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Lessons from the Tweeting Classroom
Regular RC readers know that I use Twitter in my contemporary political theory course, which I teach every other year. Indeed, I’ll have a paper on the ways that Twitter can be used in a political theory course in a forthcoming edited volume on integrating emerging technology into the political science classroom.
I’ve been something of an evangelist for making use of Twitter in the way that I do because, when it works, it can really engage students in the material beyond what is possible in our two classes sessions each week. That said, I don’t want to suggest that there aren’t challenges inherent in this endeavor or that there aren’t a lot of ways that future iterations might improve on what I’ve done. I’ll start with some things I learned from my first two attempts at making Twitter a part of my political theory course.
- It’s incredibly important to promote the class and encourage people to engage with students; the more work I do before the semester begins, the more likely we’ll have a vibrant outside presence in the hashtag stream for the class. When other people are writing in with their thoughts, students are able to see the ways in which the ideas we’re discussing have a life outside of our classroom. That said, there are currently more than 230 followers of the class Twitter account, but there is very little interaction between the 35 enrolled students and the other 200 followers. Very few people from the “outside world” are willing to put forward a comment, especially once we really get into the semester. In part, this is likely because only the students are doing the reading for the class; even though the syllabus is available online for anyone who might be interested, to actually read along with the class would require more investment than I think is reasonable to expect.
- With that in mind, it’s important to mix specific questions about the reading material with more open-ended questions. Some of my questions, especially as the semester moves along, might be overly specific. In order to have more of a discussion, a better balance needs to be achieved between the specifics of the reading that students are doing and the kind of generalizing that allows people (both those who are enrolled and those who are just following along) to test out ideas that are related to the topics we’re discussing in class. Of course, I generally seem to anticipate more “testing” of ideas than actually takes place. My sense is that the stakes seem to be rather higher than I’d envisioned: People want to seem smart or clever when they tweet and so they’re less likely to contribute to a discussion if they’re not certain that they’re “right” about the topic at hand.
- Conversations tend to die out pretty quickly, usualy after a day or even less. The way that the class account is set up might discourage the continuation of a conversation about Question A once Question B has been asked. My sense is that this isn’t because Question A (and its related answers) stopped being interesting, but because attention from the regular Twitter users shifts to the newer Question B and the occasional users don’t bother posting about something old; if they’re going to contribute, it’ll be on the most recent topic. This semester, I attempted to give students time to answer a question before chiming in with my own follow-up questions; I thought this might encourage more participation, as more students could add their thoughts before I weighed in, but it might actually have resulted in the opposite since students seem to be very much trained to await the professor’s response.
- Many of my students either don’t use Twitter or don’t want to use it as part of a class and, since I don’t require them to use the accounts that I require them to create, there’s really nothing to be done if they’re not interested. In sharp constrast to the first time I used Twitter, this semester has seen far less regular usage and far fewer students who have had anything positive to say about the use of Twitter. In the past, students have complained about the speed with which the conversation moves; they felt overwhelmed by the volume of tweets, largely because they were only checking Twitter once a week (or less often). This semester, some students focused their complaints on the character limit, which seemed like a cop-out since there’s no rule against breaking up a point across two or even three tweets. In part, it’s surely the case that every group of students will be different; this particular group might not want to continue the conversations from class online. There are also approximately ten fewer students this semester, as the attrition rate this semester has been higher than usual. In general, though, Twitter doesn’t seem to be a part of most people’s daily lives at the University of Nebraska. The vast majority of my students don’t check Twitter on a regular basis, which means that the conversation moves by fits and starts (or sometimes not at all). There are probably only four students — out of twenty-five — who tweet more than once a day.
- Some students — especially in the first semester of this experiment — really got into the spirit of Twitter and even began posting their own content rather than simply answering questions that I put forward. This generally took the form of links to articles or YouTube content that related to something we discussed in class or on Twitter. Occasionally it even took the form of testing out an idea for a paper and getting suggestions from classmates. There’s far less of that this semester, though there is one student who maintains a blog focused on American politics and he has experimented with integrating ideas from our class into his posts. It’s not clear whether his classmates are reading his blog, though he has tweeted links that they might see if they are following the discussion via the class hashtag.
There’s a lot more to be said, to be sure, but I wanted to post these observations while I’m still in the midst of the semester and while some interested readers are still planning their classes for next semester. After the class ends, in a few weeks, I’ll have the results of an informal survey that I plan to conduct on the last day (about our use of Twitter, but also about the ways in which the students engaged with social media more generally) and I’ll reflect a bit on the responses.
My intention is to continue to use Twitter in this class, even as I branch out with other social media experiments in others. Next semester, I plan to make use of Tumblr as a blogging platform for students in my human rights class, as I did quite successfully last summer. In the meantime, though, I’d be very interested to hear from others who are using Twitter in college (students, faculty, administrators, anyone else): What else should I be thinking about when it comes to integrating Twitter into a college class, especially given some of the challenges I’ve highlighted above?
The #education tag is hosting Teacher Dare Day--a day in which we all ask each other questions. Here's one for you: what are the best ways for teachers to tackle LGBT issues in the classroom?
Simple: by bringing them into the classroom. It’s not difficult to approach LGBT issues in a sensitive and age-appropriate way. In fact, it’s fairly easy to distinguish between appropriate and inappropriate material when it comes to teaching kids about LGBT issues. The biggest problem we see now isn’t the wrong information being taught, but no information being taught at all. If teachers can introduce LGBT characters and ideas into history or literature classes when it’s appropriate, for example, mentioning that an author had a same-sex partner or that a social movement was happening at a certain time, kids will see earlier on that being gay is normal and OK. There’s no gay agenda at work here. It’s about education. There’s nothing wrong with educating children by making factual, appropriate statements about important people who may be LGBT.
Science/Nonfiction Reading Recommendations from the Tumblr Community
Thanks Tumblrs! There’s an impressive list here:
- Scholastic’s True Life: Forsensic Files (levimoonflower)
- Elephants on Acid (eymiss)
- Band of Brothers (eyesonthebackofmyhead)
- The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (katy-mylady)
- books by Erik Larson (kaitykait and flightyforeshadowing)
- Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand (heysnix)
- Rocket Boys (godmademegay)
- The Double Helix by James Watson; The Greatest Show on Earth by Richard Dawkins (thingsbox)
- Eyewitness, encyclopedias/reference (moyaofthemist)
- Neil Gaiman/Eoin Colfer for sci-fi and fantasy (maplevogel)
- Alan Lightman’s books, particularly The Diagnosis and Einstein’s Dreams (lhuddles)
- Ender’s Game (singmeastoryihaventheardyet)
- The Devil in the White City (musicmaker17)
- Men of Salt: Crossing the Sahara on the Caravan of White Gold by Michael Benanav (chydi)
- Survival of the Sickest by Sharon Moalem (sophiegkohne)
- The Red Market: On the trail of the world’s organ brokers, bone thieves, blood farmers, and child traffickers (onlynina)
- Undaunted Courage (jessiephoenix)
Thank you so much for all of these ideas! I tried my best to credit everyone appropriately—let me know if I missed you or messed up the link.
Can’t wait to sift through these and pass along titles.
Resume Action Words for Teachers Looking Outside the Classroom
Every few weeks, I feel the need to check job listings in careers other than teaching. Because of the public service loan forgiveness option I have chosen to take care of my massive student debt, I have limited options. However, I also feel limited because of public perception, and perhaps my own perception, of teaching. I keep thinking, I’m just a teacher, so what else could I do?
Here is a list of things that teachers can do:
- Manage a team (if you can’t then a classroom of 25 teenagers would be in a state of continual chaos)
- Work independently (a closed classroom door means there is still work being done)
- Work with a team (common planning time with other teachers, as well as instituting school-wide initiatives need some heavy-duty collaboration skills)
- Work to a deadline (have you ever been late turning grades in?)
- Knowledge of most common computer programs (ever tried to make a worksheet in MS Word? Miserable! Publisher is so much easier!)
- Remain calm in tense situations (having a parent scream at you during parent teacher conferences because they SWEAR their kid turned in that assignment and they’re gonna SUE kinda makes you immune to loud voices and stressful conditions)
- Plan ahead (doing lessons off the cuff is just as bad for you as for the kids)
- Improvise in a pinch (but if you MUST do a lesson off the cuff, it could be worse)
- Can work evenings and weekends (do you think I go home and just watch TV? No! I go home and watch TV while I grade essays!)
- Can seek out funding (have you seen the latest budget cuts? I’m a fundraising goddess!)
Can you think of any more?
I’m making a HW assignment based on what we did in class last week, which was looking at weak sentences I pulled from their own writing, and we edited them together. Would it be weird if I made a small “cheat sheet” of impressive sentences I pulled that they can refer to for both the HW and when they begin to edit their paragraphs?