Some general comments on the “Twitter Experiment”
by Monica Rankin (UT Dallas)
There has been a lot of interest in the “Twitter Experiment” video posted by Kim Smith chronicling my U.S. History class at U.T. Dallas and our use of twitter in the classroom. I have fielded a number of inquiries from educators across the United States and even overseas who are interested in finding ways to use social networking in an educational setting. This write-up is intended as an informal summary of my use of twitter in the classroom. I hope it will help to clarify my experience and I welcome additional questions and commentary, particularly suggestions for how to improve this type of classroom interaction.
I used twitter in the basic U.S. History II survey course at U.T. Dallas in the spring 2009 semester. This is a “core” course requirement in the state of Texas. It generally enrolls students from all majors across campus. At the beginning of the semester, there were 90 students enrolled in my class. The class met in a large auditorium-style classroom on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday from 11:30-12:20. I had one graduate student teaching assistant to help with grading and other administrative duties for the class.
Most educators would agree that large classes set in the auditorium-style classrooms limit teaching options to lecture, lecture, and more lecture. And most educators would also agree that this is not the most effective way to teach. I wanted to find a way to incorporate more student-centered learning techniques and involve the students more fully into the material. As the semester was starting, I considered how I might use the technology available through social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, and others to create a more integrated classroom. I was primarily interested in finding a service that students could use IN the classroom in place of the standard classroom discussion (which would have been impossible with 90 students). I had heard of Twitter, but I had not used it myself. I did know that (unlike Facebook and others) Twitter users had the option of posting updates or comments either through the twitter website or by text messaging on a mobile phone. This caught my attention immediately. While many students bring a laptop computer to class and connect to the wireless internet service available in our building, not all students had access to that technology on a regular basis. But nearly every student in the class had a mobile phone and used text messaging features regularly. Twitter’s texting and internet options seemed to offer more students the opportunity to participate.
With a 90-student survey I still needed to lecture in most classes in order to lay a foundation for more productive student participation. I set up a course schedule that followed a standard formula most weeks. On Mondays and Wednesdays I delivered traditional lectures covering important terms and concepts. Fridays were reserved for the “twitter experiment.” The idea was to set up all of the students on twitter while they were in class and have them post discussion ideas/questions and respond to each other using twitter. Students were required to complete a reading assignment prior to class every Friday. The readings included historical essays and primary documents that related to the lectures I had given on Monday and Wednesday. I provided a list of reading suggestions and questions on my website to help students read effectively and take helpful notes on the readings. At the beginning of class on Fridays, I gave an open-note quiz based on the assigned readings and the web questions. After the quiz, our twitter discussions began.
Since I was new to twitter, I enlisted the help of Kim Smith, who is currently enrolled as a graduate student in the U.T. Dallas Emerging Media and Communications (EMAC) program. Kim was instrumental in helping me to understand how twitter works and how I could best incorporate it into the classroom. First, I set up a twitter account for the class called ushistoryII. Then I introduced the idea to the students in the class. Many of them had never heard of twitter and only a few were actually using twitter at the time, so this was new technology to them as well. But nearly all of them used Facebook, My Space, and other similar services so they were familiar with the concept of social networking. I asked them to set up a twitter account and to follow the class. I posted instructions on my website for those who needed them and Kim Smith made an introductory “how-to” video that I also posted on my website. I set up the ushistoryII account to follow all of the students and we were reading to start having “discussions.”
Following Kim’s suggestion, I gave the students special hash tags to use on all of their comments. The hash tags were organized by week so that all of the comments posted in a given week would appear together. This also allowed students to search by the hash tag for a given week and pull up all comments to use as a study aid before exams. Also following Kim’s suggestion, I used tweetdeck as a central hub to track our weekly discussions. Tweetdeck allowed me to search for that week’s hash tag and it created a special column dedicated to comments using that hash tag. Tweetdeck is also designed to refresh automatically at regular intervals (about every 12 seconds I believe). I would run a search for that week’s hash tag, pull up the tweetdeck column, and a running stream of comments would appear. I loaded tweetdeck on the classroom computer and projected it onto the large screen at the front of the room so students could watch the stream of comments.
Overall, I was quite pleased with using twitter in the classroom for facilitating discussions. Of course, it did take some trial and error. I had asked students to set up their twitter accounts prior to coming to class, but very few of them did this. So during the first two weeks’ discussions, most students used class time to set up their twitter accounts and most comments posted during that discussion included things like: “test” and “how does this work?” There were a few constructive comments based on the reading material posted toward the end of the class, but those first weeks were primarily spent getting used to the technology. But college students are a very technologically-literate generation and it did not take them long to figure out how to get the most out of our twitter discussions. Many of them loaded tweetdeck onto their own computers so they could follow the discussion on their own desktops instead of having to rely on the information projected onto the screen at the front of the classroom. Tweetdeck was not designed to project and be visible on a large screen, so many students (especially those in the back of the classroom) found it difficult to follow the comment stream on the big screen and they preferred to use their own computers. Those using tweetdeck commented that it was a much friendlier user-interface and following their suggestions, I posted instructions on the website in case other students were interested in using the software. I had hoped that students would continue the “discussions” outside of class time and they would tweet interesting ideas throughout the week. Some students did post comments class-related comments outside of class time, but this was the exception.
Our “best practices:”
We experimented with a variety of different strategies for encouraging the most constructive discussions through twitter in the classroom. After some trial and error, I found that putting students into small groups (of 3 to 5) and allowing the group to discuss the material together stimulated more ideas. I also found that it was best to give them discussion topics so that most of the comments were based on a common them or at least related to the same reading. Depending on the topic, they would tweet for ten minutes or so and then I would suggest a change of topic. Students would have mini-discussions in their small groups and each student could tweet the most relevant comments being circulated in the group. They could respond to comments being posted by other students or suggest an interesting perspective on one of the readings. Many students also tweeted comments on how they might use the readings on the exams.
I eventually concluded that the “discussions” were more constructive if I circulated around the room and made myself available for comments, questions, and other direct feedback. By circulating around the room, I could respond directly to students and I could get suggestions from them of other topics they wanted to address. The TA sat at her computer and monitored the discussion unfolding on the screen. She would post comments and respond to questions. She was also responsible for notifying me if there were any comments that needed to be addressed by me right away or if we needed to change topics. This was an important aspect of our twitter experiment. With 90 students in one room, I needed the TA’s participation to make this format work. She was completely on board and energetic about trying new things and figuring out how to make twitter an effective classroom tool.
During the last 5 to 10 minutes of class, I would break up the groups and bring the 90 students back together again to “process” the discussion. During the processing time, the TA and I could emphasize some of the most useful comments that had been posted during class. Students could also respond to ideas they saw and/or ask questions for clarification. With our “best practices,” we found that twitter was most effective when it was combined with other discussion strategies (small group discussions, interaction with the instructor, and processing as an entire class.) Twitter did not replace more conventional discussion formats; instead it enhanced the discussions and brought more student interaction.
Since twitter is a public and open access internet technology, I made twitter participation optional for students. But I also needed to provide an option for students who chose not to set up a twitter account. There were also some students who either did not have the equipment (laptop computer) to use twitter in class or who did not have an unlimited texting plan on the cell phone. I encouraged those students to write down their comments on a paper during class and turn them in to the TA at the end of the class period. The TA would then post all of the written comments on twitter after class was over. In this way, all of the useful comments that students wrote on paper were still accessible to the rest of the class as a study aid. Eventually, most students set up a twitter account and used the technology to make their comments. Fewer than 15 hand-wrote comments on a regular basis.
The TA would go through all of the comments after class and send a direct response to any tweets that needed to be addressed—including questions that remained unanswered or exceptional comments that warranted direct feedback. Twitter also has a “favorites” feature that we used to mark our favorite tweets to indicate to students which ideas would be most helpful to them on the exams.
Twitter is somewhat limiting. Tweets have to be less than 140 characters so students are not able to go into a lot of detail in their comments. But I instructed them to post more than one tweet if necessary. We also tried to encourage the groups to elaborate on the brief ideas that were being tweeted and we used the processing time at the end of class to place some of those ideas in a more complete context.
It was also somewhat difficult for students to reply to each other, and the discussion stream tended to wander. By the time a comment was posted and students had a chance to respond to it, several other tweets had gone up and new ideas had been introduced. I suspect that this bothered me more than it bothered the students. I tend to think and process information in a much more structural manner. Most of the students (in their world of intense multi-tasking) seemed completely capable of following several streams of thought at one time.
Overall, I think the twitter experiment was successful primarily because it encouraged students to engage who otherwise would not. Even in smaller classes, only a small number of students actively participate in class discussions. Students knew that their class participation grade would be partially determined by their involvement in these discussions and most of them seemed comfortable with using the technology to engage with the reading materials.
I think it is absolutely essential that educators consider new approaches and new technologies in the classroom. I consider my own teaching strategies to be in a constant state of creation and re-creation. If there are any questions that have not been addressed in this brief summary, please feel free to contact me directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. I also welcome any suggestions on how to improve this experiment and incorporate social networking more fully into the classroom. I am hoping to use twitter or some other similar technology in my graduate course in the fall semester of 2009, Introduction to Latin American Studies. I hope that social media will allow students to have contact with other people around the world who have similar interests in Latin American culture.