David Wilson teaches literature and writing courses in the Mount’s English Department and is interested in the uses of social media in teaching. Last year, in collaboration with St. Mary’s University staff, he designed an app for the study of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. This fall, his open Twitter class during Celebrating Writing Week at the Mount was the subject of an article in the MSVU student publication Symmetry. In this guest post, Professor Wilson explains further why he likes teaching with Twitter.
Teaching with Twitter
Margaret Atwood, Douglas Coupland, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and Chuck Palahniuk. What do they have in common? Besides being good writers, they are all active on Twitter.
In May 2012 American author Jennifer Egan (whose novel A Visit from the Goon Squad won the 2011 Pulitzer and National Book Awards) performed a fascinating experiment on Twitter. Over the course of 10 nights she serialized a short story called “Black Box” in sentences of 140 characters or fewer. Each night, between 8 pm and 9 pm, she tweeted instalments of the story to her followers; this incremental design of 1-2 sentences at a time made the prose assume an almost poetic feel.
Recently, Canadian astronaut Chris Hadfield was asked by Star Trek actor William Shatner if he was tweeting from outer space. From the international space station Commander Hadfield replied: “Yes, standard orbit, Captain. And we`re detecting signs of life of the surface.” Life imitating art.
Besides being a way to stay in contact with friends and family, Twitter is a source of news, self-promotion, art, and just plain fun. But how does it work as a teaching tool in the classroom? For two years I’ve been using Twitter in a variety of ways in several classes. I’ve tried it by offering a bonus point question to students as a Twitter treasure hunt and plan to use it soon as an option instead of an essay, where a student can create a Twitter feed based on the characters in a novel. Thus far, I can report that this social media site has value as a resource for instructors and students.
Some might think that Twitter is little more than an extra layer of communication for a course, a chaotic distraction, or nothing but inane chatter. This real-time microblog’s advantages, however, outweigh its disadvantages. Here are my reasons why I think this:
- Twitter is cost effect–it’s free to use.
- It’s user-friendly and easy to set up an account.
- It’s casual and conversational in its tone, encouraging personal expression.
- It adds an extra venue for students to contribute to class discussion.
- It’s interactive, fostering replies and demonstrating the social aspects of knowledge.
- It serves as a study guide that students can refer to over a term.
- It can be a place to collaborate on projects and cross-fertilize ideas.
- It’s an exercise in being clever and concise (i.e, editing).
- It’s easily accessible on a laptop or smartphone app.
From an instructor’s point of view, Twitter offers me many avenues to reach students and make a topic more meaningful. Here are some of the things I’ve tweeted in my classes so far:
- Sent reminders about due dates, quizzes.
- Given updates about office hours and made announcements about readings.
- Asked a daily question before a class starts.
- Provided tips on essay writing.
- Give a quotation or word of the day.
- Provided feedback on work.
- Uploaded images, attached weblinks to material related to the course.
- Added intriguing trivia about the material we’ve studying.
- Hosted a discussion.
- Started a debate on a pressing issue.
- Taken a poll.
- Promoted events on campus.
- Retweeted other worthwhile tweets.
- And even included the occasional personal message so students don’t think I’m a bot.
If Twitter is properly integrated into a classroom with a clear policy, guidelines, and goals it can enrich the teaching experience for the instructor and enhance the learning experience for students. It’s a tool to increase participation and develop a sense of community. All you need to do is set up a class hashtag (#ENGL2112) and use your imagination. I’ve been thinking about getting students in my Literature class to follow an author we’re reading and report on their Twitter feed. Or, I might get them to monitor current trends on Twitter or key literary terms. I could have students personify a character from The Canterbury Tales or assume the identity of an author like Jane Austen and tweet. They might give a haiku review of a book or summarize a lecture in 140 characters. I’m presently working on how they can design a brief Twitter horoscope for characters in a Shakespeare play.
Last fall, I set up a Twitter discussion on visual argumentation and made the session an open class for anyone to follow. I projected the Twitter steam on a screen in class so we could all see the comments from the class and others outside the room. A series of images were distributed in the class and uploaded to Twitter, and a hashtag was created to organize the event. For over an hour students tweeted their comments, questions, links, and replies about the rhetoric of images. It started off slowly, but the discussion soon gained momentum. The online environment seemed to allow all students to play a larger role in the discussion. The feedback from the my students was overwhelmingly positive. Judging by the number of students who chose to respond to a question on the exam regarding visual argumentation, I’d say that the event helped them better understand the concept.
I could probably say more about my experiences with Twitter in the classroom, but I am way over the 140 character limit.
You can follow David on Twitter: @DavidRWilson1