Teaching With Twitter: Not for the Faint of Heart

Students are emboldened, but they can also hijack discussions

Jeffrey R. Young

Sugato Chakravarty, a professor of consumer sciences and retailing at Purdue University, has welcomed Twitter into the lecture hall, even though the service lets students engage in back-channel discussions.
November 22, 2009

Maybe Sugato Chakravarty should wear a helmet to class. The professor of consumer sciences and retailing at Purdue University repeatedly attempts the instructional equivalent of jumping a motorcycle over a row of flaming barrels.

OK, asking 250 students to post questions on Twitter during a class doesn't risk life or limb. But it can cause ego damage if the mob of students in his course on personal finance gets disorderly online.

He has given them the power to do just that. As Mr. Chakravarty paces the front of a stadium-style lecture hall, wearing a wireless microphone to make sure his lecture reaches the nosebleed seats, some students crack jokes anonymously in an official Web forum. The course is one of two at Purdue that are testing homemade software called Hotseat, which lets students key in questions from their cellphones or laptops, using Twitter or Facebook.

A constant stream of comments, often tangential, accompanies his talks. An incident of cheating came up early in the semester—a student asked classmates for a quiz answer. During one session this month, students took over the back channel to ask the professor to cancel class Thanksgiving week so they could have a longer vacation. "So with 41 votes are we not having class that monday of Thanksgiving?" asked one hopeful student after others had endorsed the sentiment. (The class is still on.)

The moment is telling. Opening up a Twitter-powered channel in class—which several professors at other universities are experimenting with as well—alters classroom power dynamics and signals to students that they're in control. Fans of the approach applaud technology that promises to change professors' role from "sage on the stage" to "guide on the side." Those phrases are familiar to education reformers, who have long argued that colleges must make education more interactive to hold the interest of today's students.

The unanswered question, though, is whether that theory can work in practice, in a room packed primar ily with 18- to 22-year-olds who can seem more interested in high grades than in high-mindedness.

That uncertainty actually excites Mr. Chakravarty and other daredevil professors attempting this teaching trick. "You are vulnerable out there," he said when I talked with him in his office after class. "Students really don't hold back. If you say something wrong or something that they don't agree with, then they'll let you know, and everybody else will see it."

Many colleagues are watching such experiments with a mix of curiosity and disbelief to see how the professors land.

Students seem to love the chance to make their voices heard in class without having to actually speak. About 75 percent of the students make use of Hotseat, even though it is not required.

Emboldened Students

As one student, Ben Van Wye, told me, "I'm not that outspoken in class, so I would never ask a question out loud to the professor. But you can type it in as anonymous, so nobody really knows if what you're asking is a dumb question."

That anonymity leads to questions the professor says he never heard before in a course he has taught for years. But it has also raised new issues of classroom management.

Early in the semester, for instance, there was the cheating incident. While students were taking a short multiple-choice quiz, a student asked his classmates—anonymously, he thought—for an answer via Twitter. But the way Purdue set up its home-built software, students must log in to use the system. Mr. Chakravarty could identify the student, even though the tweet was labeled "anonymous" in the view that students saw. Busted.

"So I called him into my office and said, 'Don't do that, it's cheating,'" said the professor. "And he started crying and said he'd never do it again."

At other times, lecture topics have been pulled in unexpected directions. On the day I sat in on the class, the topic was car insurance. Mr. Chakravarty was telling students that getting married usually lowers your insurance rate when a student typed in a clever question that caused one of the teaching assistants, Adam Hagen, to laugh out loud. The professor stopped his lecture midsentence to ask Mr. Hagen what the students were up to.

"There's a question here that says, 'What happens if you get married, and then you get divorced at 24—would your insurance go back up?'" said Mr. Hagen, prompting laughter from students. The answer, apparently, is no, as the TA explained aloud to the class. "So if you want to get married for the sake of having lower insurance, go right ahead," he said playfully.

Though the lecture then turned to other issues, students in the course continued to joke on Hotseat about the idea that someone would get married for an insurance discount. Wrote one anonymous student: "I drive a mustang and need cheaper insurance, any lucky ladies need a husband?"

"That happens," said Mr. Chakravarty after class, when I told him about the chatter that had been going on under his nose. "You have some meaningless stuff, but it's followed by some very good questions that would never be asked."

He usually stops his lecture a couple of times during class to address questions on Hotseat, he said. At first he stood at the lectern glancing at the screen frequently as he spoke, but that proved too distracting.

I asked him if he thinks the system shifts too much control to students. He said students in class are online or texting on their phones anyway, so why not try to channel that energy to class discussion? "To force them to behave in a certain way is not respect," he said. "If you want respect, you have to earn it. To mandate respect is stupid."

I asked Mr. Van Wye, the student, whether some students end up derailing class sessions thanks to Hotseat. "Yeah, perhaps, because sometimes you have people writing funny comments, and we have to stop and kind of acknowledge that it happened," he said. "And sometimes that takes away from it a little bit."

On balance, though, he would vote to keep the software: "It does more good than it does hurt."

Potential for Disaster?

Monica A. Rankin, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas, ran a similar experiment last semester, using Twitter as a back channel during an American-history class with 90 students.

"There is certainly the potential for disaster," she agreed when I reached her on her cellphone last week. During one class session about abortion, for instance, students began an argument on Twitter that Ms. Rankin characterized only as "nonproductive and nonacademic." She said her teaching assistant quickly brought the flame war to her attention, and "we basically kind of changed topics at that point."

The university produced a video about Ms. Rankin's class that makes Twitter seem like the next great revolution in teaching—it conveniently leaves out any downsides.

Ms. Rankin made clear that she approached Twitter cautiously—this daredevil professor did wear a virtual helmet. The class met three days a week, but only one part of one session each week involved the back-channel discussion. "The rest was a traditional format," she said.

Only two or three out of 90 students in the class said they had used Twitter previously, so some time was sapped helping them sign up for accounts and get used to the technology. And because some students did not like to bring laptops to class, and some had cellphone plans that charged them for each tweet, the professor decided to offer a decidedly low-tech alternative: Students could write their questions or comments on slips of paper and hand them to the teaching assistant, who then typed the messages into Twitter.

The details of the experiment are available on Ms. Rankin's blog.

Her conclusion is that the experiment went pretty well (no real disasters), but that setting up a back channel is not for every professor, or every course.

"Instructors in the classroom really have to teach toward their personalities," she said. "Colleagues have told me there is no way they would do this in their class—this would make them uncomfortable."

For now, they'll leave it to the daredevils.