Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Using Twitter in the classroom

By Tamara Letkeman, doug Editor

Feb. 1 was the first-ever Digital Learning Day, a celebration of the role of technology in education. Thousands of teachers and more than a million and a half students took part in webcasts and myriad other events across the United States to showcase how digital technologies enhance learning.

At Douglas College, a number of instructors have embraced tools such as Facebook, podcasting, blogging and Twitter to better connect with their students, share information and more. We asked a few of them to tell us about their experience using one specific social media platform – Twitter – in the classroom.

Twitter as a broadcast tool

Tad McIlraith, an Anthropology instructor, is the “tweeter” for @douglasanth, the Twitter feed for the Department of Anthropology. Tad uses Twitter as a broadcast tool for sending out links to news stories and blog posts relevant to his classes. He usually adds a hashtag, followed by the course number, to his tweets (for example, if he’s teaching Anthropology 1160, he tags related tweets with #A1160). This makes it easy if he wants to search for particular stories for particular classes.

“Frequently, I have the Twitter feed up on the screen at the front of the room as students arrive,” Tad says.“I then spend three or four minutes reviewing the recent news related to the course. While some students ‘follow’ the feed, most simply visit the site if there are stories they want to read. Since you don’t need a Twitter account to see the feed, Twitter makes for a convenient way to share with users and non-users alike.”

Twitter as a discussion tool

One semester, Tad set up a class-specific account, with the intention of inviting students to discuss course material via Twitter, both inside and outside of class time. He hoped to use the feed as a way of collecting responses to questions he raised in class. But it didn’t work, for two reasons: not enough students were using Twitter, and many students were not using laptops or smartphones in class. 

“In sum, a department or class-based Twitter account makes a great deal of sense if you find yourself referring students to news stories and current events on the web, if you want to broadcast information about events, or want an alternative way for students to reach you,” he says. “But it requires some dedication – an unused Twitter account is an un-followed Twitter account.”

Twitter as a communication tool

Brenna Gray, an English instructor, uses Twitter as an alternative means for students to get a hold of her, but says she wishes the “uptake for Twitter was better with students at the College.”

“It's great for quick info about course web space updates and such,” Brenna says. “I've always used some means of instant communication with students, and there's always been a small portion of students who vastly prefer it. But our students prefer Facebook, so I'm trying to make better use of that resource instead.”

Meanwhile, Kevin Ginnell, a Political Science instructor, says his experiments with Twitter have fallen flat. Last spring, in the run-up to the federal election, he instructed his students to contact the various federal campaigns and local candidates using social media, including Twitter.

“The only response we received was from one of the federal campaigns wondering why we were trying to reach them,” he says.“This led us to believe that as a campaign instrument, Twitter’s role is definitely in its infancy and may be, at this point, overstated.”

Do you have instructors who use social media or other digital technologies in the classroom? What do you think about it?