Four years ago, readers of this blog were treated to the following news flash:
The University of Phoenix, having pioneered web-based learning and built one of the largest “virtual campuses” in Second Life, is now looking to become the dominant higher-education institution on Twitter. The biggest for-profit university in the world, UoP will roll out this fall a curriculum of courses delivered almost entirely through the microblogging service, according to an article in the new issue of Rolling Stone (not yet posted online). The first set of courses will be in the school’s Business and Management, Technology, and Human Services programs and will allow students to earn “certificates.” But the school plans to rapidly expand the slate of Twitter courses, according to dean of faculty Robert Stanton, and will within three years “offer full degree programs across all our disciplines.” Stanton tells Rolling Stone that Twitter, as a “near-universal, bidirectional communication system,” offers a “powerful pedagogical platform ideally suited to the mobile, fast-paced lives of many of our students.”
I posted that on April Fools Day, and of course none of it was true. It was a joke, and a pretty silly one at that, though the U of P folks did feel compelled to issue a formal denial: “University of Phoenix is not going to deliver courses via Twitter. With the limited characters you can post on Twitter, this wouldn’t be a feasible platform for a robust and quality academic curriculum.” No, there would be no MOOTCs — massive open online Twitter courses. (It’s pronounced “moot-sea,” in case you’re wondering.)
But what begins as farce sometimes ends as tragedy. A new study, titled “Major Memory for Microblogs” and published in this month’s edition of Memory & Cognition, reports on the results of experiments that show that the “trivial ephemera” that people share through Twitter and Facebook are actually much more memorable than, say, “sentences from books.” We have a “remarkable memory for microblogs,” the research indicates, because brief “status updates” are closer to “the largely spontaneous and natural emanations of the human mind” than are the more complex and carefully composed sentences found in literature. Because they resemble snippets of conversation, tweets and such-like seem to be “mind-ready formats.”
One of the researchers, Christine Harris of the University of California at San Diego, explains: “Our findings might not seem so surprising when one considers how important both memory and the social world have been for survival over humans’ ancestral history. We learn about rewards and threats from others. So it makes sense that our minds would be tuned to be particularly attentive to the activities and thoughts of people and to remember the information conveyed by them.”
Another of the researchers, Nicholas Christenfeld, also of UC-SD, draws a larger conclusion. Pointing out that our minds did not ”evolve to process carefully edited and polished text” (cavemen’s tastes ran more to The Daily Grunt than The New Yorker), he says, “One could view the past five thousand years of painstaking, careful writing as the anomaly. Modern technologies allow written language to return more closely to the casual, personal style of pre-literate communication. And this is the style that resonates, and is remembered.”
Now, one might see in all of this a very good reason to celebrate the development of “painstaking, careful writing.” After all, it allowed us to escape our minds’ evolutionary bias for the simple social grunt and helped us to expand our capacity for expressing and comprehending more subtle, more eloquent, more complicated thoughts. Did we have to work harder, cognitively speaking, to understand and remember those more complex thoughts? Of course we did. I mean: duh.
The lesson might be: Let’s place an even bigger stress on “sentences from books,” particularly in education, in order to ensure that, in an age characterized by the mass consumption of updates, tweets, and snippets, we maintain our capacity for more sophisticated thinking, writing, reading, and, yes, remembering. Surely, we wouldn’t want to throw out five thousand years of cognitive gains — however “anomalous” they may be — and allow ourselves to drift back to “pre-literate communication.” But that’s not the conclusion the scholars come to. A third member of the research team, Laura Mickes, from the University of Warwick, says, “Writing that is easy and quick to generate is also easy to remember – the more casual and unedited, the more ‘mind-ready’ it is. Knowing this could help in the design of better educational tools.”
Although the researchers raise the specter of “textbooks written as tweets,” Mickes isn’t ready to go that far. ”Of course,” she says, “we’re not suggesting textbooks written entirely in tweets, nor should editors be rendered useless.” That’s reassuring. If technological progress leads to intellectual or cultural regress, it’s not progress.