These are lessons from a case of Twitter Failure.
This semester I integrated Twitter into teaching an upper level course on Early America and introductory courses. I was inspired by the remarkable digital pedagogy of our blogmeister Ben Wright and an ongoing forum at my University on the value of moving beyond the classroom.
The idea was this: move conversations on issues raised in class into the twitterverse. From my Twitter account (@drjosephmoore) I shared articles and webpages related to our weekly topics. Students earned credit by retweeting links and engaging in conversations about them. They could also earn credit by finding and tweeting articles of their own. I encouraged students to interact with one another by conversing about how this information fit with what we learned, making witty comments, and engaging the process in general. Emailing me a review of their experience with and thoughts on the article and conversation from each tweet cued me to log in their credit.
This proved to be a complete disaster. I've canceled the assignment for one course, and in others modified it to simply reading linked articles and emailing responses to the professor.
I spent time asking my students to do a post-mortem on our short-lived Twitter experiment. Here are their observations (and mine).
- Far more students do NOT have twitter accounts and smart phones than we might think. That's right- many millennials aren't always on top of the most popular technologies. For some, this is a lifestyle choice - they either do not enjoy the constant sense of connectivity, or have never migrated from Facebook into other sharing platforms. For many, however, it is economic. Especially if your institution draws significantly from working class families, you might be surprised how few of them find smart phones a wise investment. This surprised me, given research that suggests nearly 80% of 18-22 year olds own this technology. It shouldn't have, though. I boxed out at least 20% of students from a major class assignment.
- Students with Twitter accounts, especially the most active, felt intruded upon. Twitter is a social medium for them, not an academic one. Forcing students to insert classroom discussion into their out of class lives was seen (at best) as awkward and (at worst) as invasive. It was like I walked into their dorms late at night and spontaneously asked them to explain to friends what thoughts they had on the Atlantic Slave Trade. These students wanted academic life and social life to remain separate digital spaces.
- Ultimately, the entire exercise foundered on a set of cumbersome and unclear guidelines. Students were confused. Should they retweet an article if a fellow student already had done so, or should they comment on the retweet? How long should they wait before deciding a conversation was "dead," and how often should they comment. More often than not, everything felt forced and unnatural because students were in these conversation for class credit only, and not because they were genuinely interested in sustaining a dialogue outside of class.
Perhaps I'll take another foray into Twitter teaching. If I do I've learned some lessons. My take aways were:
- be crystal clear with students about what is expected of them. Anticipate how confusing things get with so many students interacting with the professor, each other, and followers not connected to your class.
- do not expect students to integrate academic life into their social world easily.
- perhaps try class-specific projects that direct students to a class blog. This is what the project mentioned above did. That way students are active beyond the classroom but retain the structure and boundaries of academic life.
- Know your student population and the limits of their digital literacy before creating the assignment. Teaching digital literacy & etiquette might well be part of the assignment itself.
- Consider detaching Twitter activity from class credit. Volume goes up. Quality goes down. No one seems to enjoy the exercise.
What about you? Do you have good or bad experiences you could share about teaching with Twitter? We'd love to read your comments!