Digital Lesson – Twitter and Storify

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What is it?
Created in 2006, Twitter is a social information platform specifically designed to encourage brevity and wide-ranging networks. Twitter was inspired by the brevity of the coded language taxi dispatchers use to communicate with each other. Neither blogging tool or social network as traditionally defined, Twitter has been described by its creators as a “social information network;” it currently has more than 500 million users worldwide.

Storify, launched in the fall of 2010, is a tool that allows users to curate and annotation a selection of Tweets in order to highlight a particular thread of conversation, incident in the Twitter timeline, or “story.” Storifies can also incorporate elements from other social media sites such as Facebook and Instagram, or multimedia content from sites such as Imgur and Youtube. In this way, it allows its users to create timelines and overviews focused on specific issues, culled from large amounts of social and multimedia data. While Storify can be used to curate and present content from virtually anywhere on the web, it pairs well with Twitter as a teaching tool because it offers a strong, unique way of focusing Twitter’s often overwhelming flow of information into a single, focused conversation snapshot.

What have people said about it?
People have said a lot about Twitter in the general news. It’s been credited with everything from toppling regimes to fueling celebrity cat fights. Whether good or bad, the consensus is unquestionably that Twitter is a powerful tool for sharing and mobilizing public opinion. As for its educational benefits, graduate instructor Stephanie Hedge says using Twitter in class “stay in touch with my students quickly and easily, it fosters discussion in the classroom, and it helps to create a community among my students.”

As for Storify, Inside Higher Ed has described it as “one-stop shopping with all of the internet at your disposal, and as a good place to start for those “looking to shake up your approach to research, presentations, or in-class writing.” Andrea Lunsford says Storify assignments are the kind of “Small, low-stakes multimodal activities” great for reinforcing larger concepts introduced in class, and for helping students learn to connect specific tools (like Storify) to broader tasks like research, presentation of large-scale material, and critical evaluation of sources.

What kinds of things can I do with it?
Twitter can be looked at, in a sense, as a type of microblogging, so it can be used as one in the classroom – as a way for students to record encounters outside the classroom and connect them back to the class network. Since Twitter enables the use of hashtags, a metadata system used to connect posts from all different users to a single thread, instructors can ask students to tag all their course-relevant posts with a specific hashtag in order to create a class Tweet stream, and to facilitate conversation within it. This is something of a cross between a class blog and a live conversation, allowing for the incorporating of writing outside the classroom without the pressure of needed to generate large, more formal quantities of material. Twitter can also be a great tool for getting students thinking about the rhetorical choices they make when they write. By only allowing 140 characters – and not one more – per post, students must think carefully about how to get their point across with the most impact in such a very specific and limited structure.

From there, Storify can be used to help students reflect on that collection of class data – to draw patterns and trends from what their classmates are seeing. With Storify, a large body of Tweets is funneled down into one curated and often annotated collection focused around a single idea – the contents of one day’s lecture, the class’s experience with a given progress, a field trip to a campus event. So – students can be assigned projects where they collect classmate’s Tweets into one Storify united by a thread or theme they saw, explicated in their annotations. Students can also use Storify to organize data from outside the classroom, making projects that capture the tone of a particular conversation by external groups surrounding issues relevant to class. For example, students might make Storifies reflecting the Twitter stream on the eve of a major election, or following a particularly disruptive or popular news story. In doing so, students are asked to make decisions about how best to represent the overall tone and content of the conversations – again making them think about the choices that go into constructing any story of events.

Why might I want to use it in my classroom?
Twitter is a powerful, growing and popular tool for networking across the globe. It also has one of the highest learning curves of any social media out there. Students often aren’t as comfortable or knowledgeable about it as we might assume – so using it in class is a powerful opportunity to show students that this kind of tool is approachable and versatile, and that what they might have dismissed as just another FB with character limits is in fact a powerful rhetorical tool. Twitter also offers a host of tools that make it easy to customize to use within a single class – for example, using a single class hashtag is a much simple way of collating material from a large group of students than is creating a class blog with multiple user access.

Storify is an increasingly popular feature on social and informational news sites, so exposing students to it in class gives them a skill they may be able to transfer easily to other contexts. But more importantly, Storify assignments are an excellent tool for encouraging critical thinking about large quantities of data. By asking students to form a “story” from what seems initially like a mountain of diverse and disconnected – or, sometimes even more difficult, all uniform – information, such assignments help students develop pattern recognition and curation skills. They can also work to develop multimodal literacy, as Storify offers easy tools for incorporating video and image components. By requiring such components to fuse organically with the written content of the Tweets and annotations, Storifies help students recognize the role of both image and word in communicating meaning.

Livetweeting and Storifying in Video Game Lectures: Rick Ness
To give a picture of what using class Tweeting and Storify can look like in an actual teaching environment, Rick Ness answered a few questions about his recent experience TAing for a class that used both types of assignments. Rick is a graduate student in the UW-Madison English Department, working towards his PhD.

Tell us a little about the class in which you used this assignment.
The class was called “Literature and Videogames,” one of the handful of Introductory Literature courses thematized around popular culture. The class was very experimental, not only because it had never been taught before, but also because the assignments and the pedagogical methods moved into some uncharted territory—not just for the students but for the professor and the TAs. Some of this uncharted territory included the use of Twitter and Storify. The class includes serious gamers, casual gamers, and students who thought the title “Literature and Videogames” meant an easy A.  As you might expect, the class was about 90% male, and if fact, gender inequality in the gaming universe is an issue we addressed in class. The course concentrates on the intersections between narrative and videogames, and the atmosphere in the class could go from amusement to bemusement very quickly, as our conversations ranged from novelistic themes to code writing to theories that were fairly challenging for undergrads.

The class enrolled about 100 students. It’s technically a lecture class, but it’s not a typical lecture class. For starters, it’s held in a computer lab and not a lecture hall. Secondly, our professor Jim Brown has taken N. Katherine Hayle’s notion of “hyper-attention” (as opposed to “deep attention”) and incorporated it into the lecture setting, which is where Twitter comes in. Instead of focusing on the professor and taking careful notes during lectures, each student is responsible for submitting five tweets related to the lecture material. The attention in this context becomes more diffuse as the students focus is not only on the lecture but also on how classmates are responding to the lecture.  Some students use twitter straightforwardly as a note-taking device by tweeting an important idea mentioned in lecture like “ludology is the study of videogames” or “The lines between the virtual and the real get blurred in Ready Player One.” Some students will pose a question, inviting other students to respond to that question. Some students will tweet links to youtube or other websites that might contain content relevant to the lecture. What has been really interesting for me to witness is that, within this seemingly chaotic chain of rapid-fire tweets coming from 100 students simultaneously, small clusters of students will gravitate toward a similar sub-topic, and a few discrete conversational threads will emerge within this chaos. Here, we can see what sorts of ideas students are responding to the most.

Tell us a bit about yourself as an instructor.
I’m graduate student TA in UW-Madison’s Literary Studies program. As an instructor, my philosophy is pretty traditional—to get students to challenge their own assumptions, and to make them more critical readers, writers, and thinkers. On a day-to-day basis, I like them to leave class with at least one new idea, or to get them thinking about a familiar idea in a new way. This may be a narrative concept or a way to make their code writing more efficient when they are building games. Also, most English classes have a mix of humanities students and students in the sciences and math. I like to put these students together as much as possible in pairs or for group projects and activities because I think it promotes richer and more unpredictable intersections of ideas—it’s kind of like getting a right brain and a left brain working together at the group level

How would you describe your experience/comfort teaching with digital/technology-based materials?
I don’t have a particularly strong technical background, and beyond the perfunctory use of a smart board, I had limited experience with digital materials before coming to UW. But I gradually immersed myself in more technology, participating in digital workshops and hackathons, using Keynote and Prezi more frequently for presentations, learning some html, and doing some rudimentary coding. Teaching this class is upping the ante for me because most of what we do is technology based, and a lot of the students come from CS backgrounds and are more technically savvy than I am. So that has really motivated me to learn more, which has made me more comfortable using digital tools.

What was the assignment? What were students’ responsibilities in terms of using these tools?
Aside from tweeting during each lecture, each students has to compose one storify narrative, based on a lecture they sign up for in advance. Basically, I told students to look back over the tweets and, instead of trying to cover everything, to focus on and clarify a single theme, issue, or question. I urged them to seamlessly intetwine their own commentary with the tweets, and, while this wasn’t a requirement, I encouraged them to integrate other media like youtube videos and visual images.

What worked well? What are some of the best things to come out of this work?
A lot of students were able to successfully sort through the hundreds of tweets and find really interesting threads. It was great when a student could really gained a solid analytical foothold on why a certain series of tweets were conceptually or thematically important.

What was the most challenging or confusing for you and/or the students?
Some students struggled to build a fluid narrative that seamlessly intertwined well-chosen  tweets, insightful observations, and concise analyses, which was more or less the objective. Given the nature of tweets, some of the Storifys read like lists or bullet points. E.g., “Some students talked about a, b, and c. Other students talked about x, y, and z.”

What advice would you give to other instructors considering a similar assignment(/project/lesson)?
Since the above approach doesn’t really develop skills for constructing narrative out of multi-media source material, I would recommend that, if instructors were to give an assignment like this, to be aware that its easy for students to succumb to this listing tendency and to really stress the need to build a seamless, analytical narrative.

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