Teaching Good Writing with Twitter and Text messaging, and Good Video-making with Smart Phone Videos

What do Twitter, text messaging, and videos that are designed for mobile phones have in common? They are all considered by most teachers to be time-wasters and learning distractions; however, these social media technologies also have the potential to improve how students present themselves and communicate in writing or in moving images.

Some see constraints such as the number of characters that can be used in a tweet or the size of a tiny video screen as pointless limitations; however, they may also be seen as beneficial artistic constraints. The poet Robert Frost, for example, believed constraints were needed for good poetry. In an address at Massachusetts’ Milton Academy, in 1935 he complained about poetry with limits, said that, “Writing free verse is like playing tennis with the net down.” Another example of useful artistic writing constraints is Haiku, a wonderful form of poetry usually limited to lines of 7, 5, 7, and 7 words.

In the visual arts, there are a great many examples of small works of fine sculpture, drawing, painting, and jewelry, some that require a magnifier to appreciate. We should not dismiss Twitter, and text messaging because there are constraints on the number of characters or words, but instead we should use those limits to help students construct clear, concise writing.

I recently read a discussion about using tweets to reach potential employers. Good job counselors tell their clients that posting or emailing resumes and job applications, even in response to an ad, is usually a waste of time. The key, they say, is developing a relationship, letting a potential employer know who you are, what you can do, and how you can help her or his organization or company. This is good advice but often it’s not easy to follow. How do you find, reach and intrigue a potential employer?

Suppose you find the employer’s hashtag. You have 140 characters to get his or her attention, an interesting and challenging writing problem. You have to provide both a way for the employer to learn more about you (by responding to your tweet, email address, web page link, or phone number) and a compelling reason to do so. You need to research the employer, speak the employer’s language, choose words that will get the employer’s attention. You also need to represent yourself well; so using “U R” for “you are” may cut down on characters, but will not impress most employers. This is a writing problem that might intrigue some students.

I know adult learners who are entrepreneurs. They sell things they have made themselves, or purchased at a discount. They sell these goods in their communities online, or both. As entrepreneurs they have to reach and communicate with potential customers. A high interest writing problem for them is how to intrigue a customer with a tweet or a short text message. They have to boil down their pitch to a few, well-chosen words. This, too, is a problem that can engage some learners in the art of good writing, regardless of what form of writing they choose.

I recently read an article on using video for non-profit marketing with mobile devices. http://www.nten.org/articles/2013/video-and-mobile-devices It addresses another constraint problem, not for writing, but for visual media; that is, how to communicate effectively to people who are looking at your video on the small screen of a handheld device. The author, Michael Hoffman, writes, “Because mobiles have a small screen and often more limited download speed and bandwidth restrictions, you are well advised to deliver a more focused and simplified experience in your mobile content.” Hoffman advises, for example, that because the screen size of a smart phone is small, “video ideal for a phone will often use more medium and close shots so the details are visible on the small screen” and because smart phone users are often listening to the video in a public place and often without a headset, “having a video that works even if you don’t catch every single word is more likely to impact the smart phone viewer (and is a good idea in general because we live in a world of constant distraction.”
Hoffman continues, “When several New York-area Planned Parenthood Federations wanted to reach youth at risk they knew that both video and texting were key to that audience. We worked with them to develop a program that used short online video stories to encourage text-based opt-in from the youth.

The videos ended a short story before the dénouement and in order to find out what happened, you had to text in.

Youth Video + Texting Campaign – Planned Parenthood of New York

In this case, engaging video was key to the execution of a mobile strategy.”

Many adult learners, especially younger students, have smart phones, often not only with built-in still camera but also video-making capacity. With simple-to-use editing software, students could create a video, edit it to under a minute, and engage their viewers in a problem or issue about which they are personally concerned: getting hired, promoting important health practices, getting community members to register and vote on vital neighborhood issues, driving potential customers to their web sites, recruiting students to their literacy program, or getting out an “elevator pitch” on why adult literacy programs need more (not less) funding in hard economic times.

Project-based learning that requires clear, concise and engaging communicating is a highly motivating way to help learners improve their aural, written and visual communication skills.

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