Tweet tweet -- Twitter in education

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this one tweets instinctively ... | image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, used according to terms of the GNU free documentation license

Some Professors' Jitters Over Twitter Are Easing, announced an article in The Washington Post last week, reflecting the explosion of interest that this relatively new communications tool is experiencing this year.  As with discussions of any new technology, reporting on Twitter is a often a combination of breathless enthusiasm and snarky criticism, as well as a fair amount of befuddlement and misunderstanding.

(For those unfamiliar with Twitter, the related Wikipedia article might be helpful.)

While discussions about the use of a tool like Twitter are now, suddenly, quite mainstream in many places, educators have been exploring the tool for awhile.  Search Google and you'll find lots of useful references, like this one from way back in 2007.  (Or better yet, search on Twitter itself!)  As occurs with any potential new innovation in education, response to this exploration and experimentation has at times been rather heated (have a look at the comments to the article from U.K.'s Guardian newspaper in March when it announced, with just a touch of hyperbole,   Pupils to study Twitter and blogs in primary schools shake-up).

So what, you might ask, does all of this have to do with the use of ICTs in education in developing countries?

Personal ownership and use of mobile phones is greatly outpacing the use of computers in pretty much all developing countries (a topic of many previous posts on this blog).  One of the criticisms against the use of mobile phones (and similar small devices) in education is that their displays are far smaller than those of computers, and that it is difficult to type long messages using the telephone keypad.  These are obviously legitimate observations.  Twitter is demonstrating how such a limitation can, possibly, in certain circumstances, be an actual strength.  Looked at one way, because of Twitter's 140 character restriction -- a restriction dictated by the limitations of SMS -- we are in a sense witnessing a very interesting, large-scale, real-time experiment in how to use texting (and thus low-end mobile phones) in a variety of inventive ways, many of them relevant to education.

The point here isn't to debate the merits (or lack of them) in using a tool like Twitter in schools.  (That debate is occuring in lots of places on-line already; some key elements of this debate are noted in the Washington Post article.)  Rather, it is to highlight the fact that, once you put an easy-to-use technology tool in the hands of *lots* of people, interesting things happen, good and bad, for which we are usually unprepared.  The large scale roll-outs of ICTs in schools in developing countries, coupled with the massive, quick adoption of mobile phones in society more broadly, will offer new opportunities for teachers and learners, and will put new stresses on education systems.  How can, or should, ministries of education plan for such disruptive change?  Can they be anything *but* reactive? These are hot questions in many policy circles. 

Will we still be talking about the use of Twitter in education two years from now?  (Who knows?) Whatever the answers to these questions, its use today is in some ways re-shaping the debate about the potential utility of devices like the mobile phone.

Where all of this will eventually lead us, nobody knows, but we should be prepared to be surprised. 

The image at the top of this blog entry comes courtesy of the Wikimedia Commons and is used according to the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.

Miscellaneous items:

  1. You can follow this blog on Twitter @WBedutech.  I am @trucano. The World Bank's tertiary education group is @WBtertiaryed. The new Twitter feed for the World Bank's education statistics group is @edstats.
  2. The July installment of the online EduTech debate has now begun.  This month, Walter Bender of Sugar Labs (former president of the OLPC initiative and former executive director of the MIT Media Lab) and Mark Beckford of N-Computing will discuss issues related to 1-to-1 computing vs. computer labs.
  3. The presentation and archived video from the event at the World Bank earlier this week on "eBooks & Affordable Access to Digital Content for Teachers, Health Care Workers & Agricultural Extension Agents in Southern Africa" are now available on-line.
  4. Background documents and presentations from the May event in New Delhi co-organized by the World Bank on "ICT Support for Universalisation of Secondary Education" are now available on-line.
  5. UNESCO, the World Bank and KERIS recently announced an ICT/education event in Hangzhou, China on 15-17 November 2009



Michael Trucano

Visiting Fellow, Brookings, and Global Lead for Innovation in Education, World Bank

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