#engagement: Integrating Twitter into Your Course

Author: 
Joe Mahan, Associate Professor & Chair, Department of Sport and Recreation Management, STHM, @dr_marshmallow

Maintaining (or Increasing) Engagement in the Classroom

Maintaining student engagement in the classroom has long been a challenge in higher education; students dozing off or daydreaming is certainly not a new phenomenon. However, with the introduction of technology (e.g., smartphones, tablets) into everyday life, along with the plethora of content available (e.g., apps, websites), the potential is higher than ever for students to become distracted during class. Yet, some have offered that certain innovations, such as social media, can be used to increase student interaction and engagement.

 

Making a Case for Twitter

Exciting! Messy! Tentative!  This is how Twitter has been described when applied in an education setting. Those who exist in the Twitterverse (as it’s called) understand that those words are an accurate reflection of the 140-character world.

 

Exciting!

The widespread use by millennials would suggest that Twitter has the potential to become an important part of today’s classroom environment. According to survey research I’ve conducted each semester, more than 60% of my students have reported feeling more included and engaged in the course as a result of using Twitter. Students seem to enjoy Twitter-based class discussions; one common theme I’ve found is that it allows some students to come out of their shell (e.g., ‘a great way to participate without having to speak in class’). Indeed, finding an alternative method to increase student participation and engagement in class truly is exciting.

 

Messy!

As with employing any new technology, this platform has its fair share of challenges. I often tell people that technology is great…until it’s not. In a general sense, Twitter operates in real time; as such, in order to use it, one relies on the ability to access the site (or app). Though rare, I have experienced a crash of Twitter. While not the end of the world, it can be quite frustrating if one is conducting a synchronous discussion during a specified time window. Other issues can be placed in the ‘user error’ category. In Twitter lingo, a hashtag—denoted by a pound sign (e.g., #engagement)—is a label used for identifying tweets related to the topic. If the hashtag is omitted, then the tweet can be difficult to find. When conducting a class discussion on Twitter, it can become quite unwieldy if not everyone is using the correct hashtag.

 

Tentative!

While there are quite a few advocates extolling the use of Twitter in higher ed, there is no one claiming that it is a ‘magic elixir’ for increasing student engagement. First and foremost, not all faculty use Twitter. As with any new instructional tool or technique, we must first get beyond our own unfamiliarity in order to use it in class. Certainly, there is not a steep learning curve to creating a Twitter account and doing the basics; however, it does take some time to become an expert at navigating the Twittersphere. This may come as a shock to some—not all students use Twitter. While society often (unfairly) paints millennials with a broad brush (‘they are all social media savvy’) this simply is not the case. With this challenge comes the need to make the use of Twitter comfortable to all students. Related to this is the hesitation that some—faculty and students alike—have regarding a blurring of the line between the classroom and the personal, social space of Twitter. In fact, some students even voice a reluctance of using a personal Twitter account for class. This is a very real concern and must be taken into consideration. 

 

I take a two-pronged approach to addressing this particular issue: 1) encourage students to create a class-specific Twitter account; 2) adhere to a policy of never following a student’s personal account (I’d rather not read their random musings or see pictures of what they did last Saturday night.) One final note on tentativeness…some colleagues have told me that a class is ‘too big’ or ‘too small’ to employ Twitter.  I feel that this platform can be used in classes of all sizes (and disciplines). I have used it in classes of 5-50 and soon will incorporate it into a class of 100+.  One professor at Virginia Tech, John Boyer, includes a pretty cool Twitter-based assessment in his World Geography class with enrollment of over 3,000 students!

 

A ‘How To’ Guide to Twitter in the Classroom

Educause, an organization devoted to promoting the effective use of technology in education has compiled a list of  best practices of using Twitter in the classroom. I have employed Twitter in both synchronous and asynchronous activities; here are a few:

  • Continue the Conversation: Through the use of a specified hashtag (e.g., #STHM3224), I encourage students to tweet interesting articles/facts/stories related to course content as they come across it. I will typically retweet as well as share the information in the next class meeting. This approach allows for an extension of the conversations beyond the time and space limitations of the classroom.

  • One Tweet Reflections: A 21st Century twist on The Minute Paper, I often employ this right before class ends. This activity allows students not only to reflect on what they took away from that day’s lesson, but provides each student the opportunity to read what others learned as well.

  • Small Group Discussions: In some courses, I have migrated in-class discussions to Twitter—an overwhelming favorite of my students. These typically feature 5 to 10 students per group, last approximately 50 minutes, and have a per student minimum number of tweets. I have found this to evoke discussions that are often more engaging than those in the classroom.

  • Post-Lecture Tasks: In online/hybrid courses, many of my recorded lectures feature a post-lecture task: students must search for a real world example of a concept discussed in the lecture then send a tweet (using the course hashtag). Twitter is particularly great for this activity because it allows students to share images, videos, or URLs in order to demonstrate their understanding.

 

So, give it a try.  I promise it will be both exciting and messy…and that’s a good thing. Overcome the tentativeness—both that of the students and your own—and let the #engagement begin.

 

Let’s Exchange EDvice!

What are some ways that you have or could use Twitter to engage students in your courses?

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