Education

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

Of Mice And...

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” [1]. 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.

Hashtagged

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.

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7 thoughts on “Integrating Twitter in the Classroom

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  6. A very inter­est­ing post Lennart. In our class­es over in the UK we have inte­grat­ed Facebook groups into class to try and achieve a stronger social aspect to the cours­es that we run and gath­er stu­dents togeth­er in one place to share ideas and research but I must admit I had not thought too heav­i­ly about the inte­gra­tion of Twitter into the cours­es.

    Similar to the point Pejman above makes, our stu­dents also are required to set up a research and devel­op­ment blog to chron­i­cle their stud­ies as they progress through the mod­ules. I myself teach First and Third years at degree lev­el and have found that they do indeed pick up the impor­tance of social media quick­ly enough to use it with­in the course struc­ture.

    I feel that by inte­grat­ing all three togeth­er (blogs, Facebook and Twitter) it would help increase pro­duc­tiv­i­ty in class through par­tic­i­pa­tion with stu­dents active­ly pur­su­ing their sub­jects and shar­ing those ideas and dis­cov­er­ies with their peers as well as oth­ers.

  7. Pejman says:

    Interesting post Lennart, as I am also try­ing to use Twitter at the sem­i­nars I am teach­ing. One pos­i­tive point on using Twitter (as sort of an open knowl­edge shar­ing tool) is to be able to share stuff with a com­mu­ni­ty oth­er than our local uni­ver­si­ties. For instance, I have asked my HCI stu­dents to fol­low your #inf4350 hash­tag as well as our own :), ulti­mate­ly enabled them to see what sort of stuff has been dis­cussed in a HCI course in dif­fer­ent uni­ver­si­ty.
    Also, our stu­dents were assessed by hav­ing a week­ly learn­ing jour­nal (they were encour­aged to keep that as a web blog), and it was quite inter­est­ing to see they com­ment and tweet about each oth­er posts.
    Of course not every stu­dents par­tic­i­pat­ed, but I think it made a sig­nif­i­cant learn­ing out­come for those who were inter­est­ed in the course.

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