Twitter in the classroom, or Participation in 140 characters or less

When I was a little girl at school learning history (never my best subject), we would sit in the classroom while the teacher talked at us, summarising and embellishing the subject we were supposed to have read up on in our text books. He or she often asked questions, to see who in the class had a) done the reading, b) was not asleep and c) wanted a good grade at the end of term. I generally spent most of the class doodling in my notebooks, usually historical characters in dramatic situations (you see, I actually like history, I just found the classes mind-numbingly boring).

If only I could sit in on a history course today. Enriched with videos, interactive maps, virtual visits to historic sites, the classes would be worth paying attention to. I imagine it would be like watching the History Channel, for credit.

Or actually, even better. One of the most fun aspects of online learning, be it media articles, MOOCS or videos, is the commentary. It’s like a cross between a fun university coffee room debate, and an intellectual chat room. Actual physical class participation, if I remember correctly, was boring and at the same time intimidating. Again, if I remember correctly (and I am probably being too harsh here), students would rarely raise their hand, and if they did, it was usually to ramble on about nothing much in particular. If no-one raised their hand and someone was called on, the usually-incorrect and often-incoherent mumble that passed for an answer was a waste of everyone’s time, including the teacher’s, who had no other way to provoke participation or to check if we were paying attention.

twitter in teaching

photo by Raffi Asdourian, via Spotlight (click for source)

Now, drumroll, the two worlds can converge. Welcome to the concept of Twitter in the classroom. Not as a distraction, as a learning tool. “How can you learn in 140 characters or less?”, I hear you ask. Right, so perhaps “learning tool” is stretching it a bit, but Twitter can enhance class participation to such a level that the students get more involved, pay more attention, and “own” their opinions and doubts. That makes the learning more meaningful, interesting and relevant.

Here’s a good example of how Twitter was used to foster class comment:

Bear in mind that this was back in 2009. Since then, more and more university and high school classrooms are incorporating this social network into the teaching platform. Students tweeting or messaging in class has always been a problem – are we looking at a “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” strategy here? No, it’s much more than that, it’s simply realising that the way we communicate is different, especially with the younger generation. The mind-set is different, expectations are different. As we’re seeing with the shift in mainstream media, being talked at, transmitted at is no longer enough to hold the young’s attention. If indeed it ever was, teachers over the decades have struggled to find ways to engage a class, to get them interested enough to participate, to ask questions, to argue. (And if they’re tweeting about the class, it’s less likely that they’re tweeting about other things…)

As the protagonist of the above video says at the beginning, of her 90-student history class, Twitter emerged “as a way to pull more students into a class discussion that I ordinarily wouldn’t be able to do in 50 minutes with that many people.” Not everyone joined in, only about 30-40 students, but even that is a huge improvement on the 3-4 that usually dominated the conversation.

Students interviewed about the experiment pointed out that while before the thought of speaking up in front of a large group was embarrassing, with the screen as a shield it was so much easier. Normally shy people could put their views forth, the quiet ones could be “heard”. As one of the students in the video said, ““trying to pipe up and be heard over everyone else can be a little intimidating.” It seems that using social media removes the social factor of class participation, and relegates it to the realm of ideas and interpretation.

Social aspect aside, what about the learning? How can you learn and tap at the same time? How can you get a message across in 140 characters or less?

It’s not about learning through Twitter, although that certainly is possible. It’s about communication and connection. It’s about getting people to be interested enough to participate, because then the learning starts. It’s about mental stimulation, and creativity.

The big advantage of Twitter is its limitation. In 140 characters or less, there’s no room for waffle. Let’s face it, that’s attractive. Not only do you need to condense what you want to say, and take care with the words you choose. You also have to convey more with less. And, the brevity makes Twitter comments easily digestible. No actual “reading” involved, you can save that for the course assignments. You can skim, with as little effort as listening would cost you, and there’s less risk of time-wasting verbiage.  And, in doing so, you can get a good sense of what your students or classmates are thinking, what they understand, what they’re worried about. In the standard classroom, that’s very difficult to get.

And, it provides a convenient and even entertaining class record. The teachers can then use Storify or a similar platform to curate the most interesting tweets, and publish them on the class’ Facebook page or Pinterest board (more on Pinterest and Facebook in the classroom later). We all like to be singled out, selected for publication if you will, so there is another incentive to come up with quotable insight.

After the class, the teacher can easily reply to interesting comments, correct something, or even start a dialogue or a (concise) debate. This would get students excited about the next class. Engagement increases, the level of interest goes up.

Twitter makes it easy to share resources (yes, other sites do as well, but we’re talking about Twitter here, and it is one of the easiest). Students can tweet links to resources they think their peers would find useful, with the appropriate hashtag label to make it easy to search for later.

Twitter can also be used for class activities other than feedback and collaboration. It is ideal for condensing ideas and summarising concepts. Asking students to summarize a character, historical figure or scientist in 140 characters is stimulating and fun, as is asking them to submit tweets in that character’s voice. What would Queen Elizabeth I have tweeted the day of her coronation? What would Jane Eyre have tweeted on meeting Mr. Rochester? Students could be asked to tweet as witnesses to a historical event, such as the London Fire or the landing on the beach at Normandy. The resulting creativity creates a level of engagement, interest and even understanding that is very difficult to achieve in the typical classroom.

humorous history tweet

Rather than ask for a raising of hands, teachers can use Twitter for fun pop quizzes, to choose the next book, or to rate an aspect of the class. As anyone who has tried playing collaboration games online (or has kids who have) knows, anonymously competing or even collaborating is a lot of fun. With Twitter you can recreate that same atmosphere in the classroom, by tweeting an anagram and asking for responses, tweeting a word and asking for synonyms, or tweeting the first line of a story and asking the class to continue via tweets. As I mentioned before, even the shy ones can seriously get into this sort of participation.

Some critics say that Twitter distracts, that students are too busy tapping to listen. Now, I’m far from being the world’s best multitasker (as in, I’m a terrible multitasker), but a more stimulated brain can take in more information, even subliminally. And no, I’m not saying that it’s ok because we’ll learn subliminally, but I do think that tapping while listening and missing a bit of what’s going on is preferable to wondering what to wear tonight and missing out on big chunks of the lecture.

Critics also hate the writing style that Twitter is fostering. 140 characters does not leave much room for prose or even grammar, they claim. I don’t agree, the limitation can encourage considerable creativity. While brevity is not always appropriate, in general it’s not a bad thing. And no-one is suggesting that Twitter is the only form of communication. For expansion and detail, for exploration and depth, there are many other media available, and obviously they should be given an even more important role in the learning process. But that does not mean that Twitter cannot hold poetry. As we have seen, art tends to spill over into whatever platform is available, and Twitter is no exception.

poetry on Twitter

by poet Benjamin Zephaniah

As for the confusing symbology and syntax of Twitter-speak, doesn’t it distract from the intended message? Not once you get used to it, no. It’s like learning a few words of a new language, but that’s no big deal. Language development is good for our brains, no-one can argue that. And anyway, the young already know and speak this new language, it won’t hurt the rest of us to learn it, too. It’s not difficult, and it’s a lot of fun, #roflmaoysst*!

(* roflmaoysst = rolling on the floor laughing my ass off yet somehow still typing)

That right there is the main benefit of introducing Twitter into the classroom. It’s fun. And fun combined with learning does lead to smarter people, especially when those people end up being engaged, involved and eager to find out more. Twitter’s public face makes that easy, and the resulting sharing, comparing and discussing could lead to insights, discoveries and even friendships that could turn that particular class into one of the best we’ve ever had. More and more universities and even schools are taking notice of the potential. Twitter is ushering in a new model of learning: less rigid, more collaborative, and much more interesting.

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For more information on Twitter, check out my Flipboard Twitter magazine:

flipboard twitter

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