- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Forget writing’s five Ws of who, what, where, when and why. The new skill being taught in college communications classes is how many, as in how many characters do you have left in a 140-character space?

Twitter, the fast-growing microblogging service that has tripled in size over the past year to nearly 18 million users, is so ubiquitous that it is being taught in college classes. Many universities have incorporated Twitter skills as part of new-media and social-media courses; others have broken out Twitter into a course of its own.

At DePaul University in Chicago, students can take Digital Editing: From Breaking News to Tweets. The course is taught by Craig Kanalley, founder of Breakingtweets.com. Mr. Kanalley says when be started his site early this year, he met a lot of student journalists who were still caught in old-school, long-form newsthink. He envisioned teaching new writers to think short.

Mr. Kanalley says his course “combines traditional journalism with new technology.”

“You still need to know how to write,” he says.

The syllabus includes: sources (how to find them, how to confirm them), how to find breaking news, how to be a citizen journalist.

“My course is not so much on how to tweet on your personal account,” Mr. Kanalley says. “It is how to use it as an important skill. There is still a lot of writing involved.”

In the rapidly changing social-media landscape, thinking with an economy of words is going to aid people in a variety of professions, Mr. Kanalley says. Writing quickly, getting someone’s attention and communicating in short spurts are necessary for people planning careers in sales, marketing and teaching, for example.

At American University in the District, Twitter is not taught as its own course. However, Amy Eisman, director of writing programs and the Weekend Interactive Journalism Program, says, “We in the journalism division would be foolish if we didn’t incorporate some understanding of Twitter’s power, and foibles, into our classrooms.”

Ms. Eisman says there is room for the long and the very short in communication.

“The broader goal is to help citizens understand a complex society so that they can make more informed decisions based on accurate information,” Ms. Eisman said in an e-mail. “Sometimes that information comes through a well-crafted story. Sometimes it comes from a well-produced broadcast piece. Sometimes it comes from the crowd-sourced Twitter feed that links to audio elsewhere. No one single delivery is a substitute for the other.”

David Parry, assistant professor of emerging media at the University of Texas at Dallas, teaches Twitter as part of his introductory class on new media.

“I have heard jokes that it is ‘majoring in Facebook,’ but it is a lot more than that,” he says. I get students thinking ‘What can you say in 140 characters?’ It is hard to do, but it gets them realizing that content has value.”

More important than the economy of words is the value of conversation, Mr. Parry says. That is what really separates old media from new.

“We have to stop treating [writing] as a monologue and start looking at it as a conversation,” he says.

Mr. Parry says he was not a fan of social-media platforms such as Twitter at first. He wrote on his blog, “I thought it represented the apex of what concerns me about internet technology: solipsism and sound-bite communication.

“I also worry about the way that they too easily lead to increasingly short space and time for conversation, cutting off nuance and conversation, and what is often worse how these conversations often reduce to self-centered statements,” Mr. Parry wrote. “When I first heard about Twitter I thought, this was the example par excellence of these fears.”

Like many in academia, Mr. Parry eventually warmed to the idea. He points out that Twitter surprisingly is good for teaching grammar. Even though Twitterers tend to make up their own abbreviations, it still helps to demonstrate how all communication needs rules and structure and how important something like a comma or a period can be.

Mr. Parry also says Twitter’s limit on 140 characters can actually help communication rather than hinder it, as writers have to train themselves to say what they want to say and get to the point quickly.

Twitter also has helped teachers get feedback from students, get students to continue conversations with colleagues outside of the classroom and let students get immediate feedback on their work. Ironically, online communication has, in effect, strengthened the classroom community.

“Once students started twittering, I think they developed a sense of each other as people beyond the classroom space, rather than just students they saw twice a week for an hour and a half,” Mr. Parry says. “This carried with it a range of benefits, from more productive classroom conversations (people were more willing to talk, and more respectful of others), and also helped me to understand what type of students they were.

“I learned a great deal about students’ lives, where they work, that one of them had Thanksgiving dinner with [50-plus] people. Now, this type of supplementary material might not be attractive to all educators, [but] I can definitely say that [it] changed the classroom dynamics for the better.”

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