Thursday, March 26, 2009

To Adopt or Not to Adopt

I decided to take the plunge and set up a Facebook page for my intro theory course that starts next week. Told someone and got the following "Facebook is so 2005. You should be using Twitter instead." I am not even sure what Twittering a course would mean.

A few weeks ago I was talking to a fellow professor, also married with children, who didn't have a cell phone. I tried to explain how having cell phones transformed our lives, no longer did we have to coordinate in advance. The other professor seemed unconvinced. It's very hard to convince someone who doesn't use a technology why one cannot live without it.

Of course I didn't tell him the story of when our family split up in a museum and then the entire AT&T network went down in the state. It took us 45 minutes after the museum closed to find each other.

So far I have avoided Twitter, either following others or writing my own, even though I already have three followers to my empty Twitter feed. I actually worry that I don't have enough time for another tool I can't live without. 


  1. I find that Twitter is pretty useless unless you have a fairly large number of followers that you can have conversations with. Therefore, it is not surprising that many people can't see the point of it when they first join. On the other hand, I find friendfeed much more useful right out of the box. Most of the scientists that I know of that use these sort of services seem to be much more active on friendfeed than on Twitter.

    I think that facebook groups for university courses are an extremely bad idea. Firstly, both students and professors are mainly using facebook to connect with people that they know socially in real life, so it is a bit of an invasion of privacy to have work related stuff cropping up on there. Secondly, if you look at the Terms of Service, you are giving up a good deal of your rights over material that you post to facebook, which might not be a good idea if you want to post lecture notes and the like. Thirdly, you are dependent on a third-party site that might go down or cease to exist at any point, probably during the most crucial point of your course. OK, maybe this is unlikely to happen to facebook, but it has happened to other Web2.0 services, such as netvibes and magnolia, that people were using in their teaching. There is also the more likely possibility that some students could get banned from facebook for reasons that have nothing to do with your course, and would then be unable to access the material.

    In my opinion, a better solution is for universities/departments to install open source social web software on their own servers that they have control of. If you can't persuade your school to do this officially, then you can easily set something up yourself on any web server you have access to. Wikis, forums and blogs all have their uses for teaching, or you could go with a more fully featured solution like Moodle or Elgg. I'm a big fan of Elgg, since you can use it to replicate much of the functionality of facebook.

  2. I see what Facebook does for socializing that Moodle could not. I don't see what Facebook is going to accomplish for taking a course that Moodle could not.

    That said, given the large numbers of people who believe that Facebook innovated things like sharing pictures, I can see how someone might be willing to ask a question on Facebook that they would not think to ask on a Moodle discussion board, even though the effect would be identical. But to me that is an example of someone having their mind imprisoned by technology, rather than being set free by it. The same person 10 years ago might have thought it great to have the professor's cell phone number for texting questions because he didn't understand that email could do the same thing (and better).

    Of course, by 2015 your students will ask for the course to be conducted entirely through Twitbook, the 11-character-at-a-time pico-blogging site where statistical tools enforce the rule that all your posts are pairwise independent, making it difficult to use by anyone with an attention span and a functioning long-term memory. Then you'll get to read constant updates about how which student is "rdg ur book".

    Sarcasm aside, I would love to hear from more innovative people than myself what would be uniquely superior about a Facebook page for a course versus Moodle (or Blackboard, etc.).

  3. A legal pyramid scheme for getting followers on twitter:

  4. A way to get people to actually read your tweets complete with reading comprehension check (!)

  5. We have separate cell phones for every member of the family. I won't quite say that "we can't live without it", because the truth is that we did live without it until a few years ago. Nonetheless the cell phones have some major advantages over house phones:

    1) Cell phones have a lot less phone spam --- although possibly Skype doesn't have phone spam either.

    2) They give our kids more daily independence. Since we live in Davis, they bicycle a lot, and even otherwise they would run off to see friends. With their phones it's a lot easier to find out whether or why they are missing or late, without demanding heavy-handed control.

    3) It cuts down on quarreling. We do coordinate in advance, but somehow it's never perfect.

    4) It cuts down on other quarreling. Maybe if we were perfectly well-adjusted and rational we would not need this, but the fact is that phone privacy also helps keep the peace.

    5) Cell phones let you escape from extremely obnoxious service fees and lack of access while traveling. Not long before we got cell phones, I was charged $20 for a single short phone call to explain that my flight was delayed.

    The disadvantages:

    1) Cell phone service for four phones is not all that cheap.

    2) When there is phone spam, it's even more annoying than with a land line.

    3) It's that much harder to pry the kids off the phone when they should be doing something else.


    As for Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc., what I usually but not always do is wait until a friend with a similar outlook explains to me why I need any of these things. It hasn't happened yet. When I teach courses, on-line grade distribution has been extremely convenient, and a special facility to post homework could also be handy, although I haven't needed it. Maybe a sign-up page to coordinate study groups.

  6. "It's very hard to convince someone who doesn't use a technology why one cannot live without it."

    I've heard a similar argument, I think from Paul Graham ( as to why it's difficult to convince someone to switch to a "more powerful" programming language (e.g. C to a higher level language like Java or Python, or pretty much any language to Lisp).

  7. "... or pretty much any language to Lisp"