Twitter – a walk in the park?

This week I’ve been at the ALT-C conference in Manchester. One of the most interesting and thought provoking talks I went to was by David White (@daveowhite) from Oxford, who talked about the concept of visitors and residents in the context of technology and online tools.

The work David and colleagues have done (the ISTHMUS project) suggests that moving on from Prensky’s idea of ‘digital natives and immigrants’ (which David said had sadly been boiled down to in popular thought as ‘old people just can’t do stuff’ – even if that wasn’t what Prensky said exactly), that it was useful to think in terms of visitors and residents.

Residents are those who live parts of their life online – their presence is persistent over time, even when they aren’t logged in. On the otherhand Visitors tend to log on, complete a task, and then log off, leaving no particular trace of their identity.

The Resident/Visitor concept isn’t meant to be a binary one – it is a continuum – we all display some level of both types of behaviour. Also, it may be that you are more ‘resident’ in some areas of your life or in some online environments, but more a ‘visitor’ in others.

I think the most powerful analogy David drew was to illustrate ‘resident’ behaviour as people milling round and picnicing in a park. They were ‘inhabiting’ the space – not solving a particular problem, or doing a particular task. It might be that they would talk to others, learn stuff, experience stuff etc. but this probably wasn’t their motivation in going to the park.

On the otherhand a visitor would treat an online environment in a much more functional manner – like a toolbox – they would go there to do a particular thing, and then get out.

David suggested that some online environments were more ‘residential’ than others – perhaps Twitter and Second Life both being examples – and that approaching these as a ‘visitor’ wasn’t likely to be a successful strategy. That wasn’t to pass judgement on the use or not of these tools – there’s nothing to say you have to use them.

David also noted that moving formal education into a residential environment wasn’t always easy – you can’t just turn up in a pub as a teacher and start teaching people (even if those same people are your students in a formal setting) – and that the same is true online, An example was the different attitudes from two groups of students to their tutors when working in Second Life – in the first example the tutor had worked continually in SL with the students, and had successfully established their authority in the space. In the second example a tutor had only ‘popped in’ to SL occasionally, and tried to act with the same authority – which grated on the students.

At the heart of the presentation was the thesis that we need to look much more at the motivations and behaviours of people, not focus on the technology – a concept that David and others are trying to frame – currently under the phrase ‘post-technical’. Ian Truelove has done quite a good post on what post-technical is about.

Another point made was that setting up ‘residential’ environments could be extremely cheap – and you should think about this when both planning what to do and what your measures of ‘success’ are – think about the value you get in terms of your investment.

The points that David made came back to me in a session this morning on Digital Identity (run by Frances Bell, Josie Fraser, James Clay and Helen Keegan). I joined a group discussing Twitter, and some of the questions were about ‘how can I use Twitter in my teaching/education’. For me, a definite ‘resident’ on Twitter, this felt like a incongruous question. I started to think about it a bit more and realised, there are ‘tool’ like aspects to Twitter:

  • Publication platform (albeit in a very restrictive format)
  • Ability to publish easily from mobile devices (with or without internet access)
  • Ability to repurpose outputs via RSS

This probably needs breaking down a bit more. But you can see that if you wanted to create a ‘news channel’ that you could easily update from anywhere, you could use Twitter, and push an RSS version of the stream to a web page etc. In this way, you can exploit the tool like aspects of Twitter – a very ‘visitor’ approach.

However, I’d also say that if you want to do this kind of thing, there are probably better platforms than Twitter (or at least, equally good platforms) – perhaps the WordPress Microblog plugin that Joss Winn mentioned in his session on WordPress (another very interesting session).

For me, the strength of Twitter in particular is the network I’ve built up there (something reinforced by the conference as I met some of my Twitter contacts for the first time – such as @HallyMk1, who has posted a great reflection on the conference – although I should declare an interest – he says nice things about me). I can’t see that you can exploit this side of Twitter without accepting the need to become ‘resident’ to some degree. Of course, part of the issue then becomes whether there is any way you can exploit this type of informal environment for formal learning – my instinct is that this would be very difficult – but what you can do is facilitate for the community both informal learning and access to formal learning.

As an aside, one of the things that also came out of the Digital Identities session was that even ‘visitors’ have an online life – sometimes one they aren’t aware of – as friends/family/strangers post pictures of them (or write about them). We all leave traces online, even if we don’t behave as residents.

The final thread I want to pull on here is a phrase that was used and debated (especially I think in the F-ALT sessions) “it’s not about the technology’”. This was certainly part of the point that David White made – that people’s motivations were much more important than any particular technology they would use to achieve their goals. He made the point that people who don’t use Twitter don’t avoid doing so because they aren’t capable, or don’t understand, they just don’t have the motivation to use it.

Martin Weller has posted on this and I think I agree with him when he says “I guess it depends on where you are coming from” – and I think the reason that the phrase got debated so much is that the audience at ALT-C is coming from many different places.

I’m guilty of liking the ‘shiny shiny’ stuff as much as any other iPhone owning geek – but the thing that interests me in this context is what the impact is likely to be on education (or more broadly to be honest, society) – I’m not in the position of being immediately concerned about how the Twitter or iPhones or whatever else should be used in the classroom.

I do think that we need to keep an eye on how technology continues to change because I think a very few technologies impact society to the extent that our answers need to change – but the question remains the same whatever – how are we going to (need to) change the way we educate to deal with the demands and requirements of society in the 21st Century.

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