Teaching with Twitter

twitter-betwyll
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The use of Twitter as a teaching tool

0. Summary

This speech presents the experience of Twitteratura – later called TwLetteratura, to avoid trademark infringement – in a nutshell. It consists of three parts: in the first part the story of TwLetteratura, an open community of people reading with Twitter, is summarized; in the second part I describe how the experience has been introduced in primary and secondary schools, since 2013, and lately at the University of Pavia; the third part is focused on the definition of a performance evaluation framework, aimed at measuring the impact of this experience.

1. TwLetteratura, a community of people reading with Twitter

TwLetteratura is an open community of people using Twitter and its paradigms – brevity and sharing – to engage themselves in reading texts. In a broad sense, texts are intended as any kind of cultural content: books, of course; but also paintings, sculptures, musical compositions, movies, architecture and other artefacts.

We do not read texts on Twitter, as many others do. We use Twitter as a social space where individuals can turn reading into a shared experience. Twitter is not a comfortable place for long texts – i.e. composed of more tweets, chained together – to be read. The logic of timeline, that displays the tweets in reverse chronological order, weakens the semantic coherence and formal cohesion of a text. In this sense, Twitter doesn’t provide an effective cognitive environment.

Moreover, while commenting, summarizing, and rewriting, we do not produce new texts. Our tweets are rather metatexts or epitexts: they refer to texts that already exist, even if they are not materially appended to them (Genette, 1997, p. 344).

The experience of rewriting is also part of a new aesthetic, related to the current post media culture. We live in the age of textual overabundance. Any text has already been written and it is continuously fed into computerized networks. The focus is shifting from the content itself to the action. Being original became impossible. Only the work of manipulation, re-contextualization and conceptualization of a pre-existing content is creative: “the act of writing is literally moving language from one place to another, boldly proclaiming that context is the new content” (Goldsmith, 2011, p. 3).     

A methodology has been designed and made available under creative commons license, to guide the community through our reading games. At the first stage of the process the community selects the text to be read: a novel, a nonfictional book, a painting, a movie or any other kind of content (from now on I refer specifically to the reading of a novel). Then a calendar is defined, according to the length and to the internal organization of the content. All those involved in the game must read the text as scheduled by the calendar. For instance: day 1 to 3 = chapter I, day 4 to 6 = chapter II, day 7 to 9 = chapter III and so on. An official hashtag is also defined, to trace and retrieve all the tweets of participants.

The following execution of the game includes two major steps. First, the text is dissected through the work of rewriting that is carried out by each member of the community. The single rewriting may be paraphrase, variation, comment, free interpretation, as long as contained in the limit of 140 characters. And the user is free to propose more than one tweet for each textual portion under analysis at that time. The messages come in the flow of Twitter, as each user shares them with their followers. Subsequently all this material is recombined into a new meaningful textual apparatus (or, rather, a paratextual apparatus), using online editorial platforms like Storify or Tweetbook. Therefore, after dismantling a canonical literary text, a new content is published, which synthetizes the work of reading, decoding and interpretation of the community. This new content comes in a dialectical relationship with its source and it accompanies it.

From 2012 the community engaged more than 15,000 users. These people read and rewrote 20 authors, producing more than 350,000 tweets and retweets. Today TwLetteratura is a non-profit organization, involved in several cultural projects in Italy and abroad. The association is linked to schools, universities, museums, publishers, local communities and other institutions involved in social innovation programs.

TwLetteratura is currently developing betwyll, an app ‘as a service’ – web-based and fully interchangeable with Twitter – specifically designed for reading and rewriting exercises.

2. From Twitter to (higher) education

In 2013 TwLetteratura decided to experiment with its methodology in schools, involving a number of teachers who were already close to the community at that time. The goal was to test the approach as part of the didactic, supporting the teaching of several competences. Initially we didn’t set a common framework with specific targets, performance indicators and tools of measurements. We simply assumed three major objectives: a) encourage a love of reading books, b) strengthen the linguistic competence of students, both in reading and writing, c) educate students on the practice of using Twitter and other social media. Then we let the teachers play the game in different environments to get their feedback.

The first project, in November 2013, focussed on the novel I promessi sposi (The Betrothed) by Alessandro Manzoni and involved 40 Italian secondary/high schools. In 2014 more than 70 schools (around 4,500 students) took part to the rewriting of Le avventure di Pinocchio (The Adventures of Pinocchio) by Carlo Collodi. Other projects were aimed specifically at junior secondary school (“scuola media”, age 11 to 13) or even at primary school: Pinocchio itself, in a simplified version, and Favole al telefono (Tales on the Phone), a popular collection of short stories for children written by Gianni Rodari. In primary school children didn’t go online autonomously. Their experience on Twitter was mediated by their teachers, who created and managed group accounts for each class. The same approach was adopted in some secondary schools, according to their policy.

During the same period of time similar experiences have been developed independently from TwLetteratura. The project Unblogdiclasse, founded and directed by Elisa Lucchesi at the Enrico Fermi High School of San Marcello Pistoiese (Pistoia), constitutes an advanced case study of reinterpretation of classic literary masterpieces on Twitter. 

The first experiment with TwLetteratura in higher education took place in 2015, within the bachelor’s degree program in Communications at the University of Pavia. During the course of Digital Communication and Multimedia, devoted to the reshaping of reading in the transition from traditional book to digital reading platforms, I applied the method to provoke reflection on changes that are occurring in the ecosystem of the book. Students practiced reading and rewriting on Twitter, working on the text of The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. They produced multiple interpretations of the famous book, sometimes dissimilar from the mainstream lesson, sometimes provocative or heterodox, and explored the depths of the exegesis in 140 characters. Then, through the vision provided by Italo Calvino’s novel Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore (If on a winter’s night a traveller), students were invited to consider the position and the work of the reader, his identity in relation to the text. They finally were able to compare different behaviours of readers/rewriters emerged during the exercise with the metaphors of the reading suggested by Calvino.

3. Towards a performance evaluation framework

In the series of experiments mentioned above no standard measure has been used to assess the impact. We just wanted teachers and students did practice with the new approach, to get their feedback implicit in the form of stories. On the other hand, the size of the sample involved (100 schools and more than 4,500 students) allows us to consider some of the results a good basis for building a consistent model of performance evaluation. The following is a first hypothesis of a comprehensive framework for the analysis. The outcome is a description of the set of skills or competences that can be improved through our exercises, that is the “what” of the measurement. What is still under scrutiny is the “how”.

It must be said that the experience of TwLetteratura may respond to many objectives, not all linked to the learning of specific skills. Encouraging students to read books has been already mentioned. A further goal could be a contribution to the prevention of school dropout, obtained thanks to the ability to make the teaching more interesting and engaging. However, the logic of gamification, used by TwLetteratura, has a positive impact not only on students, but also on many other audiences. Therefore, we believe that the method can be used successfully in the context of organizational communication as well.

If we shift from social impact measurement, that is not part of my speech today, and we focus on learning objectives, we can rely on more meaningful parameters, even if the debate about how we should assess student learning is still open. For the purpose of our analysis we consider four different dimensions: a) linguistic skills, b) collaborative skills, c) critical thinking skills and literary competence, d) media literacy skills. The effectiveness of TwLetteratura isn’t the necessary result of the method, of course. It rather depends on the use teachers can do of the instrument itself and on their ability to guide the students.

a. Linguistic skills

Reading a complex text, like a novel, a movie or the facade of a gothic cathedral, and synthetizing it or commenting on it within the space of 140 characters is an exercise that should stimulate our linguistic skills. These competences are activated in different ways, depending on the nature of the source: written, figurative, musical or plastic.

Limiting the analysis to the reading/rewriting of a written source, we can see that students who attend to our exercises are involved in a deep reading process: they are engaged by the text and are invited to make it working. Turning a long text into a tweet can be a way to free it. We saw students reading the same text four to five times, enriching it with margin annotations, and comparing it to other texts. Such practices correspond to specific strategies, often suggested to improve reading skills: underlining and highlighting, summarizing, annotating questions or keywords while reading. The entire set of reading skills is involved: decoding, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. Writing skills are involved as well.

b. Collaborative skills

Since our games are played on Twitter, which is an online platform for social networking, they involve the use of many collaborative skills typical of any networked environment. Here is a list of competences that can be required when we share our reading experience on Twitter: give a compliment, accept criticism, encourage others, summarize our thoughts and our intentions, clarify what we have in mind, express empathy, understand others’ feelings, listen to others’ messages, apologize in case of mistake, deal with others’ anger, avoid trouble with others, respond to failure of the group, complete a task as expected by others.

c. Critical thinking skills and literary competence

Critical thinking for the analysis of texts embraces a set of competences that could be stimulated by the exercises of TwLetteratura. The requirement for the length of the tweet, apparently detrimental, actually stimulates the critical acumen of the rewriters, their clarity of interpretation, the ability to grasp the point. At the end of the day TwLetteratura is mostly a practice of text analysis, that can be applied to literary works as well to nonfictional texts: we successfully tested the method on the collection of critical essays Scritti corsari (Corsair Writings) by Pier Paolo Pasolini, and on Fantasia, an essay by Bruno Munari.

A generic set of skills for critical thinking includes:

Objectivity, that means the ability of the reader to set aside presuppositions, personal opinions, or commonplaces

Structure-driven vision, that means the ability to recognize the structure of the text and the way it contributes to make it meaningful

Capacity of make implications and inferences, starting from the explicit content of the text

Ability of putting questions, challenging the point of view of the text

But the reading of literary texts differs from other reading practices. The list should be therefore reviewed and integrated with other competences (Brumfit & Carter, 1986), including the ability to recognize:

Figures of speech such as metaphor, simile, personification, hyperbole, epithet, apostrophe, oxymoron, metonymy

Narrative and poetic devices such as plot, story, character, point-of-view, setting; irony, satire, paradox; assonance, alliteration, rhyme, rhythm

Specific text features such as theme, style

Literary trends such as Classicism, Romanticism, Realism, Modernism

Literary forms such as the diary, the epigram, the heroic poem, the mock-heroic poem, the ode, the sonnet

Literary genres such as novel, play, short-story, poem, sketch

d. Media literacy skills

On the basis of the feedback we collected on the field, we believe TwLetteratura can improve most of the core media literacy skills that are described by many scholars (Jenkins, Purushotma, Wiegel, Clinton, & Robinson, 2009). Here is a checklist, where the level of stimulation is highlighted

  

Skill

Description

Impact

L

H

Play

The capacity to experiment with the surroundings as a form of problem solving

 X

Performance

The ability to adopt alternative identities for the purpose of improvisation and discovery

X

Simulation

The ability to interpret and construct dynamic models of real-world processes

 X

Appropriation

The ability to meaningfully sample and remix media content

 X

Multitasking

The ability to scan the environment and shift focus onto salient details

 X

Distributed cognition

The ability to interact meaningfully with tools that expand mental capacities

 X

Collective intelligence

The ability to pool knowledge and compare notes with others toward a common goal

 X

Judgment

The ability to evaluate the reliability and credibility of different information sources

 X

Transmedia navigation

The ability to follow the flow of stories and information across multiple modalities

 X

Networking

The ability to search for, synthesize, and disseminate information

 X

Negotiation

The ability to travel across diverse communities, discerning and respecting multiple perspectives

 X

Bibliography

Brumfit, C. J., & Carter, R. (1986). Literature and Language Teaching. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Genette, G. (1997). Paratexts: Thresholds of Interpretation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Goldsmith, K. (2011). Uncreative Writing: Managing Language in the Digital Age. New York: Columbia University Press.

Jenkins, H., Purushotma, R., Wiegel, M., Clinton, C., & Robinson, A. J. (2009). Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture. Media Education for the 21st Century. Cambridge, Ma: The MIT Press.

[Speech presented at the Training Week for Staff Capacity Building Perspectives and Modernization of Higher Education (Pavia, September 20-26, 2015)]

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