Inspired by others’ use of Twitter in higher ed, I decided to try and integrate Twitter into the course that I’ve developed and instructed while a PhD student in the Faculty of Environmental Studies at York University.
First, a little about the course: ENVS 1010c is a first year course open to any major. As a result, the enrolment is about 100 students from a variety of academic experience and backgrounds. The content focuses on exploring the natural history of the Toronto and is designed to get students out of the classroom: as a consequence about half the classes are field trips. The other half of classes are lectures held in a typical raked, fixed-seating lecture hall.
I spent some time reflecting how I could use try and best use Twitter in this class. 140 characters is a limitation but also liberating: I didn’t feel like I could over-extend its reach1 the first time through and it could be used as a compliment to regular classroom interactions rather than replacing them. Having read others’ experiences, also helped to narrow down what I didn’t want to do with it. I finally settled on introducing it as a kind of awareness tool. The example that I first gave students was that they could ask me questions while lecturing. Key here was that I was open to see how it evolved—and I told students so. I helped frame it by calling it “The Great Twitter Experiment of 2009”.
So, I included information on Twitter in the syllabus and introduced it in the first class. Here are the slides (.pptx alert!) that I used to introduce what Twitter was, what I wanted them to do, and some conventions. I had opened a new account—@TorontoNature—asked every student to sign up for a twitter account and then add their username to a wiki page I had set-up on the course’s Moodle site. I also let students know that they could protect their updates if they wanted to, that they were welcome to follow other students in the classroom. I let them know that they could tweet from their cell phones and get tweets from me sent to their cell phones via SMS2. I tweeted. I asked them to send me a tweet as homework.
Interestingly, as I introduced Twitter itself and how I hoped to use it, there were a surprising number of blank faces looking back at me and some vocal criticism of the plan.
“We can’t ask questions in the classroom anymore?” one student asked.
“No,” I assured them, “This is for people who might be uncomfortable with asking questions in a large classroom. If you want to put your hand up, I have no problem with that.”
“Will be marked on this?” asked another.
I hadn’t really thought about this. “Part of the evaluation is participation. If you participate using Twitter, I will take that into consideration when calculating your mark.”
“How can you know who we are when we could use any username?” a quick-thinking student replied.
Taking a moment I realized this is where the wiki came into play. “You’ll add your real name and username to the wiki, so I’ll keep track of you that way.”
The majority of students did not have a Twitter account. Those who had an account and active users were quick to come to my assistance in class and on-line, suggesting that students at least give it a try. At the end of the semester, TorontoNature had 72 followers. This means that, in hard numbers, with enrolment dropping to 92, I had about a 78% sign-up rate. Because I didn’t feel like there was a barn-burning adoption of Twitter, when I calculated participation, I didn’t use it as a criteria at all.
I was lucky to have a two-projector set-up in the lecture hall. So, I projected a browser window on one screen and my lecture slides on the other. I asked students to add the #envs hashtag to anything they would post related to the course so we could all follow the conversation. I also asked the TAs to follow the #envs hashtag and draw my attention to anything that might come up. I planned, if uninterrupted by the TAs, to take a break while lecturing and see what had popped up with the #envs hashtag.
I also own an iPhone with a Twitter app (Echofon) that notifies me when someone @messages me. I didn’t introduce this explicitly in the first class, but it emerged as being important later in the course.
What emerged: the classroom
Students, over the course of the semester, did use twitter to ask questions, seek clarification and give feedback. Rather than waiting a few weeks or even to the end of the course to see how students were doing, I especially liked the instant-feedback I got. This meant that I changed my approach to reflecting on my teaching practice: rather than waiting to see feedback at the end of the course and deploy corrections for the next iteration of the course, I took the feedback and felt like I could be more nimble in deploying quick course corrections as the course was on-going.
I also used twitter as a kind of super-clicker. I could ask students a question that required more than selecting one of four multiple choice answers. Now, students often chose to put their hands up to answer these questions, but some students answered these kinds of questions on twitter. It was also a great platform to provide further information based on classroom experiences.
The unanticipated emerged as well. I was lecturing about the difference between plants and trees and used the term “woody structures”. What would have likely been a snicker between friends became this, broadcast to the classroom on the projector: “size does matter when talking about woody structures”. Amusing and a joke I might have made in another setting. Rather than having a conniption fit, I just @replied to the student: “About woody structures…humorous, yes, but inappropriate.” So, in one sense, in reaction to the projected tweets, there were some examples of the “look at me, look what I can do” from students similar to the aping you see when people know they’re on television. But nothing too subversive and nothing that couldn’t be addressed using twitter itself. Which I liked.
What emerged: field trips
This was unexpected: given its mobile nature, and having an iPhone with a twitter client that let me know when I received @replies, student began tweeting me about field trips. In one sense, this was good as students who were truly lost could get a quick update from me. I was even able to provide the exact location where we were for a late-comer.
The downside to this is an extension of a a larger criticism that I hear from other course directors: students don’t read instructions. These tweets were asking the kind of questions that were already provided on the course website. So is it good to have a way for students to get in touch? I guess if they’re lost, regardless of whether or not they read the instructions, and having them participate is important, then helping them get them to the right place this isn’t a bad thing. At the same time, I’m sure there are course directors out there who would find this especially infuriating. It was disruptive, at times, to have a phone buzzing in my pocket.
What emerged: outside the classroom
Perhaps neatest was the tweet asking me if a tree that the student had seen on campus was a Tamarack. As far as learning goes, to have a student demonstrate the skills introduced in the classroom outside the classroom is a course director’s dream.
What would I tweak next time
- Take some more time to introduce Twitter. I would consider using some classroom time to book a computer lab (for 100 students though, so that could be a pipe dream) and get them there and then to sign up and learn the vernacular of @replies and #hashtags by doing it.
- Win students over on the idea of Twitter or, explain the different ways a student could use it in this particular setting. There’s nothing like past experience to tell sceptical students some of this year’s successes. I was missing that this year.
- Give TAs the responsibility to reply to tweets during field trips. No more buzzing pants while explaining why a tree is a Silver Maple.
- Consider not projecting a browser window to cut down on the “woody structure” type comments. This would mean TAs would have to manage the stream for me. But I also see it as a larger-world teachable moment, so I’m on the fence with this.
- Institute a specific way for student to interact with course material using Twitter. My current idea is to have student look for related websites or news articles, tweet a summary and provide a bit.ly link. Sort of like what I was doing with this tweet.
I discovered that there wasn’t one right way to use Twitter in the classroom. I like this. For me, in ENVS 1010c, the best uses of Twitter in the classroom emerged over the course of the semester through its use. My idea of a safer way of asking questions in class morphed into a bunch of different things:
- a vehicle for immediate feedback, from student to instructor and instructor to students
- a chance for (mild) student subversiveness
- a mobile solution that allowed students to:
- get last-minute (even geo-tagged) updates about the course
- continue the learning process outside the classroom and still get feedback from me
- and, a way for students uncomfortable with speaking in a class of 100, to have voice
So while I didn’t create a community of 72 student like I see between some of the Twitter contacts that I have, my experiment was anything but a failure. I have yet to see formal evaluations of ENVS 1010c to see if there was a strong positive or negative reactions. But here Twitter offers another possibility: I’ll try tweeting on the TorontoNature account to get feedback and see if anyone replies.
Who knows, I might have created a different kind of classroom community…
Update (May 14, 2010): This post has formed the basis for an accepted chapter in the upcoming book Teaching Arts and Science with the New Social Media, edited by Charles Wankel and to be published by Emerald Group Publishing.
- In the way that technology is implemented and its use is integral to the success of of some part of the classroom experience—like counting clicker use as participation. I didn’t want to set Twitter up only to have it fail miserably. [↩]
- This is an aspect about Twitter that I really like—it has a low technology barrier for entry. You are not asking students to buy another one-use piece of technology. If they have laptops with them, they can tweet there. If they don’t bring laptops to class, they can use their cell phones. [↩]