02 March 2009

Teaching with Twitter

Twitter is definitely the flavour of the moment. And I’ve succumbed, adding it to this blog, with the original idea that students could use it to check whether I’m in my office or not.

Recently, Twitter head honcho and Blogger creator Evan Williams gave a TED talk (below), which ends with an examination of Twitter feeds about his talk, which prompted this article about Twittering during presentations, which prompted this tweet, which led to me writing this post.

Currently, I ban laptops from my classes, but I use clickers to ask questions and tally feedback.

Now, it’s dead easy to Twitter from a mobile phone. Most Twitter users do it that way instead of through a computer. And I’m willing to bet that 99% of my students have a phone within reach during my lectures.

Consider this scenario. An instructor is giving a talk. When the instructor wants a question answered, students Twitter their response instead of using clickers. Ideally, this would involve some software that could recognize some special symbol or code associated with a class, so that responses could be tallied and a graph could be generated on the fly. I’m guessing that such software isn't out of reach for good programmers. Conceptually, it seems actually pretty simple.

As suggested in the article, students are encouraged to send in their questions by Twitter, which the instructor can check periodically. This allows her to address questions that students have on the fly.

“But why don’t students in the room... you know... stick up their hands and just ask a question?”

First, never underestimate how intimidated students are of their instructor. (I’m becoming ever more convinced this is one of the biggest obstacles to learning.)

Second, sticking up your hand and speaking out gets harder to do as the class gets bigger. If there’s a class of, say, 200 students in a lecture theatre, students may worry that their questions will disrupt the flow of the lecture. This is a legitimate concern. I think everyone will have seen a moment where an instructor can’t answer a question quickly, or some student has something important only to them that they’re fixated on, and the instructor says, “Come see me and we’ll talk after class.”

The potential downside to using Twitter while teaching is obvious. People won’t pay attention. I’m totally unconvinced by the claim that Twittering during a talk helps people focus. And while people may think it’s their right to ignore a boring presenter, it’s a really bad thing to happen in a teaching situation.

I wouldn’t try this in a class of 30 students, say, because ultimately, students do need to learn to ask questions by opening their mouths and saying what’s on their mind.

More thoughts on the so-called “backchannel” here, here. Of course, I find these after I’ve pretty much completed the post above, and feel foolish for feeling that I’ve been ignorant of something going on for a while. I didn't even know the word “backchannel” before this week.

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