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.