Saturday, February 18, 2017

A few thoughts on Twitter chats as course discussion

One of the exciting and fun experiences of the #openlearning17 cMOOC are the twitter chats. I have not been able to participate in all of them, but the ones that I could make it to were energizing, provocative, and – I don’t want to say full of, but they provided their share of ideas and references. Here we are, in different corners of Virginia, the US, and the world, engaging in an intellectual exchange that can fairly easily fit into our schedules, that requires no travel (not even the 20 minutes that it takes me to get from JMU east campus to JMU west campus on the other side of i-81), and that we can pick up at a later time, read again, add new comments to, and so on.



One of the things that makes the chats exciting is the sheer speed with which tweets keep coming in. To me, this feels a bit like being at a party where everybody is talking; in situations like this, I can’t listen to anybody – I simply don’t understand what they’re saying, even if they’re talking to me. Too much confusion, too much firehose drinking. Tweetdeck is therefore an absolute necessity for me in the chats: One column is reserved for #openlearning17 and one column for responses/threads I am engaged in. Still, my sense is that I am slightly lost and don’t know where the conversation is going. I should check the storifies later on (Where are they, by the way? Can't find them!), but I haven’t done so yet.

Recently, I’ve been reminded of the German word Gespräch and the overtones it has for me. The word refers to a conversation, but a Gespräch is a bit more serious and weighty than most conversations (which we might call Unterhaltungen in German – entertainments). It doesn’t have the competitive aspects of a debate (which we call a Debatte); it is less focused than a discussion (which we call – German is sooooo different from English – a Diskussion).

You say something; I listen. There is some silence while we think and take a sip. I respond at length, going on for a while, with a point that seems off topic at first but turns out to be apposite; you listen. You respond. I ask a follow-up question to better understand what you are saying, and you respond. We’re silent again. I add to what you said. You challenge what I say. I take some time to think about this, then offer a qualification. You do not immediately understand and ask me to explain a point. It turns out we understood a phrase I used in opposite ways and laugh, appreciating the humor of the situation. And so on.

I think a good seminar discussion has the characteristics of such a Gespräch. To me, Twitter chats lack some of these characteristics: there is no silence; there are more statements than questions; it is hard for people to explain themselves at length. We’re on a short ride in a fast machine.


cathy saunders said...

A Gespräch sounds like my kind of conversation/discussion (and I even wonder whether some of the conversational patterns with which I grew up might have been carryovers of German customs preserved over several generations; the German immigrants on the side of the family of which I'm thinking are mid-19th century; I think it's a great-great grandfather who was born in Germany -- or, rather, what is now Germany, but was a collection of smaller states at the time; we have the passport that shows him passing through a number of them on his way to the U.S. So it's a while back, but I think the family stayed cohesive for some time before they began intermarrying with those of English descent).

And I feel somewhat the same about twitter chats (and really need to figure out tweetdeck; thanks for the link). Both length and speed pose problems for me, but speed is especially tricky.

And, interestingly, crafting questions so that they come across as genuinely interested rather than hostile is probably even trickier than crafting statements with the same purpose. Perhaps that explains the statement: question ratio?

Andreas Broscheid said...

Thanks for your comment! I am not sure that what I describe is more German than, say, Irish or Spanish. Many Germans tend to be slower and more silent than many Italians, but you always encounter surprises. It was mainly the word "Gespräch" that resonated with me and that I couldn't find a proper English equivalent for.

And you're right that things like genuine interest or empathy are difficult to communicate in one written sentence, particularly if you're not in your face or use emojis. What's the genuine-interest emoji? There's still a role to play for long emails. 😀