‘Activity’ in the Twitter backchannel at #altc2012 day 1

Poh, Swenson & Picard (2010) Brain ActivityThe graph on the right is taken from a paper mentioned in Eric Mazur’s keynote from the first day of the ALT* Conference 2012. The paper, A Wearable Sensor for Unobtrusive, Long-Term Assessment of Electrodermal Activity (Poh, Swenson & Picard, 2010), reports the study of an experimental wristband which can record brain activity. Mazur used the paper to highlight that often being in class generates less brain activity than when asleep and similar levels to when watching TV. Mazur went on to describe the theory and techniques, including Peer Instruction, for moving lectures away from a broadcast mode into a richer interactive experience.
Unfortunately Mazur was unable to incorporate some of these techniques into his keynote and so, enjoyable as it was, I found myself on a verge of a TV watching state. As is becoming increasingly common when watching the box this was augmented by the ‘second screen’, in this case the #altc2012 twitter stream.
Had I been hooked up to a brain monitor I sure it would have recorded frantic activity trying to report some of the c.170 spam tweets (over 20%) pushed into a UK trending stream. But did I learn anything from the remaining c.600 legitimate tweets? On reflection I don’t recall ‘learning’ anything from the backchannel. One theory is that the backchannel is just an amplifier or repeater. As I recently noted in Notes from the Twitter backchannel at eAssessment Scotland 2012 #eas12 the audience is largely in a rebroadcast or note collection mode which could is evident in the lack of @relies. So there is less peer dialogue, but this doesn’t mean other processes aren’t at work. For example, there may some level of cognition in forming a 140 character tweet which provides the opportunity for internal self dialogue.
So I think I’m adjusting my expectation of the backchannel and taking a leaf out of Sheila MacNeill’s Confessions of a selfish conference tweeter. I still think there are opportunities unpick the discourse from Twitter communities, but just when people are in a different mode like in #moocmooc. 
[I really need to blog about how I calculated the number of spam tweets. In the meantime here is a graph of Twitter activity during Eric’s keynote]

Tweets, Replies and Spam for #altc2012 during Eric Mazur's Keynote
Interactive version of Tweets, Replies and Spam for #altc2012 during Eric Mazur’s Keynote

*ALT is the Association of Learning Technologists


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  • The #slsbristol backchannel: all about the audience » Danegeld

    […] on knowledge sharing and conversation may undermine other uses of the Twitter backchannel. As @mhawksey commented in relation to ALT-C for the individuals concerned there are other processes at work, such as internal self-dialogue […]

  • david nicol

    Perhaps the benefit of tweeting is for the tweeter as it encourages their construction of a message which involves a cognitive constructive activity whereas receiving a tweet might elicit much less or little cognitive processing. Then the question becomes: which kinds of tweets are more productive for the producer – asking questions, summarising and explaining what has been heard would certainly result in more processing than repeating verbatim a comment heard at a talk. The former might also generate new understanding for the producer as in explaining for others you have to revisit and rehearse your own understanding of the topic and this reflection will lead to inferential knowledge building 🙂 So if teachers are going to use tweeting as an educational strategy there is a lot to think about on the production side and more if you want to get productive interaction.

  • Sarah Currier

    Interesting comment David! I’m sure live-tweeting an event has helped me with processing and retaining what I’m getting from the event, at times. What are your thoughts on the value (or otherwise) of condensing potentially complex thoughts or ideas into 140 characters? Although, I suppose most of us, when live-tweeting, do a series of 140 character tweets, not just one per presentation.

  • david nicol

    Now by asking me this question you are turning tweeting into a productive dialogue – here the complexity of your question causes me to think, to think about new things and to generate new ideas so I am actually learning. Indeed the effectiveness of my continuing learning about this topic will depend on the successive interactions I will have with you as well as on the comments and questions you provide and on the quality or otherwise of my responses.
    Turning to your question there is a great deal of research in cognitive psychology that self-explaining is a good thing even if you do not get a quality response – I think also that summarising complex ideas into 140 characters is developing an important skill, a skill in making ‘holistic’ judgements, a skill all experts have but that might not be being sufficiently developed in HE.

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