Twitter in a Higher Education Classroom: An Assessment

This was cross-posted in the Journal of Victorian Culture Online on September 18, 2012.

“Okay, everyone, now I want you to take out your phones or laptops and log on to Twitter.” My students gazed at me wide-eyed as I said those words last semester. One of them started laughing, saying, “Man, I never thought I’d hear a professor saying that.”

Social media is often decried as one of society’s new ills. Many condemn social media for creating a “distracted” generation, one with gnat-sized attention spans, and make heartfelt appeals for a return to the days of long-form reading and hours of contemplative attention focused on a single text. Twitter is held up as an especially egregious example, as user posts are reduced to 140-character “tweets.” How can anyone possibly discuss anything substantive in 140 characters? But there are many educators who disagree with this sentiment, and who have innovatively adapted Twitter for classroom use. For some examples, look at Brian Croxall’s (@briancroxall), Ryan Cordell’s (@ryancordell), or Mark Sample’s(@samplereality) ProfHacker posts on Twitter at the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the dynamic Jesse Stommel (@jessifer) and Pete Rorabaugh (@allistelling) of the journal Hybrid Pedagogy. Jesse has gone so far as to design essays using Twitter, and gave me the idea for facilitating Twitter fishbowl discussions.

I took the plunge with Twitter last semester in all three of my classes at Richard Stockton College using a number of different assignments. These ranged from having students tweet during films using Twitter as part of a fishbowl discussion, getting students to tweet summaries of class discussions and having students tweet comments and reactions to class presentations. Each class’s tweets were organized using a class hashtag, meaning that my students did not have to follow my account or each others’ accounts unless they wanted to—they only needed to search Twitter for the hashtags to read the class discussion. You can take a look at an example of one of my Twitter assignments and my impressions here and search my class hashtags (Seminar in Feminist Theory: #femtheory; Introduction to Cultural Studies: #cultstud; Literary Research: #litresearch) These assignments can easily be adapted to courses on Victorian history, literature or culture; students can tweet reactions to readings, have discussions to readings and films over twitter, and tweet class presentations.

While I was initially very excited about implementing Twitter at the start of the semester, I learned some lessons along the way. Here are my overall impressions:

1. Twitter improves the social dynamics of a classroom when used effectively. My introverted students took more readily to expressing themselves over Twitter than in regular class discussion. This resulted in a better overall discussion. I had one of my more extroverted students comment that he was glad that we had used Twitter as this had allowed him to get to know the quieter students better. A number of my students also expressed that Twitter helped them to build relationships with students outside of class. For my students this was especially valuable, as Stockton is a commuter campus.

2. Twitter adds to the classroom if it is used regularly, and if students learn how to communicate with each other using the medium. I had to create assignments to make this happen. I had initially made Twitter an optional extra credit item, but that resulted in only a few students tweeting and feeling isolated and frustrated. This changed after I started integrating Twitter into different assignments. I learned that I had to fine tune my assignments as well to improve student engagement. If I gave students an overly broad time frame—say a few days—to tweet their assignments, they would not necessarily engage with one another. This misses the point of the medium, which is immediacy. To amend this, I set up a time range for the tweets (all students had to tweet, for example, between 7pm-11pm, and that a number of the tweets had to be responses to retweets to someone using the hashtag). Once this got started, the tweets became fast and furious, resulting in hearty debate online which carried over into class.

3. Twitter allows people outside of class to join the discussion, which my students loved. The National Women’s Studies Association (@nwsa) twitter account jumped in our discussion during one of my class’s twitter discussions on Simone de Beauvoir’s Second Sex, which thrilled the entire class. Additionally, in a twitter post-mortem of one of our films, Cowboys in Paradise, the director of the film Amit Virmani (@amitvirmani) hopped onto Twitter and participated in our discussion. By and large my students declared that this was the coolest part of the semester. That our conversations were public also encouraged them to take their writing and these ideas more seriously, and to see that these issues mattered outside their classroom. I noticed that my students’ tweets became more serious, intellectual and engaged as the semester went on, because they began to see them as a form of public writing.

4. Twitter allowed me to interact more one-on-one with my students in ways that the regular classroom does not allow, and to gather real-time feedback. For example, when I had students live-tweet their reactions to a film, I was able to dive into the ongoing discussion, redirect students to a point they had missed, and retweet insightful student comments. I was able to identify students who were struggling, to help them when they needed it as they were learning, and to encourage the students who were doing well to help the weaker ones. The quality of their work improved exponentially as a result of this. Their papers were dramatically better then the previous years’, when I had conducted a similar assignment without Twitter. My students also told me that they found the Twitterstream useful as a study guide for the class later on.

5. I still need to caution readers that I experienced considerable resistance to the tool from my students despite Twitter being largely successful in increasing student learning. Only about 20% of my students had ever used Twitter before, and about 20% declared at the end of the semester that they still disliked using it. To my surprise, many declared that Twitter was “frivolous” and a “distraction.” Ultimately, I learned once again that the entire concept of the contemporary student as “digital native” is a gross overgeneralization, and that students, just like faculty, can be resistant to learning new technology. Not all tools are going to fit all students.

Overall, I think the benefits of using Twitter in the classroom far outweighed the negatives. Some things I would change the next time I use the tool include more in-class training time, and teaching students to expect that they may be overwhelmed by a new tool, and that this is okay. One of my greatest rewards from using Twitter in the classroom, though, was that two of my students who are in the Education program, Michelle Winter (@MichelleWinter0) and Francesca Mancuso (@cescalore) were so inspired that they presented Twitter in the classroom as an educational tool in a class they were taking on instructional technology at the end of the semester. Another one of my students, Kimone Hyman (@kimhyman), wrote an essay about the use of Twitter in the classroom as a way to turn students into serious active researchers. In sum, while introducing Twitter to some of my students has been challenging, these rewards have more than surpassed the cost of implementation.


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Twitter in a Higher Education Classroom: An Assessment

13 Responses

  1. I’m wondering how you deal with the privacy issues generated by requiring students to sign up for and regularly use Twitter.

    I’m not sure it’s sufficient to allow students to use “temporary” Twitter accounts (created only for the class) and/or “protected” accounts (only certain people can see their Tweets). Twitter will log all use and install tracking cookies on the students’ personal machines. Thus, requiring students to use Twitter is requiring them to give their sensitive personal data (email address and browsing habits, at a minimum) to Twitter.

    Have you discovered any way to avoid this ethical problem?

    Privacy question September 18, 2012 at 2:11 pm #
  2. I told my students that they had to use public accounts, because the point of the assignments were to 1. create an open classroom and 2. get them to interact with each other and outside people who participated in the Twitter stream. If they were uncomfortable with being public, as you suggest, they could set up their own disposable account for the purposes of the class. If they were uncomfortable with the manner in which Twitter stores their information, they could always set up a dummy email address and use the school computers to complete the assignment (e.g. complete their assignment before they headed home for the day). That way they could avoid the issues you suggest.

    admin September 18, 2012 at 3:31 pm #
  3. Thanks for your response. I’m still not sure if I can be comfortable requiring students to use a corporate, third-party service that has a business model built upon collecting personal data.

    Even if a student uses a dummy email account as you suggest, Twitter will still install tracking cookies on the student’s device. Those cookies will give Twitter information about the student’s use of the internet. If students follow a (somewhat complex) procedure on every PC from which they access Twitter, they might be able to avoid Twitter’s tracking of their internet browsing, as described in this Lifehacker article from May 2012. (Note that I’m not aware of any way to avoid Twitter’s tracking efforts from mobile devices like smartphones and tablets.)

    The public account requirement seems particularly problematic to me, even though it undoubtedly can open up a lot of opportunities (like corresponding with the director of a film, as you describe). However, virtually all public tweets are recorded by any number of organizations, and requiring students to expose their thoughts in this manner is, in my view, ethically questionable. I assume that you allowed the students to use pseudonymous Twitter usernames. But were students aware that their Tweets would be recorded by unknown third parties? Did everyone in the course avoid using one another’s real names when sending public tweets?

    Please do let me know if you have other ideas about avoiding these sorts of privacy concerns. I agree that there are exciting possibilities for the use of social media in the classroom. I only wish that non-commercial (or at least non-privacy compromising) alternatives were available.

    Privacy question September 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm #
  4. Yes, my students were aware that Twitter is public. I think the assignments are good exercises to teach them to create their public social media presences for the future. My Profhacker colleague George Wiliams (@georgeonline) recently storified a conversation about how a student of his nabbed an internship by using Twitter in class:

    I take what you’re saying about privacy concerns, but I am not sure that I would go as far as to say that the use of a public Twitter account for a class is ethically questionable. I think that our current students are going to need to learn to establish a professional social media in a few years, and training them to use that technology will be helpful to them. None of my students were inappropriate in the Twitter conversation; indeed, their heightened awareness that it was public increased their commitment to the material and the seriousness of their tweets as the semester wore on.

    admin September 18, 2012 at 6:32 pm #
  5. following a lengthy twitter exchange w/ various tweeps I respect, including Adeline, I talked to some colleagues IRL and came up with a couple of conclusions regarding my reservations, which are similar to some raised above. A lot depends on the course you are teaching. As a comm prof pointed out to me, if she is teaching PR then social media is a necessary info technology for the course. If she is teaching another course, twitter might not seem as necessary. Some of my reservations fall back on coercion in the classroom. Yes I “coerce” students to take tests etc, but I try to keep that coercion to a limit. I’ve been using a “carrot” approach so far and it is just barely working. Several students, already avid twitter users, tweet. I’ve seen only 1 so far who appears to have either made an account specifically or activated a dormant account for use in my class. I’m just not at the point where I believe the ability to communicate via social media is a required part of what I teach (gender studies and U.S. history). Finally I worry about public exposure in discussion of topics germane to intro gender and women’s studies. What is my obligation if a troll attacks one of my students. Yes I can create a “learning moment” out of it, but the emotional impact of trolling is pretty harsh and I don’t know that I’m prepared to deal with that kind of fall out. So perhaps I’d use twitter to help students in feminist theory where, as Adeline points out, the students could not only “help” one another while reading (in different locations) but also engage in larger community of discourse.

    professmoravec September 18, 2012 at 6:42 pm #
    • should say that the usage with “carrot” = abut 25% of class (we have small classes!)

      professmoravec September 18, 2012 at 7:01 pm #
  6. I have no doubt that there are many great opportunities presented by using Twitter in conjunction with a course. I also think the goal of an open classroom is laudable, especially after reading that your students recommit to the course material when they’re engaged in public conversations. I further agree that teaching students how to use social media effectively can be good in many ways, for career purposes in addition to keeping up to date with current events, and so on. None of this, unfortunately, makes the ethical concerns any less pressing.

    The ethical concern comes for me in *requiring* students to use Twitter. This, in effect, requires students to submit their conversations to (corporate, for-profit) third parties. There are more ethical issues, as well.

    Especially in an academic, higher educational environment, students should feel free to express even very unpopular or taboo thoughts. The possibility of public exposure on Twitter might have a chilling effect on conversations about controversial issues. (I admit that *not* requiring Twitter is no solution to this problem. Public exposure of unpopular opinions in classroom discussions is always possible, but the requirement of Twitter in the classroom markedly increases the chilling effect.)

    I also would draw your attention to the lack of effective privacy protections in current law. There is no 4th Amendment protection from searches and seizure for data stored on third party servers, for example. Twitter and similar corporations operate in a highly unregulated, fast changing environment that presents unique risks to sensitive personal data. These risks should be better understood (and better regulated) before requiring students to use the tools.

    Finally, consider the implications if, in the future, a large proportion of academic conversations are effectively owned by Twitter and similar corporate interests. Those corporate interests would become (even more) powerful gatekeepers of knowledge. Instead of mandating that students become Twitter users, I think educators should work toward developing and supporting non-profit alternatives.

    For these reasons, I think requiring the use of Twitter in the higher education classroom is unwise. I hope for better solutions in the future. Thanks for the conversation, and please do post any further ideas for mitigating these concerns.

    Privacy question September 18, 2012 at 7:07 pm #
  7. When I asked my students to tweet for my recent feminist literature, women, and technology, the course-long Twitter assignment was paired with their course blogs. Students were freely able to use pseudonyms for both accounts (many chose to identify directly with their IRL identities), and the majority tweeted during class time from computer lab PCs. My only stipulation was that I, as instructor, needed to know (for evaluation purposes) which accounts correlated with which students. I framed both the blog and the twitter components of the course around the issue of labor, primarily the work and time investment needed to create and maintain online, mediated identities. Students were asked to critically examine technology and their relationships to it over the course of the quarter and Twitter as a commercial site was an important location for that. The initial Twitter and blog accounts were created in-class (except for students who opted to use ready-made personal accounts), and during those in-class tutorials, we discussed issues of privacy, and the use of WordPress and Twitter as a public forums. Professionalization and the importance of controlling one’s online presence were the major points of those class periods. Like Adeline’s course, the importance of interacting with a larger community and with each other were paramount to the “success” of the course. Their ability to navigate different networks, to find related information, to share interesting news pieces, and even converse with Mary Wollstonecraft made the course that much more cohesive and relevant to them as students.

    anitaconchita September 18, 2012 at 7:12 pm #
  8. @ Privacy Question: Thanks for your thoughts. I do question, however, your separation between corporate interests and higher education, and whether academia is really as immune from corporate influence as you describe it as being. The strong connections between where universities and colleges get their grant funding and the types of research that are funded (especially within the sciences) says a lot about this. All in all, in my view our ethical imperative is to train students how to navigate the world of digital citizenship given the tools we currently have.

    admin September 18, 2012 at 7:15 pm #
  9. I teach creative writing, and I tell my students that these days, all writers pretty much have to have a professional social media presence. I urge them to use the class as a step in that direction. Here’s a post I wrote about that, if anyone’s interested. I recognize their right to have private accounts. But I urge them that eventually, if they stick with writing, they’ll want to (have to!) have public ones.

    Cathy Day September 18, 2012 at 9:19 pm #
  10. @ admin — I agree with you that corporate/for-profit influence in higher education is already far too great. I’m not sure why this fact would make requiring Twitter in the classroom more acceptable, should one seek to minimize corporate/for-profit influence in academics, as I do. On the contrary, I believe this fact is further reason why it is unwise to require students to use a corporate/for-profit tool like Twitter.

    I also agree with you that teaching students to become better digital citizens is a worthwhile goal. I would simply submit that it is possible to achieve that goal without requiring students to use Twitter.

    Thanks again for the conversation. All best wishes.

    Privacy question September 18, 2012 at 11:49 pm #
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