirdly, it attributes inherent, unchangability to one’s approach and use of technology. One cannot aspire or attempt to become a digital native: one either is or one isn’t. There are plenty of people who come to digital fluency at a later stage in life than infancy.

Fourthly, it unhelpfully sets up an insurmountable barrier of incomprehension between teachers (by definition digital immigrants) and learners (by definition digital natives).

I do buy, however, that there are important qualitative differences between people who are familiar with digital technologies and can use them with a fluency, facility and creativity that others can’t.

So a much better metaphor, I think, is to contrast “digital residents” with “digital tourists” – or perhaps “digital visitors”.

Digital residents are familiar and comfortable with digital technologies, use them as part of their everyday lives, and therefore – to a greater or lesser extent – tend to take them for granted.

Digital tourists, however, are not familiar with digital technologies, and struggle to make good use of them. Some are enthusiastic, gushing admirers; at the other end of the spectrum, some loathe every moment of their visit and leave quickly, vowing never to return.

Often the things the digital tourists find compelling are very different to the things that digital residents do – partly because of the effect of novelty, and partly because of the amount of time spent there. And as a result, they tend to behave very differently in what’s superficially the same context.

Balancing the needs of tourists and residents is a well-known social problem in the physical world. It’s easy for tourists to be unaware of the huge impact they can have on the residents, and it’s also easy for residents to be unwelcoming as a result. But it’s entirely possible for the two communities to co-exist very happily in the same space, recognising that they each contribute something valuable. And frequent tourists might, over time, find that they have more-or-less settled in the place they originally came to as visitors and have come to know and love. Correspondingly, a longstanding digital resident might decide to leave – or at least take a holiday. (Plenty of very-online people take a break away from the net for a while now and then.)

The potential tension between tourist and resident is likely to be much less contentious and intractable in the digital world. One of the fantastic things about the digital world, as opposed to the physical one, is that in many ways that matter, more people being there tends to make things better. That’s true in some contexts in the physical world, but not all. If you want to settle and build a house, you have to find somewhere to put it: physical land is (often) a very limited resource, and is what economists call an ‘exclusionary good’ – if I own and build a house on a piece of land, you can’t. But digital “land” is (often) not a limited resource in the same way: me having this blog in no way stops you or anyone else setting up a blog.

There are, of course, plenty of people who would dearly love to visit the digital world and perhaps settle there, but lack the opportunity. And we shouldn’t forget the people who are perfectly happy with their non-digital lives and just get on with them. For completeness and entertainment value, we could also include digital xenophobes, who’ve never actually spent any time in the digital world, but still bang on about how awful (they assume) things are there – often spouting ill-informed and hostile speculation.

There are still problems with this metaphor. It’s still dichotomising (either one thing or the other), when I’m pretty sure it’s much more of a spectrum. But I think it’s a lot more helpful and accurate.

Edit: (with more connectivity) Juliette points out in the comments that plenty of people have already proposed digital residents/digital visitors (as a quick search confirms). There are fewer mentions of digital tourists in this context, although I did stumble on this guide to being a digital citizen, not a digital tourist.   I don’t think one should necessarily aspire to being a digital citizen – tourism is perfectly legitimate, so long as it’s done sensitively.  And the perspicacious and legendary John Naughton (and I’m not just saying that because he’s agreeing with me here!) draws a helpful parallel with his experience as a tourist in Provence.