Challenges of Twitter and Plato

College presidents are urged to embrace the latest technology -- and to engage in timeless philosophical debates.
March 8, 2010

PHOENIX -- The state of the economy and the struggle to balance budgets dominated hallway conversations here Sunday as college presidents gathered for the annual meeting of the American Council on Education. But two of the kickoff sessions featured calls for presidents to move beyond fiscal challenges.

In one, the founder of Twitter urged college leaders to move rapidly to embrace his technology not only to communicate their ideas, but to change the way students view education. In the other, Eduardo J. Padrón, the president of Miami-Dade College, called on his colleagues to focus on civic values, broadly defined, in producing a populace that would challenge Plato's idea that society must rely on philosopher kings.

Twitter as a Model for Education

Jack Dorsey, co-founder and chairman of Twitter, gave a talk that was one part explanation of the popular service and one part call for colleges to expand its use. A Twitter feed for the meeting was displayed on a large screen during the talk -- and the audience included some people tweet-savvy enough to post comments and questions there during the talk, and others whose questions (How much does it cost to use Twitter? Will Twitter take over my life?) suggested newbie status.

Dorsey, who attended the University of Missouri at Rolla (now the Missouri University of Science and Technology) and New York University (and left both without degrees to move to the business world), said that Twitter fills educational needs he felt when he was a student. "What mattered in school was the relationships I had with other students and professors," he said, and out-of-class sharing was more powerful than anything else. Twitter, by allowing anyone to say anything (within the space constraints) and allowing anyone to decide what to read, replicates that user-dominated experience, he said.

Education should change, he said, so that it becomes "a utility" in the same way Twitter has become one. He was vague about how Twitter could be used for learning, and acknowledged that the service doesn't currently have good sifting tools for analyzing good and not-so-good content. But he said that college leaders who tweet would benefit. He cited the chancellor at Rolla as an example of a president who tweets, saying that he discusses what is going on in his life that day, various university issues and so forth.

"It seems meaningless but it brings so much richness to the people watching it," Dorsey said. "If I was going to school there, and I had a direct line to the chancellor [by reading Twitter], that would blow my mind, so much transparency and understanding." When Dorsey was a student there, the chancellor was "on a pedestal," but by using Twitter, he becomes a "normal human."

One problem with the example is that when Inside Higher Ed tried to check out these tweets and couldn't find them, this reporter e-mailed the university to inquire and was told that no chancellor at Rolla has ever had a Twitter account (although there is an institutional account).

A Different View of Technology and Higher Ed

Twitter also came up in the opening plenary, a talk by Miami-Dade's Padrón that touched on many themes, including the failure of higher education to engage fully with the public schools and to promote civil discourse.

Speaking of technology, he said: "It is the heaven and hell, a galvanizing, propelling force one moment, and a consuming, aimless vortex the next. Twitter can reveal what Shaquille O’Neal ate for breakfast, or it can expand a conversation on the future of education in a most compelling fashion. In fact, you may have participated last year as a group of educators sat around a conference table in New York City. As the discussion unfolded, they began to send tweets to colleagues around the world. The responses arrived on a large screen in their room, and suddenly they were part of much larger conversation."

More generally, he talked about how technology -- whatever its promise -- has not solved key issues of societal civility and citizenship.

"The great irony of this era is that we are equipped with the most advanced communication tools the world has ever known, primed to collaborate across all manner of borders, yet we insist on the art of demarcation. We are experts, hooked on differences, to which we affix labels that demand loyalty. We all know the terms: we are Democrats and Republicans, Tea Partyists, Blue Dogs, pro-life, pro-choice, conservatives, liberals, libertarians and much more," he said.

The current situation, Padrón said, brings to mind Plato. "Plato doubted the body politic’s grasp -- or interest -- in the intricacies of economics, military strategy, domestic policy and the like. He felt they were vulnerable to the cunning and nebulous talk of politicians, whose commitment to the common good Plato seriously doubted, as well. His remedy was the philosopher kings, those gifted individuals who combined a love of wisdom with a depth of understanding on the matters of the day."

Today, he added, "our students are watching. And make no mistake, they are vulnerable, just as Plato’s body politic was. They will imitate or reject what they see, neither an acceptable option."

The challenge for higher education today, Padrón said, is "to prove Plato wrong. We need to cultivate a society of philosopher kings, not merely a privileged class filled with unusual clarity. We need to court a much broader swath of the community and ensure that they take up the challenge of being citizens in a new order. And far beyond mere entry into a world of learning, they need to emerge from our institutions with an unparalleled combination of understanding and competence."


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