using twitter in the graduate classroom

There has been much discussion lately about how Twitter is being used in the undergraduate classroom. Daisy Pignetti describes how she used Twitter in 3 sections (2 online, 1 in person) of English 102 at the University of Wisconsin-Stout.  Monica Rankin discusses how she implemented what she has described as the “Twitter Experiment” into a 90-student U.S. History II survey course at U.T. Dallas. Kim Smith, a graduate student in emerging technologies at UT-Dallas advised Monica on Twitter and composed an excellent documentary of the Twitter Experiment. (David Silver and Brian Croxall share Twitter assignments and I would be quite interested in reading their reactions to its use.)

Daisy’s and Monica’s discussions are excellent because they provide insight into how faculty have been able to use Twitter to compliment and enhance existing pedagogy in three different kinds of undergraduate classes: the discussion-based writing course, an online version of that course, and a lecture-based history course. Daisy “highly recommend[s] Twitter to those instructors wanting 1) to establish greater classroom community, 2) to have students journal their work, and 3) are eager for the opportunity to explore forums outside of the D2L course management software.” The goal of this post is to add to these excellent assignments and posts by sharing how I used and what I learned using Twitter in Information Architecture, a graduate level course with 7 students I taught in spring 2009. The course met Mondays, 7:00 – 9:15pm. Twittering was a major component of the course (both inside and out) accounting for 20% of the final grade.

Getting Started
I had several goals in mind for using Twitter in the graduate classroom: to introduce students to micro-blogging; to distinguish Twittering from traditional blogging; to showcase the meaning-making opportunities afforded by applications that open their API for external developers; to give students to the opportunity to share in the public discussion of Twitter apps by reviewing them online; and, importantly, to think about how Twitter could facilitate a meta-discussion about our actual discussion.

For the first class meeting, I asked students to read “Brave New World of Digital Intimacy” by Clive Thompson and watch Twitter in Plain English. This allowed us to move right in to a (rather abstract) discussion of ambient awareness, which led into students signing up for their Twitter accounts (several students were already Twitterers): aheartofstars, BBwerner, JoeSabatini, twinsksquared, wellthen24, zachcaruso, cmyers581 (aharcharek sat in the class for part of the semester and joined discussions). I introduced students to the hashtag we would be using, #ias09, and asked students to add it to all Tweets that were directly related to class. (Note that creating a unique hashtag is important; mid-way through the semester it became clear that the 2009 Information Architecture Summit was using the same hashtag. This caused some clutter in the Twitter timeline when reading tweets.) Students signed up for the dates that their Twitter app review and presentation would be due, and were asked to choose the app they would review by the start of the next class.

The Twitter Application Review
The Twitter application review assignment suggested that the reviews contain the following sections/information:

  • an introduction in which students explain the overall goals of the application and how it is meant to interact with Twitter
  • a description of the main features of the application
  • a discussion of how it might benefit members of the online communicator community—that is, how it can help facilitate the movement of information (this was meant to address the readers of the IAOC Blog where the review would be posted)
  • a discussion of how it compares to similar Twitter applications that have been used or are available online (I pointed them to lists of Twitter applications, see http://twitter.com/downloads, http://tinyurl.com/6y6o8b, or http://www.squidoo.com/twitterapps)
  • an overall conclusion about how effective the application is and any suggestions you might have for improvement

Students’ reviews can be found at on the IAOC Blog: Tweetdeck, Twitty Tunes, Twitterlicious, Big Tweet, Friend Bar, Twitterfon, and AlertThingy.

The reviews and student demonstrations of the applications succeeded in doing a few things. First, it got students out there exploring and learning about applications. Second, as a result of their explorations they started thinking critically about Twitter as a medium and not just as a tool. By becoming critically aware of Twitter students were more successful, I think (we didn’t discuss this in class), users of Twitter and its related applications. Third, it succeeded in helping students gain confidence in their public voice, something that I think is important for graduate students. By placing their reviews online they are becoming authorities on the subject and helping educate the larger Web audience (each of the reviews has been viewed over 300 times).

Student Discussions Using Twitter
As mentioned above, I was hoping to use Twitter in the classroom as way to have a meta-discussion about the real-life (RL) discussion while the RL discussion was taking place. This would allow us to share what we were doing in class with our followers and provide a text about our discussion to be analyzed at a later date. To facilitate the Twitter discussion each class meeting had a Twitter discussion leader. The leader would engage the group with comments about the RL discussion and ask questions to be answered on Twitter. So all students could see the discussion as it emerged I put Twitterfall on the screen at the front of the class and filtered the feed so that it showed only Tweets that included the #ias09 hashtag.

Though I think the discussion leader/Twitterfall setup is effective, the problem we ran into was the number of students in the class. A 90-student undergraduate lecture course does not require all students to be engaging in the RL discussion all the time; a 7 student graduate seminar does. The complexity of the books we were discussing on a weekly basis necessitated the full attention of each of the students or else the RL discussion would fall silent. A silent RL discussion is much worse than a silent Twitter discussion. As a result, though there were some good moments in our Twitter discussion, they never lived up to the kind of meta-discussion that I was hoping for.

Another reason for the ineffective meta-discussion might have been because of how I asked students to use Twitter: as a space where they could reply to their comments about the class discussion. I was essentially asking them to use Twitter as a chat space. In future graduate seminars I am going to ask students to Tweet as if they are Twittering a conference presentation. That is, sharing with their followers important points that the speaker is making, followed by the course hashtag. This will allow students to put ideas on Twitter about the discussion without the immediate need to reply to what was stated. It will also help us think about what we did not really think about in class: who the audience is when having a public discussion. Too often I found the Tweets were so esoteric that they did not/could not resonate with the followers outside of the classroom. By changing the perspective of the Tweets from continuing an esoteric conversation among 7 to providing information about an event to the larger audience of followers those followers might be able to more fully understand what and why is being shared. And, perhaps, they could add comments, as well.

An unanticipated benefit of Twitter was how students were using it outside of class. Students’ outside of class Twitter discussions about class provided phenomenal insight into how students were thinking about readings, the course overall, and the assignments. It also allowed me to see just when students were engaging with course materials (between 1am and 4am for the most part) and which students would rather Tweet questions about the assignments rather than going to the assignments themselves to find requirements. I was able to answer quick questions that were sent to me immediately and because I was following students’ public discussions about their projects I was able to interject when I saw they were off-track or needed to be reminded of something. Most of all, it was just fun to watch them struggle through readings and how the conversations emerged from their ideas.

Conclusions
All in all, I was quite pleased with how students used Twitter. Most students did a great job of engaging with the Twitter community and 5 are still Twittering regularly. Over the course of 15 weeks, @cmyers182 accumulated 336 followers and was following 323. @aheartofstars posted a whopping 2,753 tweets (many hundreds, admittedly, about LOST—but such is the nature of Twitter). The student with the least amount of engagement had 40 followers and was only following 28. I tried to reinforce the importance of engaging with the Twitter community by requiring students to include in their final project and analyze in terms of the theories discussed in class screenshots of their Tweetstats and Twitter Top Friends Network.

Two students wrote about what they thought of the use of Twitter in class. The first DMed me, so kept his response within 140 characters:

closest i’ve felt to an ENTIRE class, felt prof always had an open ear, allowed discussions two go on at once & continue after class

The other student posted a comment to a HigherEdMorning.com article about Twitter use in the classroom:

Recently, I was required to use Twitter in a course. It was entirely helpful. My classmates and I were able to bond and help each other out. Our professor was available to help facilitate discussion on course materials, and we developed a stronger relationship with him. Then we began to discover Twitter as a tool for our personal needs. It was a wonderful experience, and we are all still connected.

These comments reinforce Daisy’s observation about the humanizing effect that Twitter can have on building important relationships among students and their instructors.

Ultimately, using Twitter in Information Architecture reinforced my belief that micro-blogging is an important communication medium and as such it is important for burgeoning writers to understand it both theoretically and practically. For graduate students, this involves a more thorough engagement with Twitter and the Twitter community. I tried to achieve this engagement through in-class discussion, a review of a Twitter app, and incorporating their Twitter community data into their final project. Students’ use of Twitter outside the classroom far exceed the 3-Tweet per day requirement and provided insight into their thoughts about class that I ever expected.

I hope other faculty ask students (graduate and undergraduate) to use it in their classes—and when they do, to let me (and the whole of he Twittershpere) know how it went. Thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts below.

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3 Responses to using twitter in the graduate classroom

  1. Hi Bill,

    Thank you for sharing your experiences.

    “I was essentially asking them to use Twitter as a chat space. In future graduate seminars I am going to ask students to Tweet as if they are Twittering a conference presentation.”

    Great advice here. I could definitely see Twitter working as a sort of collaborative note-taking experience during class discussions, student presentations, or in-class movies/film clips. Students can search the hashtag after class as a quick review of what we did that day…. especially useful for students who happen to be absent one day. Since I teach rhetoric, I was thinking of having each student tweet a mini-synopsis of the day’s assigned reading to kick-start class discussions. Our classrooms are equipped with a projector and screen, so I can display the twitter feed and compare what each student gathered from the reading. This would also serve to expose those who maybe did not read as carefully as others. I can also ask them to tweet their main claim or thesis on days when they turn in first drafts. If they struggle to give a snapshot of the paper in 140 characters, that might indicate a need to narrow the paper’s focus. Thesis statement tweets would also inform students of what their classmates are researching and perhaps strengthen a sense of community.

    You’ve given me a bunch of ideas and tips that will help me shape my twitter assignment for the fall!

  2. Pingback: A Framework for Teaching with Twitter - ProfHacker - The Chronicle of Higher Education

  3. Pingback: Twitter in the Classroom…two years later. | Kesmit-ing

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