Marshall Kirkpatrick at ReadWriteWeb writes about twitter in the classroom (via Koichi C, thanks @wolframarnold). He leads with a detailed story about University of Texas at Dallas History Professor, Monica Rankin, who uses twitter to create a dynamic and vibrant discussion in a large class of 90 students. She projects TweetDeck in the front of the class and students twitter via laptop, phone or hand-written notes to the TA.  A graduated student created a video about the experiment (below) and Rankin wrote about her perspective.

How did it work? One class session per week was set aside for discussion and the “twitter experiment.”  Students were separated into groups of 3-5 and given topics to discuss and tweet.  Before taking this approach, it was impossible to involve more than a few students in the wider classroom discussion, and only the very assertive and articulate students would participate.  This innovative method of discussion gives voice to many more students and the discussion reaches outside of the classroom — students post observations after class has ended, some refer back to the twitter conversation for study notes, and once the teacher participated remotely when out of town.

Is 140 characters adequate for discussion? The twitter limit is really too small for much reasoned argument, but Rankin notes that it does require students to get to the point.  In the art of the tweet, Rands notes that the characters limit causes him to “to reduce the idea to the basics.”

The Elements of Style has advice here. They suggest: “Avoid fancy words”. Why utilize when you can use? My advice is similarly confusing: “Drop words to give them room to think”.

In my head, I’m cutting words from my tweet to give you room to mentally add your own:

BEFORE: If it’s 4am, I know how stressed I am.
AFTER: Stress is how well I know 4am.

Is it a distraction? The Chronicle of Higher Education reports on another experiment. Cole W. Camplese, director of education-technology services at Pennsylvania State University at University Park teaches a class with two screens: one for his slides and one for twitter. He encourages students to “pass notes” via twitter during class. However, with the public nature of twitter this is very different from passing notes between students, instead it enriches the learning experience for everyone as students post links to relevant web sites, along with their own observations.

Does it lead to better learning? Camplese hopes that this “second layer of conversation” will disrupt the old model of classroom learning, allowing students to play a greater role in their own learning and incorporate information from sources beyond the classroom. Rankin concludes her synopsis by saying that “the twitter experiment was successful primarily because it encouraged students to engage who otherwise would not.”  JSOnline reports on a social media class at Marquette University where Dr Gee Ekachai teaches “live tweeting” of guest lectures. Students learn to assimilate what they are listening to and capture the essence of key points in real time.  This exercise helps students develop key skills of listening, information-gathering, and succinct writing that are useful beyond social media and PR.

The experiments continue. I enjoyed reading further about 25 interesting ways to use twitter in the classroom.  (My favorite is #17 “Communicate with experts.”)  Initially I had a negative gut reaction to hearing about twitter in the classroom, but after reading these stories about innovative teaching methods, I find it exciting and intriguing.  I hope to hear about more of such experiments.

In the video above, Rankin reflects on dealing with such an experiment in the classroom.  She notes: “it’s going to be messy, but messy doesn’t mean that it is going to be bad.” It reminds me of the internet as a whole, which is quite messy, yet many wonderful parts of the web also seem to be a direct result of that mess. Tim Berners-Lee, credited with inventing the World Wide Web, is reported to have said that the web will always be a little bit broken and how that is part of the design. Because the web is a little bit broken, the technology relies on human resilience and intelligence to fill in the gaps whether it be moving past a “404 not found error” or mentally filling in words beyond twitter’s 140 character limit.

It is not a new idea to mix synchronous and asynchronous communication, in other words, mixing real-time, like chat, and store & forward, like email. I have always felt that Internet communications application are oddly modal, where the UI is largely driven by the protocol. It was one of the things that led me to join Jonathan Gay in creating the Flash Media Server. The primary use case of Flash video has, of course, been simple broadcast, but we built in flexible APIs that allowed Tivo-like behavior for video and a seamless mix of real-time and persisted data with Shared Objects.

Google Waves seems to have a quite nice implementation of a new model of communication, allowing people to seamlessly move between real-time chat and email-like messaging. Some of the social interactions are very experimental and may or may not fly, but it was fun to see what they came up with and the joy with which it was demonstrated by one of its creators, Lars Rasmussen.

I agree with Lars when he said “UI changes the way you think. He notes how you think of written communucation as a document or as a message, but waves doesn’t make that distinction. I actually think that distinction is healthy. I experience a conversation. I craft a document. I’ve also noticed that I find myself subverting the intention of the UI in various applications that I use, most notably email. I’ll use my drafts folder for initial drafts of documents and notes that I never intend to send as an email message. I think it more likely that the UI paradigm that will catch on will be an evolution of today’s ubiquitous applications rather than something that feels as different as Waves. We are already seeing the mix of real-time with email with presence indicators alongside the sender’s name in Apple Mail and collaboration features invading the staid Microsoft desktop applications.

Nonetheless, I found the shared editing with interspersed conversation intriguing and its magical transformation into a finished document appealing. With live concurrent editing in Waves, people can edit separate parts of the document at the same time. They’ve done a nice job in supporting languages that require IME (Input Method Editor), like Chinese, and right to left languages, like Hebrew.

The spell-checker component was impressive independent of the communications framework it plugs into. Lars demonstrated that it could find mistakes that could only be detected in context “I like been soup. How have you bean?” The live spellchecker is an extension. It can “watch” a document and then make live edits and act as a collaborator just like a human would. Yes-No-Maybe gadget is another example, allowing people to vote as part as a conversation. At the very end they demonstrated live translation that appeared to work much better than the current Google translate. An agent, nicknamed “Rosie” does live translation between any pair of 40 languages while you type. The visual feedback is distracting, but the technology is impressive. I wonder when that magic will be accessible outside of Waves…. or maybe Google Translate has seen an upgrade since I last used it a few weeks ago.

Google is betting that in making Waves an open system (providing a reference implementation, documenting the protocol and making available a free production-ready system) they will gain adoption — certainly they are aggressively removing barriers. Federation allows someone to independently deploy a different server that uses the Wave protocol. Analogous to different email servers all implementing the same protocol.

The main barrier is whether people will adopt a different paradigm when the old ones are good enough. I don’t have access to the software since I missed Google I/O, but they seem to be offering a nice set of UI widgets for embedding along with web APIs. They went so far as to say that by embedding these widgets, “your users get to use a familiar UI.” I thought that an interesting assumption of success where such revolutionary (as opposed to evolutionary) new interaction models don’t typically gain traction.

Nonetheless, I plan to fill out their web form and see if they will let me play in their sandbox.