Backchannel via Twitter

Monica Rankin has received some attention for her use of Twitter in the introductory history course she taught this spring at the University of Texas-Dallas, in part because Kim Smith, a UT-Dallas graduate student in the Emerging Media and Communication program, produced a video about Dr. Rankin’s “Twitter experiment” and posted it on YouTube.  I highly recommend you watch this five-minute video since it provides a useful overview of Dr. Rankin’s use of Twitter as backchannel during class.

Dr. Rankin has also posted some additional thoughts about her use of Twitter that are worth reading.  Following up on my musings about the use of Twitter in the classroom in an early blog post, I have a few comments and questions about Rankin’s experiment.

First, however, I’ll point out that given the fairly broad definition I like to use for “classroom response system,” the use of Twitter in the classroom is most definitely on-topic for this blog!  In case you were wondering…

Rankin notes that her Monday and Wednesday classes followed a traditional lecture model.  It was in her Friday classes that she used Twitter and required her students to read historical essays and primary source documents.  She had her students “do the reading” on Fridays to help them prepare to engage in small-group, large-group, and Twitter-based discussions.  (She gave an open-notes quiz at the start of class to hold them accountable for the reading.)  This aligns quite well with Eric Mazur’s transfer-assimilation model of learning: Rankin used the Monday and Wednesday lectures and the pre-class readings to transfer information to the students and the Friday discussions to help students assimilate that information.  I wonder, however, if she might have had her students “do the reading” prior to the Monday and Wednesday classes, opening up the option of discussions (small-group, large-group, and Twitter-based) in those classes.

Rankin also notes that most of her students were not already Twitter users at the start of the semester.  They were, however, familiar with social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, so the concept behind Twitter wasn’t entirely alien to them.  However, this meant that most students had to sign up for new Twitter accounts for Rankin’s course.  One of the aspects of Twitter that Dan Cohen noted in his crowdsourcing-via-Twitter experiment is the “multiplier effect,” in which a comment made on Twitter is “retweeted” (forwarded, to use email lingo) by those who follow the person that made the comment.  This allows comments to spread very rapidly through social networks and can bring many people into a conversation on Twitter very quickly.  Since Rankin’s students were mostly new to Twitter, this meant they likely had few followers on Twitter and thus the multiplier effect apparently not much of a factor in her course.  Rankin notes that she plans to use Twitter again this fall.  I wonder if she and her students will have enough followers in the fall to see how the multiplier effect might enhance or detract from her use of Twitter in the classroom.

The upside of having students create Twitter accounts for the course was that students could “Tweet” their comments during discussion without worrying what their friends outside of the class thought about their comments.  Students already using Twitter who had friends following them on Twitter might have been more circumspect regarding their comments.  Rankin might find this more of an issue in the fall, as more students begin using Twitter.  I’ve heard many students comment that they don’t like faculty to contact them on Facebook because they see Facebook as their social space and they don’t appreciate faculty intruding into that space.  Right now, students don’t see Twitter as “their” space, I think, but that might change as more of them start using it.  There might be some pushback from students regarding educational uses of Twitter in the fall.

Rankin provides a few practical tips for using Twitter in the classroom, too.

  • It’s important that students tag their posts with a “hashtag” so that they can be found easily by other students through Twitter’s search tool.  Rankin took the step of using a different hashtag each week during the course, providing a way for students to also find their peers’ comments on particular topics in the course more easily (during, say, exam review time).
  • Rankin displayed her students’ Twitter stream during class on the classroom projector system via Tweetdeck, a program that provides a fair amount of flexibility for finding and displaying Twitter content.  This meant that students without laptops or smart phones could see the conversation unfold while contributing to it via text-messaging on their regular mobile phones.  Rankin points out that the font size on Tweetdeck was small, however, leading me to think there’s an opportunity here to develop a Twitter application customized for classroom display.
  • I’ve mentioned several times on this blog that the problem with responses to open-ended questions collected via classroom response systems is that there’s no easy way to make sense of these responses on the fly during class.  (In contrast, the bar chart that shows the responses to a multiple-choice question aggregates those responses very nicely.)  How did Dr. Rankin get around this?  She had her TA monitor the Twitter conversation during class, post comments, respond to questions, and notify Rankin (who would circulate among the students during class) of Twitter comments worth addressing to the whole class.  I think this is a great solution, and it’s a nice example of team-teaching.  (In fact, those who are already team-teaching classes might consider trying this out!)
  • Rankin and her TA also used Twitter’s “favorites” feature to mark student comments that were particularly insightful or useful.  This is another way to make sense of student responses to open-ended questions, particularly looking ahead to students’ use of these responses as they study after class.

What’s unclear in Rankin’s reflections is how the Twitter discussion impacted the small-group and classwide discussion and vice versa.  It’s clear that there were such impacts, but I think collecting some data on this would be useful.  Since Twitter provides a record of student comments (who said what when, as well as who replied to whom), it’s a great source of data for investigating how students learn in this environment and what the discussion dynamics are.

Rankin notes that she provided her students with discussion topics to frame the small-group and Twitter-based discussion, but she doesn’t go into detail about these topics.  I wonder if particular types of topics or discussion questions work better or worse for encouraging meaningful Twitter conversation.  There’s another project waiting for someone!

What are your thoughts on the use of Twitter in the classroom to faciliate discussion?

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