Teaching with Twitter; or, Adventures in Student Engagement

If you had told me three years ago that I would someday not only be using Twitter in my classes, but that I would also be writing a blog post on what an incredible experience it’s been, I probably would have told you a thousand reasons why that couldn’t possibly be true.  I wasn’t very adept with technology, I didn’t have the time, students probably wouldn’t be into it, etc.  The list would have gone on, I’m sure.

Yet here I am.

This is my second year of incorporating the social media platform in my classes, and doing so has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made as a teacher.  Why?  The level of student engagement in these classes is the highest I’ve ever seen, and–as a result–students have been performing exceptionally well.

There are lots of ways to use Twitter in the classroom.  Some, like my Mason colleague Mark Sample (who will–sadly for us, happily for him–be moving to Davidson College after this semester), utilize Twitter for individual assignments like live-tweeting a film.  Others use Twitter over the course of the semester for the purposes of student engagement.  I have done both, but I have used Twitter mostly to further students’ discussion of the texts we are studying in class.

I began the process of integrating Twitter into my classes last spring when I taught a general education Western Literature class, and I’ve continued to use it this semester in English 320: Literature of the Middle Ages.  Here is the section of my syllabus where I talk about Twitter:

The social media site Twitter has been gaining tremendous currency in the academic world as an instrument for sharing information, commenting on issues related to higher education, addressing issues in one’s particular field, etc.  As such, it has achieved acclaim for its use as a pedagogical tool to extend the work of the classroom.  We are going to use Twitter in this course as a complement to our other activities and to augment the analytical work of the class.  Beyond its relevance to the coursework, though, you are encouraged to explore the site as to its possibilities for professional networking for yourselves.  Certainly follow me (@joshua_r_eyler) and the other members of the class, but also follow leaders in your field.  Make connections!

Although we will sometimes use Twitter in the classroom, the bulk of your Twitter activity will take place outside of class.  You will be required to tweet a minimum of five times per week.  The only guidelines for tweets are:  1) they must have something to do with the class (i.e. a response to the reading, a link to a related article, a question, etc.); 2) they must be substantive; and 3) they must be respectful.  In addition to reading your tweets on a regular basis, I will be using an online archiving tool to keep track of Twitter activity.

You must use the hashtag #LitMA320 in your tweets so that they register as being a part of our class discussion.  Any tweets that do not incorporate this hashtag will not be counted, because the website will not record their activity.

I will hold a Twitter tutorial on the second day of class to answer any questions you might have.

This Twitter activity will be graded on a pass/fail basis.  If you tweet the requisite number of times (5 tweets per week X 15 weeks = 75 total tweets), then you will receive an A for this assignment.  If not, you will receive an F.

The students have really embraced this assignment in ways I never could have predicted.  It’s turned out to be both an extension of class discussions, which is what I originally envisioned, and a place to explore medieval literature, culture, and society in ways that we might never have broached in the classroom.  For example, students tweeted a lot about the discovery of Richard III’s skeleton in an English car park.  This led to a vibrant discussion in the next class, which probably would have never occurred had the tweets not piqued the students’ interests.  Please check out our hashtag, #LitMA320, if you would like to see more of the discussion that has unfolded over the course of the semester.

I also incorporated a more specific Twitter activity during our study of Chaucer’s Knight’s Tale.  In lieu of a more traditional discussion, I asked students to do this:

1.  Describe your overall interpretation of the Knight’s Tale.  You can use up to 3 tweets for this, but no more.  Concision is the key here!  If you want to connect information from one tweet to the next, use the + sign at the end of a tweet.

2.  In no more than 5 tweets, discuss the evidence (including line numbers) you would use to justify this interpretation.

3.  Use an additional 5 tweets to comment on other colleagues’ arguments.

Note:  Be sure to use our #LitMA320 hashtag on all of your tweets.  The hashtag will also help you to locate the work of your colleagues.

Students had a lot of fun with this, and the results were phenomenal!  I was so impressed with the sophistication of their insights.

In short, it’s fair to say I’m a definite convert.  I plan to use Twitter in all my classes (including graduate student professional development seminars), and I hope to try new approaches to assignments as well.  I have discovered just how powerful the platform can be as a learning tool, and–as a teacher–that’s more important than anything else.