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Teaching Tuesday: More Teaching with Twitter

Readers of this blog know that I’ve been experimenting with Twitter in the classroom both online and as live backchannel while I am lecturing live.  The Journal of Computer Assisted Learning has recently published one of the first academic articles on using Twitter in the classroom: R. Junco, G. Heiberger, and E. Loken “The effect of Twitter on college engagement and grades”.   The article argues basically, that Twitter improves student engagement (following the definition for engagement developed by the National Survey of Student Engagement) and, in turn, improves grades.  Their data comes from a large (125 student) group of students enrolled in seven sections of a introductory level seminar for a pre-health professional program.  The class met one day a week for an hour, focused in part on T. Kidder’s Mountains beyond Mountains, and centered, apparently, on discussion. They also established a control group who did not use Twitter but the customizable social network service Ning to communicate.  Twitter used in a number of ways including prompting students to consider discussion questions before class, organizing study groups, and engaging a panel of upperclassmen, public health majors. It appears that the faculty leaders prompted all uses of Twitter, although they do say that subsequent use of Twitter occurred without prompting.

They gird their argument with relatively careful controls and statistics. They also record qualitative data including several sample conversations between the faculty moderator of the Twitter feed and the students. These examples demonstrated how the faculty member prompted participation in Twitter discussion.  The article shows that students not only were significantly (from a statistical viewpoint) more engaged (and there were no pre-existing variations in engagement between the groups).  They also showed that the semester GPA for students who used Twitter was significantly higher (.5!!) than among those in the control group.  Even accounting for the relatively small size of the sample, these differences are remarkable.

While the experiments did attempt to control for basic variables and appear to have a sufficient degree of internal rigor, one variable did not appear in their discussion.  Nowhere do they discuss how the students access Twitter. In my (completely unscientific) experience, students require a significant level of technological engagement in their everyday life (smart phones, laptops, active engagement in existing social media and online communities) to grasp the potential benefits of a service like Twitter.  While the authors do cite a recent report that 94% of students use social networking site and, at one school, as many as 85% use Facebook, they offer little in the way of explanation for how students use these services.  My expectation would be that students do not see all social media in the same way (and this tends to be backed up by the work of social media researchers like danah boyd), and have markedly different patterns of engagement with a service like Twitter when compared to Facebook, email, or the informal networks produced through sms messages.

While I do not have quantitative (or even systematic qualitative) data to back my point, I can offer some informal observations derived from experiences.  I made an effort to use Twitter in a class that met one a week similar to the class studied in the survey.  My class was a lecture class with 140+ students rather than the more intimate discussion sections, but I actually think this would be a more fertile environment for a social media service like Twitter to produce functioning sub-communities within the larger and relatively impersonal lecture.  I reckoned that this class would require students to check their Twitter account and participate in various activities at least twice a week.  To do this, since Twitter is a stand alone site, it would require the student to log into Twitter as a separate place from Facebook, Blackboard, or other course management software.  This is something that many of us do as part of our daily routine at our desks, on our laptops, or on our smart phones, but for many of my students, the deep and regular engagement with technology is not really part of their world.  Moreover, there was a significant investment in becoming comfortable with the technical language of Twitter, which, while not difficult, is unfamiliar and intimidating to students who only follow well-trod paths on the internet (from Facebook to email to Blackboard and to content driven sites like ESPN, CNN, or (for most students) Wikipedia).  In other words, Twitter is unfamiliar in part because most of the web is unfamiliar to students whose use of the internet is largely passive or limited.  As a result, many students simply lurked on Twitter; those who participated regularly only engaged when explicitly prompted with points (and then only in a very superficial way).  In short, students struggled to understand the advantages to Twitter for keeping them in touch with their classmates and faculty when not in class.

The notion of students are digital natives and that Twitter provides a familiar way to extend the classroom into the space occupied by students in their everyday lives rests upon problematic assumptions.  Students’ engagement with the internet and with technology tends to occur in a much more limited or particular way than many of these studies imagine.  The assumption that “social media” represents a cohesive body of technology and applications for most students appears to me to be problematic.  Twitter for an undergraduate is foreign while Facebook is familiar.

Despite these difficulties, this study provides a good foundation for future study on how to leverage common technology to improve student engagement.

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