Twitter as Pedagogical Tool? My students let me know.

For a while now I’ve been eagerly reading HASTAC blogs and contemplating using digital media in the classroom. Intrigued by Bridget Draxler’s description of her Twitter classroom and Cathy Davidson's advice to have my classroom, not only flipped, but do “cartwheels” with new technologies, I thought I’d try some of the widely circulated 100 Ways to Teach with Twitter. My goal was to use Twitter for peer-generated comments on student drafts.

Social media is part of my sophomore writing course entitled “Science, Democracy and Social Media” at Stanford University, where students read classic texts on science and democracy from the ancients to Thomas Kuhn and Paul Feyerabend and engage in various kinds of digital writing experiments. They also write a research proposal and paper and make a visual public speaking presentation on their topic. For their own research projects, students picked any one or two or all of the three topics in the course title.

Monday I asked the students in my class if they wanted to take part in a pedagogical experiment using Twitter.  

Most agreed, though only half the students had Twitter accounts, and the ones without said they were too busy to bother with having any more social media in their lives. Twisting no one’s arm to join the 140-character short-form social media, I simply told students without accounts to use email in our experiment.

In my experiment, I hoped to use social and traditional media to develop a more interactive and public peer-review process by inviting students to evaluate both their peers' drafts and the respondents’ comments.

We'd already had some success in projecting papers and peer-generated critiques via email on the screen for classroom discussions. Now my question was—what could Twitter add?

In class, Pao J. presented his project on entrepreneurship in Thailand. I asked students to respond to Pao’s presentation with three tweets

1)   Respond to topic in general

2)   Ask him to expand on any ideas

3)   Ask any questions

A Twitter account owner was the first to respond, and several emails quickly followed. I projected the emails on the board, asked the senders to read them and for the class to evaluate the written responses for usefulness in rhetoric, pedagogy and ideas. This part worked as it had in the past. In fact, I have found that public sharing of the peer-commenting process tends to improve the quality of the reviews for everyone. Pao, like others who’d shared their papers in this way, said he’d profited from all the comments and discussion.

When I returned to the Twitter people, or “Tweeps,” the story was mixed. First of all, Pao’s account wasn’t working properly and he had not received any of the messages, although everyone rechecked his address and even tried his cellphone.

Secondly, the communicative and pedagogical potentials of the format were not immediately apparent. One student who used Twitter said “the 140-character format was stifling” and that even with three tweets he felt he remained unable concretely engage Pao’s paper. For him to properly respond, he preferred writing a paragraph for email or commenting through tracked changes, and saw no real advantage in using Twitter in the class. His response was typical for the class in that other Twitterers enjoyed the exercise in concision, but thought they didn’t do justice to the paper.

One student had a more positive experience. After he sent Pao is responses, he started to search the various sources from Pao’s paper and responded jointly to Pao (though Pao didn’t receive this tweet) and an author whom Pao quoted. This student also very quickly found several other sources on the topic, which intrigued him. It seemed for him social media facilitated research and opened new doors for discussion with new audiences.

Uncertain how to evaluate this outcome, I told the students I would write up a blog and have them edit and add to my thoughts on this project.

I also asked them to Tweet or email me these questions on the experiment:

 

1.     Did you find the use of Twitter in the class an experience that enhanced discussion and learning?

2.     Do you think Twitter in the classroom has a democratic potential? If so what? If not, why not?

 

These are some of the Tweets they sent me

@ Twitter is not widespread enough to be used in the classroom and will function as another teacher-generated task for students

@ twitter is not really for our generation

@  it seems university admin peeps are all over this, but not us

@ what the point of twitter? To broadcast what you ate for lunch?

@ it helped me write a concise thesis but I can do this on my own without social media

 

Here are some emails:

From Daniel K.

Social media has succeeded by expanding the frontiers of communication. I don't mean that in a hyperbolic, buzzword-happy sense; I mean that it takes groups of people who want to talk to one another and provided a platform that allows them to. Within a single physical classroom, though, I'm not sold on what social media is selling. Why tweet to the guy sitting next to me? We all recognize the strictures Twitter and Facebook place on communication; why would we let our speech be so mediated when we can just as easily talk face-to-face? (Stats-drop: Apparently, 54% of active Twitter users are 35+. http://kevin.lexblog.com/2010/11/10/twitter-is-not-for-kids-age-demographics-favor-lawyers/ Now, take this with a grain of salt, since the report doesn't come from anywhere peer-reviewed. On the other hand, the source is a marketing research firm, and they have more of a motive than anyone to come up with an accurate demographic picture. It matches my experience, at any rate. My dad loves Twitter!)

From Erin D.

I can see Twitter’s use in communicating with and learning from the public sphere, but it seems superfluous when it comes to education within the classroom. I do not personally own a Twitter account, but I could foresee it being difficult to communicate nuanced ideas with the 140-character limit. I also found that using social media in the classroom tended to stifle the community forged by our joint presence in the room. Why do we need Twitter or even email to share our ideas when we can just converse openly and more efficiently in person?   

From C.A.

I was a bit skeptical when the idea of using Twitter as a pedagogical tool was first brought up.  Granted, much of my trepidation stemmed from my preconceptions of Twitter as a service better suited to sharing what one was having for lunch rather than digging deeper into the works of Feyerabend or providing feedback on a research paper.  In the end, I found Twitter to not be suitable for the classroom experience for a few specific reasons: The tweets felt constrained in the sense that one was more concerned about the 140 character limit than the actual content that one was posting.  A lesson in concision may be certainly useful for many writers, but to have to be forced to exclude a few crucial words from one's thesis just because they are more than 140 characters is less than ideal in the review process.   A lack of universality: Everyone uses email in the university setting, and this medium is very useful for providing feedback. While Twitter may appear to be more trendy, this is only because of connotations that have little to do with the academic setting in general (ie amassing the largest amount of followers, controversial tweets by celebrities and politicians).  Twitter may be a powerful social media force in the world, but its potential in the academic setting is certainly in question because of such factors as cited above.

From S.J.

I do think that Twitter has a democratic potential, but who says that email does not either? Twitter can possibly give students equal opportunities to comment on and give their say on a peer’s work. In terms of democracy, I think it has little difference in effect than email and projecting these email responses for everyone to discuss. A potential problem with Twitter is that it is not too widely used by students, including Stanford students. For students who are not big fans of social media (i.e. Facebook), the use of Twitter forces them to put themselves out in the public against their will. Twitter can thus become problematic in terms of privacy issues

 

Considering these responses I am not quite certain, whether students are simply responding conservatively to introduction to a new media, or whether they resist because a teacher asked them to use the medium. Students all tell me they like their social media “private” and “free of authority.” But maybe they can also use social media for their own empowerment? After all, none objected to the idea of reading Tweets from their big lecture courses, just to get additional perspectives on the material they hear in class. I do know I'm still waiting to hear from the lone Twitter enthusiast in the class, who has yet to Tweet or email me about his positive experience.

Ultimately, my suspicion is that social media has a lot of potential for making peer-generated comments more thorough, thoughtful, concise and useful, because they are more public. But use of Twitter as pedgagical tool in my own college classroom depends on a number of factors: wide adoption, preference for short-form communication and multiple tweets or messages to get the idea or several ideas across.

 

Jeannie Crowley

The right fit

 

Hi Ruth, 

From your experience, do you think part of the difficulty could have been the type of information the students were sharing? Responses to papers might not lend themselves to the medium due to the difficulty of limiting a response to 140 characters and the inability to tie a response to a specific portion of the paper. I think the challenge is finding the right fit for Twitter to be useful in the classroom. I find it amazingly useful at conferences, when I'm sharing and responding in real time in a space where it isn't possible for me to communicate in person  (it would interrupt the flow of the presentation). I can think of examples in the classroom, also, where you want the students to all respond in real time but it could be disruptive to do so vocally. If you're watching a film, for example, and you would like the students to Tweet their reactions as it is playing and you pull from the reactions afterwards to discuss how their perceptions changed over the course of the film, what stood out for some individuals, etc. I'm trying to develop a rough mental guide to use as a checklist for Twitter in the classroom: real-time, multiple voices at the same time, record of change over time, impression gathering, etc. 

 

Thank you for sharing your experiences with the Twitter experiment. It is immensely useful information for me as I develop an informal framework for Twitter use with my students. 

Ruth Starkman

thanks!

Dear Jeannie,

 

thanks so much for your suggestions, yes the peer-generated comments might not be the best experiment with Twitter. I too have found that conference tweets to be very helpful and thought provoking, I do teach a film class where this might work too.  Will give it a try!

 

Best,

Ruth

Ruth Starkman

twitter update

Yesterday I asked students if they wanted to try tweeting ideas about scenes during a screening of _Out of the Past_. Those who had accounts (mostly my international students) tried and many said that the responses helped them after the screening. Some thought tweeting might be a little too distracting during the film, but many others liked looking at the tweets afterwards.

 

Jeannie Crowley

Vetting the original list

Hi Ruth, 

Thank you for posting the update. I'm super exciting that it had a positive response among a few of the students. It could be a very cool project to revamp the original "100 ways to use Twitter in the classroom list" with updates of how it actually worked for educators in real classrooms and suggestions for other uses.

sglass

Interesting Ideas

It was interesting to read the student feedback.  I teach high school and have been experimenting with ways to include digital technology that do not feel contrived or like "busy work."  Next year I get to teach a course dedicated to the internet and digital technology, and I am going to remember the idea about tweeting responses while watching video content.  I am excited to see what ideas the students have for implementing dig. tech.

Jeannie Crowley

Student-Driven Tech

Hi Scott, 
I think you really highlighted the key of this whole process: "What ideas the students have for implementing digital tech". Right now, we're using Twitter but next year we all might have moved on to something new. I find the most successful projects usually start by asking what tech the students are using and then becoming familiar with the informal tools they already know how to use & are part of their regular work/communication routines. Using the tools of the learners has many benefits, but two great ones are:

  1. Buy in. Students already are occupying the digital spaces and don't have to "go" to a new digital tool or space just for a class assignment. I've seen lack of buy in time and time again when we choose products for the students, like VoiceThread. It's neat, but students aren't using it so once the assignment is over they quickly vacate the site. 
  2. Comfort and familiarity with the tool itself. If students are already familiar with the tech, you can spend more time on the content and less time learning the tool. It's especially great to give students the opportunity to be owners of the knowledge and they can teach peers who aren't familiar with the tool. Good opportunity to shift the dynamics of the classroom and put a few students in charge of some of the knowledge transfer. :)
sglass

students in the lead

Yes, I've definitely experienced assignments with technology that does not resonate with students--basically everytime I've asked them to do a digital story.  They don't totally mind it during class, but few of them admit to creating that kind of work on their own.  As for the class I'm going to teach this fall, I look forward to letting them take the lead as far as devices and applications are concerned.  Our school is not planning on going one-to-one, so I want them to figure out ways to use their smartphones, ipods, tablets in the classroom.