Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Twitter Failure

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!


  1. Though I have yet to experience a situation that has integrated class credit with social media this does not seem to be the worst of ideas. It shouldn't be discarded after a few failed trials, especially with the upper level courses. A few scholarly friends and I often share articles and have piece-meal discussions about the content of the articles over twitter as a way to keep the mind sharp and up to date on our academic interests day in and day out. I have found that keeping my mind consistently engaged in the academic realm outside of the classroom has accounted for a substantial increase in the confidence I have when researching an issue and then explaining/defending the conclusions drawn from what I learned. This will come in handy as I further my academic pursuits and would be of value to any person who wants a sense of academic independence later on in life. Whether it be at GWU coffee and controversy, your place of business, or at a graduate level institution most people can not simply rely on the safety net of other's ideas and expect to become anything more than what everyone else has already become. Having an environment outside of the classroom where academics of the same interests can discuss questions and topics is almost essential in the growth of the students as delve deeper into their area of future profession. Twitter provides a quick and easy information highway that connects most students. Issues of privacy and separation between social and academic worlds can be solved by creating alternate accounts that serve different purposes. On another note, why any student be taken aback by the proposition of showing off intellectual savvy in a pool of friends and family is unknown to me so with that I end this fairly long and hopefully somewhat encouraging comment.

  2. Here's my write up from an attempt a few years ago. I used twitter in a slightly different fashion - my goal was to have students seek out and engage news and commentary and bring it back to class with them. Mixed results. https://ethnohistorian.wordpress.com/2011/05/13/tweeting-indigenism/

    1. Thanks for the link. It looks like your students learned several important lessons about how and why to use technology. That's very much worthwhile in itself. In fact, all of the problems you had with your assignment seem to be valuable teachable moments. I suspect that if you repeated the assignment, you would not need to devote a full day to acquainting students with the medium. Thanks again for posting.

  3. Thanks for reporting on your experience! It can be hard to admit that an experiment failed in such a public forum, but so, so helpful for sharing and developing teaching strategies. We should all do this more often.

  4. Experienced the same thing this year, with the same results.

  5. I have had almost the exact same experience this semester. Most of my students don't use Twitter and the ones that do, view it as a medium of information consumption instead of dialogue. In response, I have lowered my expectations of integrating Twitter into the classroom. I mainly use it for class announcements or to send popular press articles I think some students will find interesting.

  6. I love using Twitter in the classroom, but I am not interested in attaching it to graded assignments. We tweet civil rights workers we study, look up organizations, ask @GrammarGirl questions, all kinds of things. I love it, and so do students. I've never had a bad experience with it, students are more engaged in the classroom, and I get to expand my understanding of their digital learning ecosystem by using not only Twitter, but all kinds of social media (YouTube is socia media) and devices in the learning and teaching process.