Twitter as a teaching aid

As you’ll recall, last week we finally added a twitter feed to this blog. Partly, the delay was laziness on my part (since I’ve known we could do it for some time and I just couldn’t face the setting-up of a new account, with its endless suggestions of who to follow), and partly because this group (except me) hasn’t really got into twitter as a platform.

With that in mind, it might be useful just to briefly explore how twitter can be used, in order to suggest some pedagogical function.

The structure of twitter makes it a good platform for disseminating information. Either a dedicated account for a module, or a hashtag in a tweet (e.g. #POL3070 for my negotiating politics module) mean that your followers can quickly see updates and links. Both the mobile-ready format and the brevity of any message make it more likely that people will see and read the information. Moreover, it’s easy to search for older messages too.

The big caveat is penetration: as with many other technologies, one would do well to check how many students actually used twitter, since it’s often not as pervasive as one might think. Students do not all have smart phones or check their feeds incessantly.

Twitter is also good for getting conversations going with students, i.e. a two-way process. My colleague Jack Holland has posted here before about his use of memes as a way of building debate alongside the classroom or one-to-one discussion: because tweeting is public, anyone can see it and join in (or at least benefit from the interaction).

Beyond this communicative dimension, one might take twitter more actively into the classroom. Two main options present themselves here.

Because twitter tends to have a good penetration into practitioner communities, getting students to follow and interact with such people can be a good way to improve their understanding of issues and communities of practice in the real world. Thus, Brussels has a lot of people of political and economic consequence who conduct an active communication strategy through twitter, which lets students see in a very fine-grained way how the European Union and other institutions work. It might often not be citable, but it leads to other sources that are.

The other option is to use twitter as an active pedagogic tool. My own introduction to twitter came this way, when I made a negotiation exercise where students have to conduct an interaction through the platform. My intention was primarily to point out that it is not a good platform for such a purpose, to help them understand the importance of communication in negotiation. It’s fair to say that they dislike the exercise, because it’s very frustrating and because a fair number have to get on twitter, which they have previously avoided. At the same time, it does make the point rather well.

And that is perhaps the main comment to make. Someone once told me that twitter is like ‘shouting what you think’. A tweet is public, so you need to think about how happy you feel with it being public before you tweet it. In the two years I’ve been active, I’ve had a number of ‘interesting’ discussions with people who have taken except to things I’ve posted: there are a lot of people who will be more than happy to pick you up on things. So for both you and your students, you have to have a discussion about boundaries and what is and isn’t acceptable.

And with that warning, I’ll leave you to explore. If you have other uses in the classroom, please do let us know.

5 thoughts on “Twitter as a teaching aid

  1. I have repeatedly used Twitter to alert students to news that is relevant to the course, partly responding to their demands for connecting scholarly work to real life events. I also use it as an open notepad where I will Tweet references to scholarly work that I come across when browsing the web. I know colleagues who have opened a classaccount and require students to tweet examples of policies relating to the course as well as using it to prepare guestspeakers for a presentation – with students having to tweet questions they like that person to address in advance. But penetration is a big problem. In my case where there was no mandatory element, only a minority of students actively followed me, so in that case you would have to force them to open an account, which may be problematic.

  2. A better alternative may be CaTool. This is an open-source web app developed at Harvard. It allows you to put filmed lectures and texts on line and combines them with a Twitter-like feed where students-instructors-teaching aids can either comment on or ask questions about the material. All such questions are also collected automatically in an archive that students can query for additional information. I haven’t used this yet and the classes at Harvard that do have much more assistance available then I do. However, the idea is a great one: class is taken up with answering questions, doing exercises, and, every now and then, clarifying lectures when it becomes evident that everybody is confused by the materials. This means a lot of work, of course, but it also appears to work. I’ll post further if and when I get this app running in my classes.

  3. Since young people today are both adept at using social media sites to communicate, as well as being influenced by what is written on them (tragic case of girl committing suicide because of what was communicated to her), isn’t it about time educationalists (like me) used it to get students to learn in ways they find useful rather than us keeping banging on about the ways vwe have tried and failed with.

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