Is the 140 character ‘micro interaction’ enough?

Saturday 5 March 2011

by Nik Peachey

A few years back educationalists were getting extremely excited about the possibilities that computer games and virtual worlds had to offer within education.  Even the mainstream press seemed to develop a fascination for Second Life, which was hardly out of the news and even inspired an episode of the TV crime series CSI.

Marc Prensky published his book ‘Digital Games Based Learning’ and we were all trying to come to terms with being digital immigrant teachers in a world of digitally native students. Gartner ( The internationally respected  IT research analysts )were predicting that “By the end of 2011, 80 percent of active Internet users (and Fortune 500 enterprises) will have a “second life”, but not necessarily in Second Life”.

My trip in Second Life

My trip in Second Life

Then came Twitter. Twitter could not possibly be further away from the concept of a computer game or a three dimensional visually rich virtual world. Suddenly instead of learning to fly and exchanging our money for Linden bucks (the currency of Linden Labs’ Second Life)  we were exchanging grammatically correct sentences for  status updates of less than 140 characters! Who could have seen it coming? Perhaps Gartner, who also predicted that   “90 Per Cent of Corporate Virtual World Projects Fail Within 18 Months”.

So, now that Twitter and Facebook are the media darlings and we are getting used to expressing everything we want to say within ‘micro interactions’ of 140 characters, does that mean that all that other stuff about gaming and virtual worlds was all wrong and a big waste of time?

Well I certainly don’t think so. Whereas I am a great fan of Twitter and have built quite a large professional network there, which I’ve learned from immeasurably, in terms of being effective as a teaching tool, I’ve yet to see any really impressive teaching / language learning going on there. Certainly, I think it’s a new genre of communication that our students need to be literate in and I don’t see the ‘micro interaction’ going away, but I still think there is an educational future in 3 D virtual worlds and computer games.

For one thing, the number of Twitter users under 18 years old is estimated to be around 1%, with more than 50% at 35 years old +. That hardly makes it the preferred platform of the digital natives. Has anyone had to ask their teen to stop tweeting and come have dinner? I certainly haven’t.

So perhaps we should be widening our focus a little more and looking again at the potential of computer games and virtual worlds, after all while we weren’t looking it seems like they have learned to talk to and understand us.  Just look at Milo from Project Natal isn’t he more engaging for our students than 140 characters of text?



And it also seems that with the media focus away from virtual worlds like Second Life and with the specs of mainstream computers catching up with its demands, the truly committed educationalists have bedded down and started to make some real progress. In a recent trip back to Second Life after many months away for me I was really impressed by how much simpler and easier the interface was to use and how much the sound had improved. It just worked, without me having to do anything! And I have to say, it was really nice to sit around with people again and just talk, even though most of them were in different countries and continents.

So what do you think?

  • Do you think virtual worlds and computer games within education are past or still for the future?
  • Does Twitter really work for you as a language teaching tool?
  • Is there something better than either of these two around the corner?
  • Hey what about augmented reality??

Links for more information:

6 responses to Is the 140 character ‘micro interaction’ enough?

  1. Phil says:

    Hi Nik

    Good post.

    2nd Life is great in theory but schools need good hardware to run it, me too. We also need more things available that we can do there with classes or idiot friendly lesson ideas. It’s a tall order to create your own house/island and then make activities for each class. I’m also a bit apprehensive of just appearing in some place with 20 students who will then probably wander off into someone’s area.

    The technology has been around for a while but SL still seems to be full of us teachers and maybe not enough learners as they don’t see the gains to be made. But if we had it running in our lab I think students would give it a go for class exchanges or project work. With the new SLOODLE virtual classroom it does look appealing for distance students.

    You should post some more SL lesson ideas.

  2. Nik Peachey says:

    Hi Phil

    I’ll give those SL lesson ideas some thought. I do have some sitting around somewhere. I haven’t checked out the new Sloodle virtual classroom yet. I had a look at the old one and the concept was very interesting. Have you used it much?

    Personally I think the best use for SL is to put together students from different countries to exchange languages. It seems like a great place to do that and students could take it in turns to produce small field trips for each other.

    Seems like a good way to learn a language from a native speaker.

    You are right about the ratio of teachers to students, though that does make it pretty unique in edtech as the students are usually way ahead.



  3. Phil says:

    Good idea. I’m going to try that next week with some French and Chilean students. Maybe a tour of France. I’m not quite sure how to go beyond the initial ‘tour lessons’ though. Maybe more explorations or discussions in strange locations.

    I saw there’s a CYPRIS group on SL offering free activities. would you recommend them?

    I have had strange responses from students when I have suggested doing SL activities. Here are a few:
    “it’s for nerds”
    “I don’t understand it”
    “how can I learn English”
    “I don’t see the point” (a teacher)
    “my computer can’t run it” (students and teachers)

    Please publish some of your SL lessons, they would be greatly welcome.



    • Nik Peachey says:

      Hi Phil

      I don’t know anything about CYPRIS, but if the activities are free it’s worth having a look.

      I’ll try to dig out some of the SL lessons I wrote.



  4. Phil says:

    How about Twiitter Nik?

    I think I read that you’ve used Twitter in classes for presentation feedback loops. It seems that everyone is on about using it but I’m not convinced. Mainly because students think I’m mad for mentioning it. It also seems to have become full of advertising of one sort or another.

    When will we finally have 1 site that has everything we need or rather 1 app that will do everything? The average person/teacher probably uses Gmail, Delicious, Blogger, Twitter, Facebook, Yahoo groups, Skype and Youtube. All these sites need registrations and passwords (some you can use a generic one). Using them in the class means students have to remember these or think up new ones for new sites they also voice concerns about sharing their email addresses over the net.

    Maybe Internet 3 could just have one login.

  5. Nik Peachey says:

    Hi Phil

    I use twitter a lot for my own development and to keep in contact with my network, but I don’t use it with students. I do use feedback loops in classes and for presentations, but I generally use something more private like as I find the sheer volume of traffic through twitter makes it less useful for backchanneling within the actual class.

    As for the kind of ‘made for education’ one app or site that contains everything we need / use, I’m not really keen on that idea. I prefer to use tools / sites that are designed for authentic purposes and authentic users, rather than made for EFL ones, as this helps to develop students’ digtal literacies and communication skills for the ‘real world’.

    The other problem of course is that the real world is constantly evolving and educational platforms aren’t good at keeping up with change. Look at Moodle or Blackboard for example, which both look very dated and have very limited social functionality.

    I think we just have to get used to the fact that one of the key digital literacies is the ability to quickly understand and adapt to new digital communication environments.



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