March 10, 2010

Health education professor is big fan of Twitter

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Twitter: Time-waster or top-notch tool? Discuss.

Top-notch tool, maintains Mark J. Kittleson, and he should know. A professor of health education at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, Kittleson will talk about Twitter during a group presentation -- titled “Technology Questions You’re Too Embarrassed to Ask Your Kids” -- set for March 19 in Indianapolis as part of the American Association of Health Education’s annual meeting.

For the very few who have never heard of Twitter, it’s a way of sending short (140-character) messages, or “tweets,” to computers or phones. Because many users -- “twitterers” or “tweeters” (they can’t agree among themselves as to the proper term) -- tweet about what they’re doing or thinking at the moment, it’s sometimes called micro-blogging. Twitterers find that compelling. Non-tweeters? Not so much.

“If I tweet that I’m eating at Garfield’s, you’re right -- no one cares,” said Kittleson, who has 103 Twitter followers.

“But Twitter has a tremendous potential for benefit, especially when it comes to emergency preparedness or disaster situations.”

Twitter’s brevity makes it uniquely suited for emergency communication, Kittleson said. Power grids may fail; landlines may not work, but in many instances folks can get on the Internet through their cell phones.

“Twitter takes a minimal amount of bandwidth,” Kittleson noted. “It can keep hundreds of thousands of people informed as to what is happening, where assistance is needed, where medical supplies are being moved.”

In the aftermath of the 7.0 magnitude earthquake that hit Haiti Jan. 12, for example, residents turned to Twitter to let the world know what had happened there. It pointed the way for many search-and-rescue teams as trapped victims twittered for help at specific locations. Even now, Haitians continue to use it in attempts to locate missing relatives. A similar scenario is unfolding in Chile following the 8.8 magnitude quake that struck there Feb. 27.

Twitter could prove helpful in other health education settings, Kittleson pointed out.

“A public health department could send updates on health news, swine flu clinics or other items of interest,” he said.

“I myself follow four professional organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and CNN. In a world where health changes so rapidly, Twitter updates make a lot of sense.”

With technology now playing a starring role in daily life, those who train tomorrow’s health educators and emergency responders must begin bringing Twitter and other such tools into the classroom, Kittleson believes.

Take Second Life, a virtual world in which people create alter-egos, called avatars, which then interact with each other.

“It can take an incredible amount of planning to run a disaster drill, but with Second Life you could simulate that emergency with 100 people whose avatars work through the various situations,” said Kittleson, known in Second Life as HEDIR Finklestein. “If someone screws up, no one gets hurt.”

Health educators could use Second Life to run focus groups, teach classes or hold meetings involving a higher degree of interaction than traditional teleconferencing with people from other states or even other countries.

Or consider podcasting -- audio or video programs their producers can “broadcast” online.

“For health education purposes, you could create podcasts on a variety of topics -- healthy lifestyles, prevention strategies, ways to talk to a physician,” Kittleson said.

While it’s unquestionably a new world out there, not everyone who faces it is brave.

“My generation is generally happy where it is,” Kittleson said tactfully.

“But we’re lagging behind the curve. We in the profession have to get in there and check it out, look at all aspects of preparing future public health educators to see the value of such programs. And that’s difficult to do if the faculty don’t use or understand them.”

An early adopter of technology -- in the ‘90s he created a list-serve and an electronic journal for health educators -- Kittleson chips away at this problem with presentations at professional meetings like the one in Indianapolis. He’s also prepared a series of simple, online tutorials at that walk the newbie through the processes involved in, say, making the best educational use of texting or accessing Twitter.

“The future is going to rely even more heavily on technology,” Kittleson said. “If we don’t teach others how to use it, we’re shirking our duty.”