Integrating Twitter in the Classroom
If you ended up in higher education, have you ever asked yourself where revolutions in the classroom come from? After I started at UOIT as a professor, full of enthusiasm and bursting with ideas, I have certainly pondered on this question for quite a bit, especially last year during my first semester teaching two university undergraduate classes. Of course, I have no definitive answer, but I wanted to share some of my experiences with technology in the classroom with you, starting with how I use Twitter in my courses.
Social Media and Twitter
One incentive to look into classroom technology is that UOIT is a laptop-based university. To quote Wikipedia: “All undergraduate programs require students to lease a Lenovo Thinkpad laptop PC from the university as a condition of enrollment, making it Ontario’s only laptop-based university” . This can be equally scary and exciting for a new professor. When I started teaching, I was mainly scared of the stories that I heard about students just dozing off on Facebook during class and not caring about anything I would say (I would later find out that imgur is actually more dangerous for student productivity). I thought, all this means is to integrate social media in my classroom and make it all really exciting, so that the students are engaged in class. Challenge accepted. However, I would soon find out that it is difficult to get social media right when not all people in the audience have the same interest in this form of participation.
One thing, I had in mind a while before I started teaching classes was the idea to weave the classroom into real life. The simplest way to do that was to use a hashtag (#inf4320 for my Game AI class and #inf4350 for our brand-new HCI in Games class). In my situation, I ended up teaching two courses in my first term with exactly the same fourth-year students, which meant that sometimes there would be confusion between the tags and the content for the students and even for me from time to time. Since they only differ in one digit. Since I wanted to integrate online participation in the total participation marks of the students, I also looked for logging systems and tools that would allow me to archive and quantify all the tweets that were sent to a hashtag. After looking into a couple of tools, nothing really convinced me in terms of functionality (there is an idea for my teaching innovation project this term, also Twitter recently announced more elaborate analytics tools for their service), but I eventually settled for the archivist. Unfortunately, it does not allow you save the content of older tweets, but it worked fine for logging and scoring the number of tweets (I will later talk about the problem that this quantitative scoring introduced). Since, I did not want to pay for a custom logging solution, I ended up using the good old Google Reader for logging the course tweets. It was a bit of a workaround, since Twitter has gotten very secretive about providing an RSS stream of tweets, but using, for example, an URL like
http://search.twitter.com/search.rss?q=%23inf4320, I was able to archive the incoming tweets.
The Ups and Downs
When I started showing weekly Pie Charts for each course hashtag, students started to really get into tweeting and the weekly participation spike that I had noticed during class time shifted toward a more regular contribution of students, much like I wanted it.
The Twitter Awards
Then, I had another idea: Tweet Awards. Rewarding students for their Twitter participation, knowing how powerful rewards can be for behaviour change. I decided to hand out four awards in each class. Most Tweets. Best Link Tweeted. Most Thoughtful Tweet. Most Humorous Tweet. Although, it soon started to get a little bit out of hand with the award for the highest volume of tweets seeming to be the easiest to achieve. While I stressed that I wanted quality in tweet content at the start of the course, the volume soon got to high for me to score manually. People started tweeting ontopic, but repetitive things, and repeating my lecture slides word for word. Since, I also offered a reward for the best link tweeted, the sheer volume of links being tweeted to the hashtags (especially the AI hashtag) soon became really difficult for me to follow up with. So, one lesson learned here would be that Twitter participation for grades is nice as long as its volume does not explode (this was only for a 50-student course, this semester I am teaching 80 students and more, so I am looking to optimize Twitter participation strategies with more automated tracking tools).
A big upside of Twitter participation was the community feel that we could establish through the course. I felt that I could immediately answer students questions without having to log into a bulky Learning Management System (BTW: they are all bulky), especially after I finally purchased a smartphone. In general, this open discussion of class content allowed other parties interested in the course content to “listen in” and even provide feedback. I found this especially interesting with the invited guest speakers that I had for each course (for which I used a mix of TeamViewer Remote Login and Skype Video, which worked surprisingly well).
More Than Just Using a Hashtag
Another problem was that some people tweeted so much at the hashtags that they started to lose their individual followers. Depending on how students were using Twitter before they came to class, it seemed to bother some more than others. In general, this is something that is easy too fix and I have implemented a “filtering” system for this year’s classes by having students tweet at a filter account (@UOITGD). All students in class have to follow that filter account to be able to see things tweeted to the filter. This way, only people following this account will be able to see the tweets in the stream. I got the inspiration from Max Wilson, who implemented a similar system for the CHI conference hashtag a while back. Since I am teaching younger students this semester (second and third years), there is still a bit of an understanding barrier about Twitter in general, but so far the system seems to be working.
While there are certainly more things to be discussed about using Twitter in a course, these are my initial observations and I am even starting to actively see course hashtags on Twitter more often used by other professors (e.g., Derek Hansen’s #IT515R). In general, of course, course participation is much more than tweeting regularly, I have found some other ways to engage students this semester in my game design classes and I will talk about those in a future post. In addition, I have also looked at the combination of blogging and forum contributions as part of an online classroom extension. It can certainly be attributed to the ease with which I see my students blog (some of them going into in-depth discussion of the lecture topics) that I finally decided to return to blogging.
If you want you can follow me on Twitter to listen in on the most recent developments. What about your experiences with social media in higher education? I would love to hear you share your experiences in a comment.