Twitter in the classroom

Astute readers may have noticed something different about the tweets displayed on the right side of my home page. My short transmissions about food, always frequent, have now taken over the feed. New names appear in my mentions, and the mysterious hashtag #GSR150 accompanies most of my posts.

Well, I’d like to share what I’m doing and some reflections on the project.

In a nutshell, I have worked Twitter into the curriculum of my General Studies 150 class. The course is entitled “La Vida Local: Examining Local Food and Farmers Markets in D.C.,” and is my take on the wonderfully flexible requirements for this course, namely that I use the theme “City as Text” and that I help students develop a foundation of academic research and writing skills.

Better than mucking through dry scholarly articles from an academic database to learn about our topic, I  decided the students would build their knowledge through the Twitterverse. In addition to weekly readings and classroom activities, I gave them a Twitter to-do list. It included setting up an account, adding a bio and photo, and following a list of food markets and organizations focused on sustainable edibles. Most of my iPhone-wielding, Instagram-loving undergrads mastered this handily. But then came the requirement that would prove contentious and sometimes downright loathed: Tweet every day.

We have reached the midpoint of the semester. Right now, I can only tell you that I have evidence to support two theses: 1) that Twitter is well-suited to higher education and 2) that Tweets plus classrooms equals disaster. Confused? Welcome to the club. I’ll expand on these ideas a bit.

Ways Twitter is suited to higher education

First off, I have discovered that Twitter conventions fit beautifully with academic interactions. Perhaps they even have the power to improve upon them.

How could that be? Take a line you might find in an article or panel discussion:

This will be of special interest to those following food safety breaches: Dr. Gertrude Collins points out in her article in this month’s Science that most pathogens in food are both odorless and tasteless.

In a Twitter feed, it would look like this:

Pathogens in food both odorless and tasteless RT @ProfCollins My new article reveals hidden dangers http://www.sciencemag…. #foodsafety.

Though the second version is less accessible to the uninitiated, you have to admit that mentions (the “@”+name, indicating another Twitter user) and hashtags (“#” plus a term, which allows users to search for others talking about the same topic) render the same message in a concise package. And this little bundle can reach millions of people in an instant.

In my experience, students catch on to this instantly. It was actually one of my kids who came up with the idea of the #GSR150 hashtag. In a few days, most of the others started appending the searchable term to their own tweets.

That proves that academic tweeting can also work on the class level. Colleagues have shared their success with online discussion boards, in which students mull the course readings together.  Two profs I know require students to both mention another’s comment and add a new idea when they contribute — and each student must post at least once per reading. I hope to apply this idea to my class Twitter project soon.

In addition to fitting naturally with academic discourse, Twitter allows users to focus on specialized topics. Blogs about pancakes? Organizations devoted to SNAP policy? You name the niche, and one can find dozens of tweeps sharing about it. So when my students split off to research their final papers, each can develop a specific list of his or her own.

Ways Twitter is a disaster in higher education

I started to tweet in 2009, which is an eternity ago in what Prof. Hacker would call “internet years.” I had never experienced online bullying or slander. Spam accounts were easy to spot. My motivation to learn was simple and enticing: Money. The more hits I attracted to my Examiner.com articles, the more cash I earned for my writing. All I had to do was come up with catchy hooks of 100-ish characters and then paste a link to the latest story (in those days, the whole link counted against your character limit. Yes, and we had to type uphill both ways!)

I first tested the Twitter-plus-classroom equation last spring semester, and so much confusion and noncompliance ensued that I downsized the Twitter component of the class. The following semester, I completely dropped it. Now I’m trying again, and the biggest student concerns are that this is neither safe nor simple — not safe due to the very real dangers that accompany any social media interaction (several students told me they disabled or locked Facebook accounts after bad experiences), and not simple because it turns out that stepping into a new communication paradigm, deciphering an unfamiliar language, and devising a short, pithy statement related to sustainable food or D.C. food markets every single day can prove a tad overwhelming.  I’m still unsure if I made the right decision.

As we move forward, I hope to find more articles like this and this on the topic and keep up with what others are doing. I clearly have many more tweeps to follow.

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