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Twitter in a Higher Education Classroom: An Assessment

2012 September 18
by Lucinda Matthews-Jones

Adeline Koh

“Okay, everyone, now I want you to take out your phones or laptops and log on to Twitter.” My students gazed at me wide-eyed as I said those words last semester. One of them started laughing, saying, “Man, I never thought I’d hear a professor saying that.”

Social media is often decried as one of society’s new ills. Many condemn social media for creating a “distracted” generation, one with gnat-sized attention spans, and make heartfelt appeals for a return to the days of long-form reading and hours of contemplative attention focused on a single text. Twitter is held up as an especially egregious example, as user posts are reduced to 140-character “tweets.” How can anyone possibly discuss anything substantive in 160 characters? But there are many educators who disagree with this sentiment, and who have innovatively adapted Twitter for classroom use. For some examples, look at Brian Croxall’s (@briancroxall), Ryan Cordell’s (@ryancordell), or Mark Sample’s (@samplereality) ProfHacker posts on Twitter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the dynamic Jesse Stommel (@jessifer) and Pete Rorabaugh (@allistelling) of the journal Hybrid Pedagogy. Jesse has gone so far as to design essays using Twitter, and gave me the idea for facilitating Twitter fishbowl discussions.

I took the plunge with Twitter last semester in all three of my classes at Richard Stockton College using a number of different assignments. These ranged from having students tweet during films using Twitter as part of a fishbowl discussion, getting students to tweet summaries of class discussions and having students tweet comments and reactions to class presentations. Each class’s tweets were organized using a class hashtag, meaning that my students did not have to follow my account or each others’ accounts unless they wanted to—they only needed to search Twitter for the hashtags to read the class discussion. You can take a look at an example of one of my Twitter assignments and my impressions here and search my class hashtags (Seminar in Feminist Theory: #femtheory; Introduction to Cultural Studies: #cultstud; Literary Research: #litresearch) These assignments can easily be adapted to courses on Victorian history, literature or culture; students can tweet reactions to readings, have discussions to readings and films over twitter, and tweet class presentations.

While I was initially very excited about implementing Twitter at the start of the semester, I learned some lessons along the way. Here are my overall impressions:

1. Twitter improves the social dynamics of a classroom when used effectively. My introverted students took more readily to expressing themselves over Twitter than in regular class discussion. This resulted in a better overall discussion. I had one of my more extroverted students comment that he was glad that we had used Twitter as this had allowed him to get to know the quieter students better. A number of my students also expressed that Twitter helped them to build relationships with students outside of class. For my students this was especially valuable, as Stockton is a commuter campus.

2. Twitter adds to the classroom if it is used regularly, and if students learn how to communicate with each other using the medium. I had to create assignments to make this happen. I had initially made Twitter an optional extra credit item, but that resulted in only a few students tweeting and feeling isolated and frustrated. This changed after I started integrating Twitter into different assignments. I learned that I had to fine tune my assignments as well to improve student engagement. If I gave students an overly broad time frame—say a few days—to tweet their assignments, they would not necessarily engage with one another. This misses the point of the medium, which is immediacy. To amend this, I set up a time range for the tweets (all students had to tweet, for example, between 7pm-11pm, and that a number of the tweets had to be responses to retweets to someone using the hashtag). Once this got started, the tweets became fast and furious, resulting in hearty debate online which carried over into class.

3. Twitter allows people outside of class to join the discussion, which my students loved. The National Women’s Studies Association (@nwsa) twitter account jumped in our discussion during one of my class’s twitter discussions on Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, which thrilled the entire class. Additionally, in a twitter post-mortem of one of our films, Cowboys in Paradise, the director of the film Amit Virmani (@amitvirmani) hopped onto Twitter and participated in our discussion. By and large my students declared that this was the coolest part of the semester. That our conversations were public also encouraged them to take their writing and these ideas more seriously, and to see that these issues mattered outside their classroom. I noticed that my students’ tweets became more serious, intellectual and engaged as the semester went on, because they began to see them as a form of public writing.

4. Twitter allowed me to interact more one-on-one with my students in ways that the regular classroom does not allow, and to gather real-time feedback. For example, when I had students live-tweet their reactions to a film, I was able to dive into the ongoing discussion, redirect students to a point they had missed, and retweet insightful student comments. I was able to identify students who were struggling, to help them when they needed it as they were learning, and to encourage the students who were doing well to help the weaker ones. The quality of their work improved exponentially as a result of this. Their papers were dramatically better then the previous years’, when I had conducted a similar assignment without Twitter. My students also told me that they found the Twitterstream useful as a study guide for the class later on.

5. I still need to caution readers that I experienced considerable resistance to the tool from my students despite Twitter being largely successful in increasing student learning. Only about 20% of my students had ever used Twitter before, and about 20% declared at the end of the semester that they still disliked using it. To my surprise, many declared that Twitter was “frivolous” and a “distraction.” Ultimately, I learned once again that the entire concept of the contemporary student as “digital native” is a gross overgeneralization, and that students, just like faculty, can be resistant to learning new technology. Not all tools are going to fit all students.

Overall, I think the benefits of using Twitter in the classroom far outweighed the negatives. Some things I would change the next time I use the tool include more in-class training time, and teaching students to expect that they may be overwhelmed by a new tool, and that this is okay. One of my greatest rewards from using Twitter in the classroom, though, was that two of my students who are in the Education program, Michelle Winter (@MichelleWinter0) and Francesca Mancuso (@cescalore) were so inspired that they presented Twitter in the classroom as an educational tool in a class they were taking on instructional technology at the end of the semester. Another one of my students, Kimone Hyman (@kimhyman), wrote an essay about the use of Twitter in the classroom as a way to turn students into serious active researchers. In sum, while introducing Twitter to some of my students has been challenging, these rewards have more than surpassed the cost of implementation.

Bio: Adeline Koh is an assistant professor of literature at Richard Stockton College and is currently visiting faculty fellow at Duke University. She works in the fields of British and postcolonial literature and the digital humanities, and is a contributing writer to the Profhacker column at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Find her on Twitter @adelinekoh

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