Gardner Campbell + Backchannel in the Classroom

Gardner Campbell and two of his Baylor University colleagues, librarian Ellen Filgo and first-year student Alexis Tracy, presented a talk at the recent EDUCAUSE Learning Initiative (ELI) conference on their use of Twitter in Gardner’s first-year seminar course on new media.  The talk, “Twitter Symbiosis: A Librarian, a Hashtag, and a First-Year Seminar,” is online (video + slides) thanks to ELI, which meant I could “attend” the presentation in spite of the fact that I didn’t go to the ELI conference.  I recently posted nine uses for backchannel in education, and Gardner’s talk provides another great example of the potential of Twitter-facilitated backchannel conversations in college teaching.

In a nutshell, here’s how Gardner incorporated Twitter in his course: As part of their class participation, Gardner’s students were encouraged to open Twitter accounts and participate in backchannel discussion on Twitter during class sessions, using a course-specific hashtag to make their tweets easy to find and follow.  Moreover, Ellen Filgo, a university librarian, participated in the Twitterstream, too, although she did not attend class sessions in general.  Instead, she followed the Twitter conversation from her office (by loading a column in her Tweetdeck application that searched for the course hashtag) and contributed resources and ideas to the backchannel discussion.

How did Gardner and his students use the backchannel?  I’ll use my “nine uses” as a framework here.  Gardner’s students engaged in notetaking, sharing resources with each other, commenting on the class discussion and presentations given by Gardner and by fellow students, asking questions of Gardner and each other, and helping one another by suggesting answers to those questions.  Also, Gardner was intentional about using the backchannel and other mechanisms (including student blogs “fed” into a course “mother blog” and social bookmarking via Delicious) to build community in his course.

Perhaps what is most interesting about this example is that the inclusion of librarian Ellen Filgo served to open the classroom to those not physically present.  In the talk, Ellen describes her participation in the backchannel as “librarian jazz,” referring to the improvisational quality of her interactions with the students.  She knew the topic of each class session’s conversation, but didn’t always have the readings ahead of time and couldn’t hear the verbal conversation in the room.  This meant that she had to suggest resources and answers to student questions based entirely on the Twitterstream in real time.  In the ELI talk, both Ellen and Gardner referred to “agile” teaching, one of my favorite terms, which made me smile!

Ellen noted that one positive outcome of this participation was that she was involved in the students’ research work at a much earlier point in that work than is typical for her work with students.  She was thus able to assist students in valuable ways, and the students’ understanding of the role of the library in their work was enhanced.

If you watch the talk online, be sure to listen to Gardner’s student, Alexis Tracy, describe her experiences in the course.  Using social media (Twitter, blogs, social bookmarking) in an academic setting was new to her, and she became very interested in Twitter in particular.  She’s remarkably reflective and well-spoken about the impact the backchannel had on her learning in the course.  I was impressed that she described herself as an “epistemologist”–that’s a word I didn’t learn until graduate school!

Here are a few other points that Gardner and his colleagues make in their talk:

  • It’s important to use a course-specific hashtag.  That makes finding class tweets easy and helps to create a sense of community.
  • Be sure to archive the class tweets using a service like Twapper Keeper which creates a permanent archive of all tweets using a particular hashtag.  They didn’t do this and regretted it later when they discovered that Twitter’s search function doesn’t go that far back.
  • Gardner’s students all gave class presentations.  During the presentations, the other students participated in the backchannel as usual.  This provided a useful source of feedback to the presenting students, who would frequently read through those tweets after class.  I’m tempted to call this a “tenth” use of backchannel.  It falls under the category of students helping one another, but when the student being helped is the presenter, this use is, in a way, more significant.
  • Near the end of the talk, Gardner says, “If you want your students to tweet well, then you need to tweet well.”  If not, that is, if you ask your students to engage in an activity in which you yourself do not engage, your students are likely to view it as busywork and not view it as a valuable learning activity.  Gardner has enough experience blogging and having his students blog that I consider this sound advice.

See the online archive of the talk for other points, including Gardner’s approach to grading backchannel participation, a great anecdote about how a question moved from the backchannel to the frontchannel, and some warnings about what can go wrong when students aren’t prepared well for this kind of participation.  Thanks to Gardner, Ellen, and Alexis for sharing their experiences with this very new form of classroom interaction!

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