June 06, 2009

Twitter for learning in extremis: Surgery Live and, erm, Big Brother

Surgery Live Adam Gee, Channel 4's Cross-Platform Commissioner for Factual, last week helped bring together one of the most bizarre, insightful and exhilarating learning experiences I think I've ever taken part in on television: watch a surgeon perform his art/science live on television and ask him questions direct through Twitter.

Open heart surgery, awake brain surgery (i.e. patient awake as well as surgeon and us the trusty viewers), keyhole surgery, tumour removal – alive&direct thanks to Windfall Films in collaboration with the Wellcome Trust. Wild enough in itself I hear you say but that is not all, oh no, that is not all…

We will not hold up the cup and the milk and the cake and the fish on a rake, but as the Cat in the Hat said, we know some new tricks and your mother will not mind (unless she’s etherised upon a table, as that other cat-lover said). The plan is to tip our hat (red and white striped topper or whatever) to that increasingly common behaviour of Twittering whilst watching TV and encourage people to tweet away during the live operations, sharing their thoughts and asking questions. The big difference here is that this is live TV and you can make an impact with your tweet on the TV editorial. The best questions tweeted will be fed through to the presenter, arch-Twitterer Krishnan Guru-Murthy of Channel 4 News, who will swiftly pose them to the surgeon at work. So a matter of seconds between tweet and the question being uttered on live TV.

There were, of course, thousands of questions put through to the programme, helping the Surgery Live hashtag #slive hit the 3rd, then 2nd then 1st position on Twitter's trending, but there was also a great deal of conversation about the live operation between complete strangers who had found each other through the commonality of the hashtag, and their shared experience of learning what goes on inside our hearts/brains/stomachs.

In more formal education circles there have been attempts this year to engage audiences across education districts in, for example, live dissections of animals, where students are encouraged to put forward their questions. I think the Channel 4 Twitter experiment reveals some different behaviours that can only be encouraged in these more formal learning situations:

1. Twitter offers a certain degree of anonymity, which can be incredibly helpful in illiciting honest, high value questions from an audience (think other Channel 4 examples like Sexperience and Embarrassing Teenage Bodies, and my forthcoming You Booze You Lose). Where people know who you are, it can be inhibiting ("is my question stupid?", "should I know the answer to this?", "oh, I'll just wikipedia it afterwards"...)

2. The restrictions in place around a 140 character question or message mean that people cut to the chase and avoid the redundant language that clutters thinking in classrooms (and blog posts, VLEs, bulletin boards...). This is something found by the UT Dallas experiment highlighted in Derek Wenmoth this week.

3. Twitter helps you bump into people outside your learning/social circle, which in turn helps you emphathise, and see an issue from someone else's (very different) perspective. The one challenge with any Virtual Learning Environment in a school or country is that you are, more or less, sharing like thought with like thought, shaped by the culture and curriculum around it. When you take the questioning and answering global, you have an almost infinite number of conflicting perspectives to challenge your thinking.

At 4iP my colleague Lucy Würstlin took Twitter to a more entertainment-based medium (Big Brother) with her new product, Hashdash. The Hashdash Big Brother 10 launch night might have seemed pure entertainment, but it indeed helped a number of new Twitterers find their voice by educating the masses in Twitter etiquette, how to use hashdashes to have your message seen by more people with the same passion (in this case, #BB10).

Of course, at 4iP we have bigger plans afoot for this baby to help more people learn how the anonymity of Twitter can improve their learning (and their entertainment) with each other.


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As someone who is facing the possibility of wide awake brain surgery I am APPALLED at the idea that the surgeon might be twittering to goodness knows how many people as opposed to giving me his undivided attention!!!! It was bad enough that they were talking football as they delivered my daughter.

I was pretty appalled about the potential for that but then was reminded that surgeons always describe and take questions from their team about what they're doing. Therefore, to extend that Q&A through Krishnan was nothing extraordinary from the surgeon's point of view.

True but the team is limited in number and I believe that we are dealing with the same situation as talking on a mobile while driving. You can get off with it but it is an accident waiting to happen. There is a not insignificant risk of stroke and the fact that the curious got their answer in a nanosecond and that the twitterers beat all records would be of no interest to the family whose lives are ruined as they deal with a vegetable! I'll go now and get on with chopping down my huge hazel tree!

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

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Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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