How To Use Twitter As a Teaching Tool

This is a Guest Post by Ari Kohen. Ari is a political theory professor at University of Nebraska who has been actively using Twitter as a tool to support and to enrich the learning experience. Ari shares his experiences on using Twitter for teaching.

Ari is author of In Defense of Human Rights, published Spring 2007. Articles appeared recently in Human Rights Review (2005) and the Journal of Human Rights (2006). He was awarded the 2006 Irmgard Coninx Foundation Research Fellowship which included three months of study in Germany where he had an office at the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin fur Sozialforschung. He is currently working on a book-length project, The Moral Hero and the Mortal Hero, as well as articles on both restorative justice and the death penalty.

Things I Learned This Semester:

1. Promote your class and encourage people to engage

Work hard to get more people to follow the conversation before the class begins. The more people who follow the class, the more likely that people from the “outside world” (people not taking the class) will add their comments alongside those of the students.

2. Topics that are outside the scope of Twitter’s mainstream coverage don’t get critical mass or engagement.

Very few people from the “outside world” are willing to put forward a comment. This seems to be the case whether someone is in the class or just observing, though I would have expected that everyone would be interested in participating (given how much participation I generally see on Twitter in general)

3. People care about looking smart with their tweets more than engaging in conversation

There’s not nearly as much “testing” of ideas as I’d envisioned. For reasons I can’t entirely figure out, the stakes seem to be rather high for everyone. People only want to write something if they think it will seem “smart” or “right”.

4. Ask open ended questions

My questions might be overly specific. In order to have a discussion, a balance needs to be achieved between the specifics of the readings from class and the kind of generalizing that allows people to test out ideas related to the topics covered in the reading.

5. Engage inside and outside Twitter at the same level

People might need to be reading along. The discussion might not take off if only some of the people are reading the books and paying attention to the questions/answers on Twitter which also emphasizes the next point.

6. Twitter isn’t a part of enough people’s daily lives.

The vast majority of my students don’t check Twitter on a regular basis, which means that the conversation moves by fits and starts (or sometimes not at all).

7. Twitter’s real-time speed might be a burden for students

Students have complained that they can’t keep up. Despite the fact that we’re only getting between five and ten posts with the #pols386 hashtag, a majority of the class feels overwhelmed by the volume of messages and the speed of the discussion, largely because they’re only checking Twitter once a week (or less often)

8. The conversation is always about the latest tweet not the most important or interesting

Conversations die out after a day or two. The way that the class account is set up seems to discourage the continuation of conversation about Question A once Question B has been asked. My sense is that this isn’t because Question A (and its related answers) stopped being interesting, but because attention from the regular Twitter users shifts to the newer Question B and the occasional users don’t bother posting about something old; if they’re going to contribute, it’ll be on the most recent topic.

9. Twitter’s power is collaboration (hive-mind like) and conversation (discussion)

Students have begun posting their own content. More and more, students are adding their own contributions rather than simply answering questions that I put forward. Often, this takes the form of links to articles or YouTube content that relates to something we discussed in class or on Twitter. Occasionally it even takes the form of testing out an idea for a paper and getting suggestions from classmates.

10. Students like the idea of Twitter and, even if they don’t use it all that often now, they will later.

Students have generally expressed their approval of and interest in the Twitter experiment. In a short, anonymous mid-semester evaluation, the vast majority of students wrote that the Twitter component was something they liked (even if they didn’t use it as much as they might have done).

Conclusion

While there’s certainly less posting to Twitter at this point in the semester than there was at the beginning of the semester, my sense is that students will continue to use the service in the remaining month and that, perhaps, they might end up posting more in the coming weeks than in the past because the readings become a bit more relatable and a bit less dense.

My sense is that what I’ve observed so far this semester can only help me to improve the concept in coming semesters, as I’ll certainly use Twitter again the next time I teach this contemporary political theory course. Of course, I’ll also be taking suggestions – from current and former students, as well as from Twitter users – about whether or not to try it in one of my courses next semester, where it might make less of an obvious case for itself.

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