Teaching with Twitter - Part One

Posted in: pedagogy  tools  tips 

This post begins a series reflecting on my experiments using Twitter in the classroom. Be sure to read the second post that continues the discussion.

I was only recently introduced to Twitter as a part of the Praxis Program, which encourages its fellows to engage with the social media platform as part of their education in how to engage with the digital humanities. I have become fascinated with Twitter’s ability to generate discussion, facilitate connections, and expand my own sense of the conversation in the field. I wanted to bring all of these elements into my classroom and share them with my students, so this past semester I integrated class Twitter responses into the participation element of my syllabus. Students tweeted several times over the course of the semester rather than post email responses to a private course site. In this post, I offer suggestions for the logistics of setting up such a course requirement and recount my own, while later posts theorize the pedagogical implications of the move and offer suggestions for tweaking student participation.

The Twitter requirement was not particularly onerous: I required students to tweet at a course hashtag (#ENRN_F or #ENRN_R) seven times over the course of the semester. Students would only be required to respond roughly every other week, so collectively these tweets would barely equal the length of a more typical paragraph response. I asked students to follow the tweets as they came in throughout the week, and I occasionally used the content of student tweets as quiz questions to encourage active engagement. Response tweets could take any form – a link to an image, a film clip from an adaption, a short quote, a thought on a particular character, a theme, etc. – anything that could advance the conversation.

About half of the students in my courses had used Twitter before, so interested instructors should be prepared to explain the format and offer support for those who are unfamiliar with it. I encouraged students to use TweetDeck as a free and easy option for following the course hashtag, and we previewed the experience at the first course meeting by putting the app on the class overhead projector. A student tweeted to the hashtag in class at my request, allowing students to see just how instantaneous the class’s twitter engagement could be. I encouraged students to come by office hours during the first week if they wanted help setting up an account, but very few needed the assistance. The activity generated more anxiety up front than actual difficulty in practice.

I taught two course sections of the same course when I implemented Twitter, so I considered using a shared hashtag for both classes. A single hashtag would allow cross-discussion conversation in ways that would not otherwise be possible. The increased activity that would come from two classes tweeting to the same place could provide a lively sense of community, even if some of those participants remain relative strangers in the context of the course. Separate hashtags make the actual logistics of teaching a bit more manageable: it is easier to lesson plan for the students that will actually be in the room and able to account for thoughts they have expressed online. I eventually opted for separate hashtags, but I encouraged students to follow and tweet at their sister section.

Some students who already possessed Twitter accounts protected their tweets, but such gestures towards privacy would complicate the course setup: protected tweets would not show up on the course hashtag unless the student allowed every member of the class to follow them. Similarly, while I encouraged students to be excited about the opportunity to engage with a wider community through Twitter, some felt uncomfortable with their ideas exposed to the world. I gave these students the option of creating a new, dummy Twitter account specifically for the purposes of the course. Their name did not have to be associated with the account at all, so long as the rest of the class knew to whom the account belonged. I circulated a list of students’ twitter handles early on so that we could match names to e-identities. Twitter required students to meditate on the public nature of their own intellectual lives and the reach of their own voices, and dummy accounts respected the privacy of concerned students.

In all, teaching with Twitter requires a relatively small amount of effort to implement, as the barrier to entry for students is quite low. But a little planning about your setup ahead of time goes a long way. For more helpful tips on the logistics of using Twitter in the classroom, check out Mark Sample’s ProfHacker post on “Practical Advice for Teaching with Twitter.”

Stay tuned for part two in my series on Teaching with Twitter, where I further discuss pedagogical benefits and justifications for class Twitter accounts.