Teaching with Twitter: An Interim Report
I’ve just completed my first large scale experiments with integrating Twitter into my classroom. For those who don’t regularly follow this blog, I used Twitter in my 100 level Western Civilization at the University of North Dakota. The class met once a week, at night, for two hours and twenty minutes. Most of the students are freshmen and sophomores, with a spattering of juniors and seniors typically in the hard sciences or engineering. The two biggest problems in the class are poor attendance (I am competing with Lost and, to be blunt, the class has a vigorous in-class writing component and perhaps not the most interesting lectures) and a tendency among students to disengage sometime over the course of the semester. Because the class meets only once a week and attendance is a struggle, students tend to disengage from the class and vanish into the night until the midterm or final forces them to re-engage, but at that point it is sometimes too late to get back into the swing of things, make up myriad missed assignment, and get a decent grade in what is otherwise a fairly easy class.
Twitter seemed one way to try to engage the students on the days when my one-day-a-week, 100 level class is probably the furthest thing from their minds. So, I created a Twitter page and began to Tweet regularly. Over the course of the semester, this account acquired 111 followers, all students in my class, or over 75% of all the students in the class. Signing up for Twitter was voluntary, although I motivated the students with a vague promise to make it work the 3 minutes necessary to sign up. Over the course of the semester, I posted 152 Tweets (approximately 10 per week) which represent both public tweets and responses to student tweets. I posted several scheduled tweets each week. Generally, I’d post a quick recap to the class on Wednesday, I’d post weekly announcements on Thursday, and on Friday I would post some kind of trivia questions on my world famous “Trivia Friday”. 90% of the Tweets were directly concerning the class. The other 10% of the Tweets concerned campus activities or current events (e.g. the death of Guru, et c.) that touched loosely on classroom conversations.
I also experimented with using Twitter to provide a back channel in class. Using weekly hashtags (#H101W3 = History 101 Week 3), I encouraged students in the lecture style class to post questions or comments during class. I then had an active version of Tweetdeck on the classroom computer on which I could check students tweets or project them on the screen during my lecture. Most, if not all, of the students in the class have cell phones and many (perhaps 30%) had laptops in class.
While I was not disappointed with the Twitter experiment — after all it involved only a modest time commitment on my part (in general, a tweet took me less than 2 minutes to write so less than 20 minutes per week on average) — only a tiny fraction of my students embraced it and it did not appear to have any positive (or negative!) impact on the class. Here are some observations:
1. UND Students are not on Twitter. While I did not sample the entire class, my random sample of 25 students show that only 5 of this group use Twitter in a regular way and I suspect that the number of regular Twitter users in my class is even lower. So, Twitter is not built into these students’ information ecosystem. My morning routine involves starting Tweetdeck and scrolling quickly through my Tweets, but this seems unlikely to be the case for our students. As a result, Twitter appeared to the students as “something extra” and, as a result, an inconvenience rather than a helpful supplement to their already existing information network. As I have discussed elsewhere on this blog, students resist anything that they see as a work increase, even if we make clear how these additional “burdens” advance learning objectives.
2. Shared Commitment. Twitter works best within a community of people with a shared commitment to engaging one another and the topics at hand. In other words, Twitter is not a particularly efficient tool for one-to-one communication between faculty and a student or it is at least no better than email. Twitter facilitates community interaction in which students can respond to one another or interact with each other in a public way. Because my class only met once a week in a lecture hall setting, had an prevalent lecture component, was rather large (100+), and encompassed a wide range of students of different academic years and standings, there was little existing community for Twitter to facilitate. As a result, students did not, in general, respond to each other, but penned tweets generally directed toward me and usually in response to a specific query. A parallel trend appears in my efforts to encourage the use of Blackboard’s wiki tool to produce study guides and class notes. A few students work hard to create a nice set of notes, and the rest of the class become passive consumers. Despite the bribe of points, there is no shared commitment to the class that would support the collective effort to create a body of notes. Neither Twitter nor the Wiki is enough to create community.
3. Techniques. Despite my efforts to give the students plenty of instruction on how to use Twitter, my students still struggled with things like hashtags (used to mark posts as belonging to a particular week or lecture), and we never used retweets or replies. This contributed to the one-way nature of the Twitter conversations especially as I was the only one responding to anyone in the class.
4. Technology. Finally, students compartmentalize technology. Most of the tweets in my class come from “the web” which I assume means through either their desktop or laptop computer as opposed to a mobile device like a phone or smartphone. In other words, despite the recent concerted interest to integrate social media with mobile devices, very few tweets and almost none from first time Twitter users came from phones (either as text message or Android/WinMo based apps — we do not have iPhones here in North Dakota). This was disappointing because I thought Twitter would be widely accessible from mobile phones and, as a result, sufficient democratized not to leave less technophilic students at a disadvantage. Another technological issue that arose was the slow speed of Twitter searches made it hard to capture Tweets on specific lectures during class time. As a result, students were not able to create a realtime back channel, but only one delayed by 10 to 15 minutes which over the course of a 2 hour class is significant.
So, while my first experiments with Twitter in the class did not produce the social media plus education utopia that I had hoped, it did highlight certain weaknesses in the class as I now teach it. I need to work to create more of a community in the large lecture class if I want to tap into this community with tools like Twitter or wikis. These tools do not create the sense of community, but only serve to manage it. At the same time, I need to find ways to communicate the technical aspects of Twitter more effectively so that students can maximize the effectiveness of the medium.
I am excited about the prospect of integrating Twitter into the online version of my Western Civilization I courses this fall and spring. Since the students already expect to interact with me and their fellow students through an online medium, there might be a greater sense of value assigned to the simple Twitter interface (as compared to the more cumbersome blackboard interface).