Is Twitter Useful?

Interesting scene from a debate about the utility of Twitter between W. Gardner Campbell, director of the Academy of Teaching and Learning at Baylor University, and Bruce Maas, CIO of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, at the annual Educause conference in Denver:

Maas, representing a more sober view of Twitter’s educational utility, pointed to studies indicating that young people have not been as active in the realm of microblogging as their older counterparts. He said the evidence that the site might prove more a distraction in the classroom than a resource was right there in the room — Maas gestured to the overwhelming activity on the session’s Twitter discussion thread (the number of comments approached 500 by the end of the 45-minute gathering).

But Campbell had a different take on the implications of audience members feverishly typing away while a presentation is still in progress. “That’s a godsend!” he said. “Suddenly, I’m not just the one at the front just dispensing everything, and the students aren’t just sort of milling about doing their thing — we’ve actually got a team of people working together. And Twitter is the glue that holds the team together.”

I’m sure Twitter does have some educational uses, but I’m skeptical about this particular claim from Campbell. How is it a “godsend” to have an audience more interested in the tweeting going on on a giant screen than in what the speaker is saying? Obviously, any good lecturer will bring in the audience and turn parts of the lecture into a conversation, but Twitter doesn’t seem like the best way to accomplish this.

There’s definitely a tendency to take some fancy new toy (not that Twitter is particularly new anymore) and say, “See? This is the solution to [ages-old problem] we’ve been looking for!,” even when there are much simpler solutions at hand.

Jesse Singal

Jesse Singal is a former opinion writer for The Boston Globe and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. He is currently a master's student at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Policy. Follow him on Twitter at @jessesingal.