The Innovative Instructor has written about using Facebook in the classroom, what about Twitter? What’s next? you might ask, Pinterest? Yes, even Pinterest seems to have inspired faculty to find uses for its boards in the classroom. Today, however, I want to make a case for using Twitter.
What is Twitter? Wikipedia tells us that “Twitter is an online social networking service that enables users to send and read short 140-character messages called ‘tweets’. Registered users can read and post tweets, but unregistered users can only read them.” From celebrities to revolutionaries, the Twitterverse (aka the Twittersphere) is comprised of more than 500 million users; 271 million of these use Twitter actively. While many complain that the content is mostly inane babble, there are serious, even scholarly, conversations taking place on Twitter every day.
This example of an educational use comes from the CIRTL MOOC, An Introduction to Evidence-Based Undergraduate STEM Teaching, now completed, but due to run again in the near future. If you signed up for the MOOC, you may still be able to access the content. The Twitter example was presented in Week Five: Inclusive Teaching and Student Motivation.
Margaret Rubega, Associate Professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Connecticut with a PhD in ornithology, decided to use Twitter, appropriately enough, for her introductory ornithology course. Rubega describes the course as face-to-face with approximately 100 students each semester it is taught. There is no lab component, so she struggled to find ways to introduce active learning in what has been primarily a lecture format. Another issue is that most of the students have grown up watching nature programs on TV (or YouTube videos), which exposed them to the concept that animals and birds are exotic species that live in remote areas. To her incoming students, nature was something that takes place somewhere else.
Rebega wanted to get her students to appreciate the way that biology plays out in their world. That it is something that they could observe when they walked out of the classroom onto campus. She knew that telling them (in lecture form) did not equal an appreciation that comes from observation and experience. She wondered if she could get students to use their electronic devices in some way that would force them to look up and see what was happening around them.
Thus was born #birdclass. The # sign is called a hashtag and is used to identify a specific conversation within the cacophony of tweets. By using the hashtag, Rubega and her students could have a targeted discussion. You can search Twitter for #birdclass to see the class-related tweets. Rubega assigned her students to tweet once a week. Each tweet was to 1) identify where they were, 2) what bird-related phenomena they saw, and 3) how it connected to course content. If it had the required three components, the tweet was awarded three points. She put a cap on the total number of points she would award each student.
Rubega’s initial goal was to make students take the course content outside of the classroom and see that what was described in class actually occurs in their world. She looked at Twitter as a tool that would allow her and her students to gather their observations in a way that was immediate and easy to access. She was not thinking about the social implications.
As soon as the students started using Twitter (and Rubega was posting to encourage them and provide examples of her expectations), their interest in engaging in conversation with her and their peers became immediately apparent. She began retweeting (forwarding and promoting in Twitter parlance) their best tweets to a larger audience interested in ornithology and thus facilitating a broader conversation outside of the class. This provided feedback from others in the field. The social aspect created instructional value that Rubega had not anticipated.
The second year she taught the course using Twitter, she traveled to Belize during spring break. She had not mentioned this trip to her students. While in Belize she began posting a list of birds she seen and asked if her students could identify where she was. Even though it was spring break and she had no expectation that any of her students would be monitoring their Twitter feeds, several student responded immediately. In a series of tweets, they worked on figuring out her location by looking at bird range and distribution charts. Rubega described being “blown away” by this experience. Further, when she returned to class, she gave the winning (first to correctly guess her location) student a token souvenir as a prize. This young women commented that she had learned more about geography in doing research during this tweet exchange than she had in high school.
Rubega maintains that Twitter works for her students because it allows self-directed, real-life discovery of the world around them. Their observations bring affirmation of what they have heard in class. The reward comes via interaction with their peers and a larger community of ornithologists, as well as acknowledgement of their tweets with the point system. By the end of the course, the students are using their knowledge to teach others in the Twitter ornithology community – by correcting and commenting on others’ identifications and observations, for example.
In thinking about the kind of learning that students achieve in the tweeting assignment, many of their tweets involved application and analysis (Bloom’s Taxonomy). This represents a higher level than might normally be associated with a straight lecture format – typically, transfer of knowledge and comprehension by the students.
You can see Margaret Rubega’s tweets at https://twitter.com/profrubega. Besides teaching at the University of Connecticut, she is also Connecticut’s state ornithologist.
If you are interested in using social network applications, such as Twitter, in your classroom, there are several articles by Derek Bruff, director of the Vanderbilt University Center for Teaching and a senior lecturer in the Vanderbilt Department of Mathematics, that will be informative. In an article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, A Social Network Can Be a Learning Network (November 6, 2011), Bruff references the concept of “social pedagogies,” a term coined by Randall Bass and Heidi Elmendorf, of Georgetown University. “They define these as “design approaches for teaching and learning that engage students with what we might call an ‘authentic audience’ (other than the teacher), where the representation of knowledge for an audience is absolutely central to the construction of knowledge in a course.” Leveraging student interests through social bookmarking, a CIRTL Network blog post from August 22, 2012, describes Bruff’s experiences using social bookmarking in two classes he has taught. And his students’ preferences for social bookmarking tools are discussed in a post, Diigo Versus Pinterest: The Student Perspective (May 31, 2012), on Bruff’s Agile Learning blog.
Macie Hall, Senior Instructional Designer
Center for Educational Resources
Image Source: Twitter blue logo https://about.twitter.com/press/brand-assets
If you are considering using Twitter in your teaching, you should take a look at this blog post from ProfHacker (Chronicle of Higher Education) on how to track your students’ tweets: http://chronicle.com/blogs/profhacker/using-ifttt-to-track-twitter-participation/58721
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