I want to first make it clear that I'm not a die-hard Twitter fanatic, nor did I have much experience in using it until very recently. I jumped on the Twitter bandwagon very late.
I signed up for my Twitter account in March 2009 and tweeted, "I'm new to Twitter and am highly confused." As that first feeble tweet hinted at, I had joined Twitter to see what all the fuss was about and I was not impressed. I mostly thought I didn't need it because nobody I knew used it.
Two and a half years later -- an eternity in Twitter time -- I had the sudden urge to give Twitter a second chance. What drove me back to Twitter wasn't teaching, but learning. I wanted to do a better job of keeping up with current trends in the scholarly world, particularly with new books on race. I had a hunch that many academic publishers would have a presence on Twitter, and it turned out I was right -- well over thirty five academic publishers are active on Twitter, including some of my favorites such as UC Press, Duke, and Minnesota.
Then I began to think about my students. I've been teaching non-stop since I entered grad school -- as a teaching assistant (or "GSI" in Berkeley-speak) from 2007 to the present, and as a lecturer earlier this year. Though I've taught the same course for four years, I've always tried new things in the classroom. In my early years, I was quick to adopt online forum postings and Skype for teaching, and later experimented with more traditional assignments such as in-class group presentations and weekly quizzes.
I figure with all the years of tinkering under my belt by the time I complete my degree and go on the market I'll have become a better teacher, one who's able to create a dynamic and fun learning environment with minimal effort.
With this in mind, I thought if Twitter could help me learn better, could it also not help me teach better?
I began to research if others before me had thought the same way.
Researching Twitter for Teaching
I found a series of articles and websites devoted to Twitter and teaching spanning mostly from 2008-2009, when a few professors across the country were experimenting with Twitter in the classroom. I haven't found much buzz about it since those years.
My biggest inspiration was from the work of Prof. Monica Rankin, who teaches history at the University of Texas at Dallas. Rankin's experiment with Twitter was widely reported in the popular media at the time, and the fact that she was a historian like myself made me particularly interested in her usage of and experience with Twitter. A YouTube video of her experiment can be seen here.
Rankin's rationale for her usage of Twitter was simple. She identified a key problem of the traditional lecture format: too many students + one expert yammering at the front of the room + no real interaction = ineffective pedagogy. I, too, share this sentiment with Rankin, and am loathe to carry on this draconian tradition.
But I wasn't totally sold on Twitter being the solution to such a problem.
As the Chronicle of Higher Education wrote in 2009, Twitter is no magic bullet for the tired lecture format. Rankin herself is quoted expressing this sentiment:
"There is certainly the potential for disaster," she agreed when I reached her on her cellphone last week. During one class session about abortion, for instance, students began an argument on Twitter that Ms. Rankin characterized only as "nonproductive and nonacademic." She said her teaching assistant quickly brought the flame war to her attention, and "we basically kind of changed topics at that point."
The article also includes a very insightful student's perspective, from a different Twitter experiment:
I asked Mr. Van Wye, the student, whether some students end up derailing class sessions thanks to Hotseat [Purdue's customized Twitter application]. "Yeah, perhaps, because sometimes you have people writing funny comments, and we have to stop and kind of acknowledge that it happened," he said. "And sometimes that takes away from it a little bit."
On balance, though, he would vote to keep the software: "It does more good than it does hurt."
The article also notes one attempt to cheat using Twitter, where a student tweeted a request to his fellow classmates for an answer to an exam question while the exam was taking place. However, the attempt was easily tracked and really, you can't get much of an answer in 140 character messages unless its for multiple choice, which I would never do in a history class.
Last, I consulted Dr. Barbara Nixon's use of Twitter-based assignments, something that Rankin and many others did not seem to be interested in implementing. While I disagree with a lot of Nixon's design decisions (see below), I do think getting students excited about using Twitter as a "discussion enhancer" is important, and the teacher should take an active role in guiding the students into using Twitter for maximum educational benefit.
Furthermore, I found the idea of Twitter-based assignments intriguing because the majority of students still mostly do not participate in discussions in smaller venues. Typically, about 2-5 students end up being the main contributors, while the rest coast along, perhaps because they're shy, or perhaps because they don't know how to get a foothold in the discussion.
Some of you might say that if the students aren't participating, that's the teacher's fault, and so the teacher should just do a better job and not rely on a gimmick like Twitter to do his job for him. This criticism could be valid for inexperienced or just plain bad teachers, but most educators know that even the best of us often fail to teach to our own high standards not because we are lacking in some way, but because there are things the teacher cannot control -- such as the dynamics between students, students' personalities, even the day and time of the class -- that make the instructor a less effective teacher.
I am writing with this latter group of teachers in mind. No amount of pedagogical skill will turn around that dead silent 8am class filled with clique-y students that would sooner spit in each other's faces than collectively discuss Manifest Destiny.
Thus, I view my tinkering around with different teaching tools less as the actions of a daredevil wanting to redefine what it means to teach and learn in the 21st century university, and more as the actions of a decent teacher wanting the best out of himself and his students.
My mantra for this particular experiment with Twitter is this: Twitter enhances, not replaces. It enhances but does not replace a good discussion; it enhances but does not replace a good teacher.
Guiding Princples for Twitter-enhanced Teaching
This finally brings me to my envisioning of Twitter as a "discussion enhancer." You can access my implementation of Twitter for classroom use here to see how the principles I outline below guided my course design.
1) Twitter is fundamentally about broadcasting short messages to anybody willing to listen. It is a form of micro-sharing. This has certain pedagogical benefits, including forcing students to condense complex subject matter into simpler, more manageable parts. This is a fundamental skill for life just as much as it is a critical learning skill, and it should be nurtured and encouraged. In some of my early years of teaching, I had students post bi-weekly 250-word responses to a message board, but found even these short pieces to be far too onerous for myself and my students to read. Rather than sharing, this ended up being more akin to dumping.
2) Twitter is mostly wide open to the public, and caution needs to be exercised, and this is where I strongly disagree with Nixon's pedagogical design. In her implementation of Twitter, Nixon has every student follow the instructor as well as every student in the class. Though well intentioned, this is a bad idea because it forces students to follow people they may not want to, for personal or other reasons. I strongly feel students have the right to decide who they talk to and befriend in class, and should have a semblance of that right online. Thus, in my implementation, only the instructor and student are required to follow each other because only the instructor can guarantee her own behavior. As such, connections between students should be made or broken organically, with students themselves being the arbiters of who to follow and who to avoid.
3) The conversations on Twitter should be purposeful, though organic. Sometimes the instructor should step in to provide structure by tweeting out a question to the class, but ideally students themselves will be generating purposeful discussion in a dynamic fashion. Some funny or off-topic remarks are to be expected, but I don't see them as a barrier to discussion. Rather, it makes people follow the general discourse more intently, just as I do whenever Conan O'Brian or Steven Colbert send out their funny, but timely, tweets. A smart-assed quip is much more useful to an educator than is total and prolonged silence. Laughter is an entry point and not a road block to learning.
4) By following the discussion on Twitter, the instructor has a far better idea of how to facilitate the real world discussion that will take place afterwards, meaning that Twitter is a kind of warm up or opening act for the in-class discussion. In short, Twitter provides clues to what people are interested in, what kinds of questions students have, and whether students are actually doing the work or not. I strongly believe that the best educators are those that are the most prepared, and not necessarily the most charismatic nor the most knowledgeable. Twitter allows the instructor and the students to prepare for the nitty gritty of the in-class discussion, while still allowing a high degree of spontaneity and dynamism too. It gives otherwise hesistant students the foothold they need to discuss things seriously.
5) Twitter broadens out the discussion to a level you cannot achieve through traditional discussion. The best tweets are the kinds that share information via links, images, YouTube videos, etc., where you are directed to a related source you weren't aware of. Establishing these different connections in digital space encourages establishing similar linkages in the mind. We're reading about Orientalism and stereotypes of Asians; why not link a clip from "Sayonara" on YouTube to get the point across? Doing so creates a mental connection between the theories and concepts that are read about, and whatever is linked. Much of what we do in academia -- in science, the humanities, and social science -- is linking complex theories or analyses to everyday examples. Why shouldn't we enable our students to make those same linkages too?
Later on, I will be blogging about the outcome of my class, and hopefully include some comments from my students as well.