Don’t Put Away Your Phones: Bringing Twitter into the College Classroom

October 22, 2015

Burton headshot - smallKristen D. Burton is a doctoral candidate in the transatlantic history program at the University of Texas at Arlington, funded through the Enhanced Doctoral Graduate Teaching Assistantship. Her dissertation, titled “That Firey Liquid: How Alcohol Became an Intoxicant in the Early Modern Atlantic World,” looks at how the large-scale production and consumption of distilled spirits in the early modern era established the foundation for nineteenth-century movements advocating temperance and Prohibition. Kristen is the recipient of research fellowships at the Massachusetts Historical Society and the Fred W. Smith National Library for the Study of George Washington at Mount Vernon. Kristen is also the co-founder and senior editor of Traversea, an online, open access journal of transatlantic history. Kristen currently teaches introductory history courses and upper-level seminars at the University of Texas at Arlington. Follow her on twitter @KristenDBurton.

Note: this is the third of a five-part series on teaching history in the digital age. See parts one and two and check back for the rest of the month for more.

The college classroom is now the setting of an unexpected battle over the appropriate use, or even presence, of technology. Instructors continue to debate the merits of certain forms of technology, including—but certainly not limited to—laptops, cell phones, tablets, Google Glass, and now the Apple Watch. Complaints against these gadgets have a wide range; many instructors find their presence to be a distraction. Students who prefer to entertain themselves rather than pay attention to a lecture can certainly be obnoxious. Even worse, instances of students using this technology to mock or bully professors is a growing concern, as well as students’ perennial desire to cheat their way to an unearned grade. Seeing such gadgets as a possible threat, many instructors have severely restricted technology in their classrooms or banned it outright.

While some instructors have found success in this approach, others attempt to embrace the intellectual potential this technology presents. A smart phone alone contains an astounding wealth of readily accessible resources. While students and some professors often perceive, and tend to use, these devices as expensive toys, there are ways that some instructors perceive them as an opportunity to tap into the powerful networks within the Internet. I fall into this category. It is plain to see that technology will not go away. Devices will only become smaller, faster, and more powerful. Therefore, I ask students to make use of their devices to learn and better understand the material presented in the classroom. My primary means of doing so is through the social network Twitter.

The use of social networks as a pedagogical tool is taking off in both secondary and higher education. Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram all present ways for students and instructors to interact and share class-related material. I prefer to use Twitter, as I find the potential for interaction much higher than on other social networks. Previous attempts to establish class pages on Facebook resulted in minimal student participation, and I found such pages tended to be static in nature. Additional online spaces designed for student interaction, such as discussion boards hosted through systems like Blackboard, do provide opportunities for class engagement. In my attempts to assign online discussions via Blackboard, however, I found that students often waited until the shortly before the deadline to make their posts. The resulting interaction between students and their analysis of the course material felt forced, and many of the students reported that they gained little from the assignment.

Twitter, on the other hand, is based upon engagement. It represents more of a conversation than comments posted to an isolated discussion board. Though it limits the amount of text one can post, Twitter encourages students to construct concise, pointed comments. Twitter is also home to a massive scholarly community. Considering the benefits this platform presents, Twitter has great potential to become an essential pedagogical tool. A study conducted in 2012 by professors at Michigan State University found that use of Twitter in the classroom led to an improvement of student grades, classroom engagement, and understanding of assigned materials.

Having used Twitter primarily as a means of communication between students and myself, I made the decision this past semester to commit to using Twitter as an assignment. The outline of the assignment was simple: students were required to post five tweets per week—two questions, three responses—for ten weeks. The posts had to relate directly with the assigned readings or in-class discussions, and student responses had to be more substantive than stating they agreed with another post. Each tweet was worth one point, and I made it clear it was an all-or-nothing grade (no partial credit). Altogether, the assignment totaled to fifty points, and in a grade scale of 500, that made this assignment equal to a letter grade. I aimed for the weight of the assignment to encourage participation, and more than one student cited this aspect as the reason they remained active in the online discussion throughout the semester.

Initially, most of the students seemed perplexed by the assignment. The majority of the students stated on the first day that they had never used Twitter before. Their response served as a good reminder that one cannot assume students are inherently familiar with social media or certain aspects of technology. In order to help the class ease in to using Twitter, I created an online tutorial that covered the basics of getting started and navigating the site. Most of the class was reluctant at first, but within a few weeks, participation via the course hashtag began to warm up; by the midway point of the semester, online discussions were an established routine. The 140-character limit was a point of frustration for some students, but several learned a common tactic employed by Twitter users: they broke up their post into multiple tweets. In this way, students could share longer, more complex responses. Other students commented that they liked the length restrictions. Unlike some paragraph-length responses that can appear in discussion boards, the character limit meant students could read through and respond to posts on Twitter in relatively little time.

One of the most common responses the students had to using Twitter is that they liked the availability of space to continue discussion. The fact they could talk about the class material at any hour of the day appealed to many. Frequently, my students remarked that they liked getting to know their classmates better through Twitter. Over the course of the semester, a sense of camaraderie formed online and carried into class discussions. Students often referenced each other’s online posts or jokes that developed in response to the assigned readings.

Making use of social media also allowed me to host an in-class Q&A with the author of an assigned text. The author, James Nicholls, graciously offered his time, in spite of living on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean, to discuss his research with the students. Twitter, like Skype, offers incredible opportunities to put students in direct communication with the scholars who produce the books they read. After scheduling a day and time that worked with Nicholls’s schedule, I asked the students to bring to class a device that could access Twitter that particular day. I also asked that they turn in two questions in advance. I used these submissions to facilitate the discussion, calling on students to post a particular question. I kept the timeline for the course hashtag projected in the classroom, and as Nicholls responded, the timeline updated allowing the students to see his answers. Some technological glitches and delays caused the Q&A to feel a bit jerky at times, but all parties, including Nicholls, remarked on how much they enjoyed the overall experience. With more practice, I believe such chats could run with little issue and provide a nice alternative to Skype discussions.

As this was my first semester to experiment with Twitter as class assignment, I asked the students to share their thoughts, anonymously, about using Twitter via an online survey. The responses highlighted many of the positives the students saw in the assignment. Students stated they liked using Twitter as it made assigned readings more interesting, it opened discussions beyond the classroom, and it allowed students to learn from their peers. The ability of Twitter to push the boundaries of the classroom appeared in a striking fashion following the end of the semester. After I submitted final grades for the class, I noticed the students continued to use Twitter to apply the assigned readings to their experiences outside the classroom. Such conversations would have never occurred had that online space not been part of the course.

Though bringing Twitter into the classroom presented many positive points, I did encounter continued resistance from a small selection of students throughout the semester. These students made it clear that they loathed the idea of using social media, and their unfamiliarity with using the platform proved frustrating. Some simply did not see social media as the right place for intellectual discussions to occur. Other students also misunderstood the assignment and occasionally flooded the course feed with pictures marginally related to the class. This proved frustrating on my end, as moderating Twitter posts is much more difficult than on a discussion board. Ensuring continued participation was the greatest challenge, and I realized early on that I needed to remain present on the course hashtag by asking questions, as well as interacting or retweeting student posts. I hoped my presence would convey the importance of the assignment to the class. Still, a small handful of students remained largely silent regardless of the grade.

In spite of this resistance, almost every one of the students who disliked using Twitter told me they liked the idea of using social media as an assignment. In both the online survey and in-person conversations, these students offered suggestions for alternative use. One survey response stated, “I think twitter as part of the class is a good idea, but I don’t think using it as part of the grade is. It’s a good way for the class to communicate with each other, but for some of us twitter is something we don’t use or even know how to use which makes it more difficult to keep up with using it.” This response, along with other students, suggested making Twitter discussions a form of extra credit. This made me wonder if the assignment did not have a grade, whether participation would be as high as it had been throughout the semester. My assumption leans toward the negative, though it is difficult to know.

In the end, the students’ reaction to Twitter was overwhelmingly positive. Survey responses showed that the bulk enjoyed the assignment, and those who did not thought that I should keep Twitter as a class component. The students were thankfully constructive in their feedback. They acknowledged that for those comfortable with Twitter the assignment was immensely beneficial, but not all were fully at ease with using social media. Some suggested providing an alternative assignment, but even those most vocal in their opposition acknowledged the benefits Twitter posed.

My semester experimenting with social media as an assignment could not have gone better, though I believe much of the success resulted from the size and level of the class. For a twenty-person, senior-level course, this assignment was relatively easy to implement, and the students made effective use of the online space. I wonder, though, how such an assignment could operate in a large, lecture-based survey course. Bringing social media into larger classrooms would present unique challenges, but agreeing with the 2012 MSU study, I believe the potential for student engagement makes using Twitter in the classroom a worthy pursuit.