At the beginning of the term I embarked on a Twitter ‘exploration’ and described it as such to the class. I’ve noted my Twitter skepticism and reluctant semi-conversion before. The final push into this venture was inspired in part by a wonderful talk from Todd Zakrajsek at the Lilly South Conference in Greensboro, NC in February of 2009. He spoke about the power of social norms and our role as instructors in sometimes reinforcing negative norms (“Where is everyone this morning?” –Todd’s example). While he didn’t mention Twitter specifically, as I designed the course, this technology emerged as a possible tool for promoting a community of readers and establishing a positive classroom expectation of preparation. A phone buzzing with an especially poignant comment from a classmate about an assigned reading, seemed like a potentially subtle and effective way of establishing a positive norm and sending the following message:
Not only are my classmates doing the reading well ahead of time, but they are thinking deeply about it. I better get on it.
Twitter isn’t the only strategy for helping students engage challenging reading material. Bean and others have outlined some very effective strategies that I’ve borrowed. But it seemed worth trying Twitter as a supplement.
Before I summarize the students’ thoughts on the experiment (Students please let me know what I got wrong in the comments), I’ll talk briefly about the mechanics of setting up Twitter for class and how it was used in conjunction with the reading.
1. The mechanics – I set up a private Twitter group using GroupTweet. I liked this option because current Twitter users could keep their existing logins, rather than creating a new one for class. If they wanted to send a Tweet unrelated to class, they could continue to do so. If a tweet was directed to the class, they sent a direct message to the group, prefacing their message like so:
D ourgroup What do you think? Arkady p. 340 “Shortness of life was a primary force in the permanence of institutions …”
The setup was a little cumbersome. Each student had to follow the group and also allow the group to follow them. After everyone came to class with an established user account, we spent about 20 minutes setting this all up. I think it was worth the class time, rather than trying to field questions online. Many students also set up their phones for text messaging at this time. I emphasized that this could all be done from the Twitter website and that a text plan was not necessary for completing this requirement.
2. Assignments – A bit of tinkering led us to the conclusion that a minimalist approach is best. After asking the students to read five forensics articles related to the historical case and send two tweets about each, we all agreed this was counter-productive and too hard to track. After that barrage, the typical assignment involved posting one comment and one question to classmates. After a while, one question OR comment seemed enough. More on that in a minute.
- Convenience - Several students commented that it was very convenient to send a text message when away from the computer. When an idea struck them, they could share it at that moment. My thirteen year old will attest to the fact that I don’t text much, but I sent quite a few thoughts to the group this way. One question hit me in the parking lot, and it was delivered to class before I got in my car. No need to log on that night!
- Social Norm – There was less agreement on this, but some students nodded in agreement when I indicated this exercise potentially strengthened our reading community. During an especially busy week, I found myself a bit stressed when my phone started buzzing with student ideas and I hadn’t submitted my tweet yet. By the time I posted, several of my thoughts were ‘taken’. We seemed to have set an unwritten rule that ‘original ideas were required’, so I had to look at the text from a different perspective—an unexpected but significant plus!
- Length Restriction - Some mentioned being frustrated by the 140-charcter limit but others felt the constraint forced them to tighten up an idea. All-in-all this tension seemed to be positive thing. Many of the tweets cried out for more discussion during class. I’m putting the character restriction squarely in the positive category, with a few, not insignificant, caveats noted below.
- Connection – I felt much more on top of student perspectives prior to class after reading their tweets. Their posts helped me prepare questions and plan for the upcoming discussion. If there was an angle the students weren’t exploring in their tweets, I could pose questions in class that probed the issue more deeply. Their tweets also revealed some unexpected paths. Yes, in-depth journals or discussion boards might have provided more insight and required more writing, but there just didn’t seem to be room for that with the other assignments and goals. In the end, I was surprised at how much the tweets helped me get a gauge of student perspective in a very concise way!
- Forced syntax: While the character limit forced us to be concise, I felt like I was doing Edward Abbey a serious disservice when I tweeted his quote below. The original goes like this:
“Anarchism is founded on the observation that since few men are wise enough to rule themselves, even fewer are wise enough to rule others.” – Edward Abbey
Here’s how I resolved to tweet the message under the 140-character restriction:
“Anarchism – founded on observation since few men are wise enuf to rule themslvs, even fewer are wise enuf to rule others.” Abbey
Yikes! Tweeting with misspelled words and truncated thoughts just bothers me. Maybe I need to enter the 21st century, but there’s part of me that doesn’t want to let go. Am I having trouble with the anarchy of Twitter? Stop poking me Ed. You’d hate this Twitter thing, wouldn’t you? Perhaps Seldom Seen Smith, Bonnie Abzug, Doc Sarvis, and George Hayduke could have coordinated this way. #monkeywrenching? But I digress.
- Linking: bit.ly and tinyurl do make linking easy, so beating the 140 character limit is possible this way. I could have used these services to link directly to the Abbey quote above; however, if the reader doesn’t have a data plan, this click through is less likely to occur on a phone. Tweets I get from the Mars rovers hit my phone this way, but since I don’t have a data plan or iPhone, I don’t click through when reading from my phone. Most of these tweets turn out to be text message noise because the gist of the message is incomprehensible without the detail behind the link. Reading from a different client (like TweetDeck) helps me stay connected to the latest news from the rovers (which almost always includes links), but text messaging alone doesn’t cut it. Agreeing on a client and linking practice is key before implementing this in class.
- Threads: The students were a bit annoyed at not being able to respond easily and in a threaded fashion to a particularly interesting post. Twitter has reply syntax(@), but let’s face it, it’s not designed for threaded discussion.
- Reading Classmate Posts: Many of the early tweeters for an assignment admitted that they weren’t going back and reading others’ tweets until we put them on the screen or passed them out on paper in class (the latter seemed more effective).
- Delay: There was often a significant delay between when students posted and when the tweet actually displayed, which caused some dismay, since tweeting was a requirement for many of the readings.
- Hashtags: Initially, we thought hashtags would help us organize the twitter discussion, but for our purposes, they didn’t seem to add much. They quietly dropped from the dialog during the latter half of the semester.
Rather than confirming my initial doubts about Twitter, the experiment highlighted the appropriate niche for Twitter in my classes. I’m sure there will be more iterations, but here are my tentative conclusions:
- Twitter is a great tool for giving me a glimpse into how the students are approaching the reading in a low impact way for both the students and for me. This window (albeit blurry) helps me develop discussion strategies and questions for the next meeting. Student tweets are an excellent springboard for more detailed discussion and analysis.
- Less is more. A single tweet can lead to a good bit of discussion and analysis. It’s a seed crystal rather than a finished product. I was really impressed at the deep analysis behind some of the tweets we discussed. Asking for multiple tweets on a particular reading was counterproductive for us.
- Additional strategies are needed to encourage students to read and learn from their classmates’ post. Simply asking students to come in with 2-3 posts that interested them before coming to class seems like a possible way to encourage this vital practice. Additional ideas??
- Participants need to agree on how they will use links. If text messaging is the primary delivery mechanism, I’d strongly suggest avoiding linking. The tweet should speak for itself. If linking is desired, utilizing a client such as TweetDeck probably makes the most sense for everyone.
- If you’re looking for more than a catalyst for in-depth discussion, journals or discussion boards are a better fit. Tweets are a beginning, not a final say.
- Consider mixing in write-to-learn activities and other exploratory writing to provide students with an additional avenue (in addition to class discussion) to explore their ideas or prepare for class discussion. Twitter is just one of many tools—including actually writing!
Okay. I’ll do it reluctantly. Summing up my post in a tweet …
Twtr exp. shows strgths + wknesses. Unexptd + reslts for prof who hates twtr syntax but likes insight into stdnt thgts 2 prep 4 clss