Twitter in the PSHS classroom: First thoughts

I’ve been reading up on educators who use Twitter in class. There’s Promoting Twitteracy in the Classroom, Twitter for Academia, and The Twitter Experiment of Monica Rankin from the University of Texas. A quick YouTube video of the latter can be found below.

Other excellent reads on Twitter include Clive Thompson’s piece on How Twitter Creates a Social Sixth Sense and a TIME Magazine cover story that looks at How Twitter Will Change the Way We Live. Adam Ostrow has a good summary of that latter piece.

I am looking into this not because of a superficial want to stay cool and current. Rather, I’ve been looking for a way to answer a question as timeless as education itself — How do we get students to contribute more in class? And how do we deliver more effectively address their needs and give feedback on their performance?

These age-old questions have taken on a new dimension in the 21st century. The Internet has broken down the fourth wall between teacher and student, eliminating medieval pretenses of authoritativeness and exclusivity. In plainer words: Students now learn as fast or even faster than their teachers, and the amount of information available in 10 seconds on the Internet often surpasses what we accomplish in the classroom for 50 minutes.

Of course, there will always be value in that face to face interaction. Mentoring, for instance, is not something technology can easily dehumanize. We are forming human persons after all, not heartless automatons. Education is more than just delivering content; it is about using information in a transformative and empowering way. Hence I will always find Japan’s android teacher disturbing, but we teachers will all be remiss if we fail to utilize today’s technology for today’s students.

Because they’re already using it. And if our goal is to educate, we begin by learning to communicate. We reach out to them, and it is here that the traditional classroom setting can now fall short.

I’ve observed a dissonance of sorts. It is true that few students tend to dominate a classroom discussion, yet everyone has an opinion. There will always be a thought or a question that will nag at a student as he listens to a lecture or joins a group discussion but not every single thought in a class will be heard or made known. And yet, the find their way online somehow. I’ve seen student blog posts with thoughts on the day’s session. I’ve read microblog threads discussing an odd event in school. And I’ve received instant messages and chatted with students who had a question to ask in class but never got around to asking it in person.

I am convinced that there is a wellspring of thought and insight in all our students that remains largely untapped. I’ve always wanted a backchannel in the classroom, a venue for students to raise questions and comments without much thought or apprehension. I would then like to return to their ideas later, respond if need be, and build on our next sessions with their insights. The current feedback mechanisms are either too formal, too informal, or too slow.

In Twitter I see the possibility of creating this backchannel. Just imagine:

  • class lectures segragated using hashtags (ex. #ss2imperialsm, #ss2mideastsummit)
  • the teacher responding to questions from the shyest student in class
  • students responding to questions of fellow students (and maybe earning extra credit),
  • students being able to save a transcript of their tweets for use in review for a quiz the next day,
  • real-time reactions to the things they see during a film or documentary,
  • real-time feedback on the performance of classmates during a group report or presentation,
  • the opportunity to inform their classmates of links and videos they find useful,

And so on.

I already plan to incorporate Twitter during two big class activities I have planned for the year. These activities have solicited so many reactions in the past, and it will be interesting to see their reactions when everything runs in real-time.

That being said, there are also so many challenges to this. Primary among them:

  1. Access. Not everyone will have a laptop or mobile device which they can use to tweet. Neither are all our classrooms in range of the school’s routers, nor do all our students have unlimited phone plans they can use to text.
  2. Learning curve. To use the technology more effectively, students will have to learn how to use it. That will take time. I will also have to set some ground rules (no ‘text speak’ for one) so that this does not generate into a noisy exercise in futility.
  3. Twitter itself. 140 characters will not be enough to convey nuances and caveats. There could be so many tweets that questions will be buried or the transcript will be unmanageably long.
  4. The cart before the horse. Students can get so amused by the technology that it becomes distracting. There is also the danger of twittering for Twitter’s sake. Therefore, planning and monitoring are key and that means more work for me.

Those are just some challenges that will come up with any plan to use Twitter in the classroom. I am most interested in forming that backchannel I’ve mentioned and I intend to perform some modest experiments to do so. But we’ll see. As it is, I am busy with our course wiki. I managed to throw in Twitter for the assignments page too; apparently it’s now easier for us teachers to remind our students of all the work they have to do too. 😉

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For teachers who are looking at an easy solution to having Twitter in the classroom, Edmodo is your answer.

It allows you to post files, schedules, reminders, and so on. I would have used it if I already didn’t spend some time on my wiki. 😉

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9 Comments

  1. I think Twitter is part of the “shorter than short attention span” trend that causes my younger siblings to switch channels every 3 seconds, my friends to need to update me with every single second of their lives, and so on. I don’t have anything against Twitter (maybe Plurk, but that’s another story altogether), but I think students who are unable to express themselves personally should learn how to turn their hidden ideas and thoughts into better things, instead of having to resort to a keyboard or keypad to tweet away the small things in their heads. Maybe Twitter as an aid, but not as an actual teaching style or primary device. Not much can be said in 140 characters, and if there’s not much to be said, then I don’t get why it’s imperative that it has to be said at all.

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