Theologising on Twitter: an experiment in non-linear teaching

At the weekend, I’m going to have my first attempt at teaching via Twitter. This is a version of the Massive Open Online Course which has been around as a concept for a while – but in taking it to a social media platform, rather than using something designed for teaching, I’m experimenting with something which is new to me. It will be a pay-as-led course (that is, offered free, but with a request for donations). I don’t know how it will go (come and look at #QuakerGodTalk if you want to find out for yourself), but in this blog post I want to write about why I want to try it.

I think I have two main reasons. One is about ease of interaction, and the other is about the non-linear nature of Twitter discussions.

Ease of interaction is the more straightforward of the two reasons. In many online teaching platforms, there’s a clear distinction between the ‘delivery’ and the ‘response’, between a block of content which is delivered live (in a webinar) or arranged in advance and the participant’s responses. In some cases, as on Moodle, the content and the way of responding are several clicks apart – you watch or read, then go to another space, the discussion forum, before you can comment. Teaching on Twitter minimises this distance – the content is delivered in the same tweet format as responses are given, and to reply, retweet, or like is only a single click. I’m hoping this means people will talk to me. It’s like the difference between teaching in a lecture hall or a flat-floored room – both are good, but they have different dynamics.

Twitter’s facilitation of non-linear discussion is less obvious. Some things about Twitter are just as linear as any book – a timeline and a thread are both, precisely, linear. And yet – because Twitter is asynchronous, you can go back and look at (and interact with) something from the past. Because you can link one thread to another, you can loop back to a previous discussion. I don’t think you can make it completely circular, but it is possible to create a spiral, or a path with a series of branches, which individuals can explore at different speeds and in different ways.

To write a book about my topic (the book is Telling the Truth about God), I had to pick an order in which to present the ideas. It can be done in a linear way. But when I teach in the classroom I don’t force people to be linear about it – we loop back to earlier topics, bring things in as they seem relevant rather than in a particular order, form connections between ideas and approaches, and generally build a network of concepts. The book is like a guided bus tour of a big city – it picks out some important landmarks and presents them in one possible order. A Twitter conversation is more like being free to explore and stopping to chat to people at different points – the same landmarks will probably appear, but you can skip past things which don’t interest you and choose to spend longer with those which do.

I hope that this will enable a rich conversation to develop and draw in people from many different backgrounds, with a uniting interest in the evergreen challenges of talking about God. If you come and try it, please let me know whether it works!

Details on the Woodbrooke website.

5 responses to “Theologising on Twitter: an experiment in non-linear teaching

  1. Fascinating discussion of epistemology and logistics of teaching, Twitter and reading. I’ve been on Twitter for maybe 10 years and yet to find a really good use for it. I refuse to have the app on my phone. Off to Woodbrooke then!

  2. Made 4 attempts to join on Woodbrooke link but have no idea if I have!

    • Hopefully this will be a good use for it! Did the Woodbrooke link take you to the Woodbrooke Twitter profile, or to a page to sign up to get an email when the course starts? If it was the first one, you might like to try again as there was a problem which has now been corrected. Whether or not you sign up, you can look at my profile or Woodbrooke’s on Friday, or search for the hashtag, to find the course.

      • Oh yes, the website, but the form part wasn’t there before and the Join link took you somewhere (Twitter?) but didn’t return any acknowledgement of joining. Now you have to fill in the form first so I’ll try again.

      • Ok, rather daunting form to complete. Put Spain in because I’m in Spain and gave Spanish mobile number (much too much obligatory info for this) then it wouldn’t accept my Stockport post code! But got to the end eventually. I might make a donation later.

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