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Practical Advice for Teaching with Twitter

A Crowded Lecture HallLast week I introduced a pedagogical framework for using Twitter in your teaching, organized along two axes: monologic to dialogic and passive to active. These high-falutin terms are fine for a theoretical matrix, but what about the real life implementation of Twitter in and outside of your classroom? How do you actually do it? I’m going to leave behind the pedagogy (mostly) in this post, and instead offer some practical advice for teaching with Twitter.

I’ll cover six aspects of Twitter integration where it pays to plan ahead of time (i.e. sometime last week): organization, access, frequency, substance, archiving, and assessment. I’ll deal with of each of these areas in turn, but before I do, and if you’re new to Twitter, I want to urge you to read Ryan Cordell’s comprehensive ProfHacker primer on Twitter. Ryan addresses many common questions about Twitter, and his guide is perfect for sharing with colleagues—and students—before you move into the nuts-and-bolts aspects of teaching with Twitter.

Organization

A question I often hear from colleagues interested in using Twitter is Do I have to follow all of my students in order to teach with Twitter? The answer is, blessedly, No, you don’t. Ryan explained both lists and hashtags in his primer; these are two methods of participating in a Twitter conversation without actually following the other participants. As Ryan explained, “following a list does not bring the tweets of all its member into your timeline—instead, the List will become readily available in the right-hand column on your Twitter page.” Ryan also described how hashtags work: by including a word prefixed by what we used to call a “pound sign” (#), you’re able to “tie a particular tweet to a larger, ongoing conversation,” which can be tracked using Twitter’s search function.

Creating a list requires you to manually add each student to the list (think of it as a Twitter Roster), whereas hashtags rely upon students themselves to tag their tweets. My own preference is for hashtags (for example, #eng685, which I’ll be using for an upcoming grad class). The advantage of hashtags is that you and your students can flag only the relevant posts. Those tagged posts will appear in the search feed, while all other non-class-related posts from your students will float down the Twitter stream without you having to pay attention to them.

Access

Social media isn’t social unless people know about it. Your class Twitter list or class hashtag needs to be highly visible for your students. It’s a good idea to provide explicit instructions on accessing the class’s Twitter activity. At the very minimum, direct your students to the list page for your class or the Twitter search results page if you’re using hashtags. And if you have a class blog or wiki, it’s easy enough to include a Twitter widget in a sidebar, which will display the Twitter activity right there on that blog or wiki.

Also encourage your students to use a free application like Seesmic or Tweetdeck. These apps (which are available as desktop clients, web apps, or mobile apps) make it easy to create multiple columns of Twitter activity. So your main stream may be in one column, any replies or mentions of your own Twitter username may be in a second column, and your class’s hashtag can permanently occupy a third column.

Frequency

Another common question I hear is How often should I require my students to tweet? Not to be glib, but the answer is, As often as you want. Or put more seriously, as often as it makes sense for your teaching goals. David Parry has required one weekend of intensive tweeting. Brian Croxall has required one month of tweeting at least once a day. Danielle Stern requires a semester-long Twitter project. There are advantages to requiring multiple daily updates, just as there are advantages to asking only for occasional tweets or for tweet bursts concentrated within a short period of time (such as during a film screening, a technique used by Zach Whalen, which Boone Gorges has eloquently explained).

What’s important is that (1) you match your frequency requirement to your learning objectives, and (2) you make your expectations clear from the outset. Whether you want students to post 3-4 times a week or 3-4 times a day, you need to let them know, and then hold them to it.

As for me, I usually ask students to post to Twitter at least once every other day, a rhythm that allows for ebbs and flows throughout the semester. Students who are naturally inclined toward social media may update more frequently, while students who are resistant to Twitter will still find themselves able to keep pace.

I also allow—and even encourage—students to tweet during class, in an attempt to create a “back channel” to our discussion. This back channel idea has never worked as successfully for me in class as it has at an actual conference. My sense is that students have been drilled to believe that text messaging and the like during class is always frowned upon. I’ve had sputters of a back channel before, and what I saw was promising. So given the right setup, I still hold out hope for spontaneous in-class Twitter use, especially in larger classes.

There’s a final point about frequency to think about: how often are you going to participate in the Twitter conversation? Will you jump in as you feel like it? Will you only respond to tweets addressed to you? Will you simply lurk the whole time as a silent observer? You yourself may not know what role you’ll assume until the class is underway and it just feels right to begin participating in a certain way.

Substance

So you’ve figured out how to organize your students’ tweets, and you’ve told them how often they need to tweet. But what should they tweet? Again, this decision is up to you. I encourage students to think of Twitter as low-stakes writing, as a place to pose adventurous claims or half-baked ideas. Because there are only 140 characters to work with, there’s no way (in a single tweet) to back up what you say. You don’t need to provide evidence for any claim you make, and nobody expects you to, which makes writing on Twitter amazingly liberating.

That said, you don’t necessarily want your #PHIL101 hashtag stream to consist of students writing about what their cats ate for breakfast. This is why I like David Silver’s valuable distinction between thick and thin tweets. As David explains, “thin tweets are posts that convey one layer of information. thick tweets convey two or more, often with help from a hyperlink.” Thick tweets push the conversation forward; they provide something new, something of value, even if it’s only an unanswered question. Thick tweets are what we should hope for from our students.

In my own classes I’ve been deliberately vague about what students should tweet about. I didn’t want overly prescriptive guidelines to constrain what might be possible. Instead, I wanted our integration of Twitter to evolve organically. Given this open-ended invitation, I’ve found students tend to use Twitter for class in three ways:

  1. to post news and share resources relevant to the class;
  2. to ask questions and respond with clarifications about the readings; and
  3. to write sarcastic, irreverent comments about the readings or my teaching.

The first two behaviors add to the community spirit of the class and help to sustain student interest across the days and weeks of the semester. The third behavior, when I first noticed it, was an utterly unexpected finding. (And as I’ve argued elsewhere, it was a good, powerful surprise that legitimated my use of Twitter in and outside of the classroom. I saw students take an oppositional stance in their writing—a welcome reprieve from the majority of student writing, which avoids taking any stance at all.)

Archiving

Paying attention to your class’s activity in a TweetDeck column is one thing. Preserving that activity for posterity—or at least until you want to see the broader contours of the online conversation—is something else altogether. Considering that your class’s tweets may eventually number in the hundreds or the thousands, I strongly recommend creating a permanent Twitter archive. A free service such as TwapperKeeper will track a specified hashtag, collecting the tweets 24/7, and you simply return to TwapperKeeper any time to download the archive. It’s so easy to use that I’ve begun creating TwapperKeeper archives for any hashtag there’s even the slightest chance I’ll be interested in revisiting later.

Another useful archiving tool is called, appropriately enough, The Archivist. Again, the idea is simple: specify a username or hashtag you want to archive, and this desktop program will collect it for you. The Archivist stands apart from TwapperKeeper because it can quickly generate data visualizations, such as a timeline of Twitter usage:

Twitter Timeline from The Archivist

This graph, for example, tells me when students were most active on Twitter (the evening before class, it turns out). The Archivist was designed by a group of programmers at Microsoft, so it’s not surprising that the desktop application is Windows only. Luckily, though, the Microsoft developers have recently unveiled a browser-based version of The Archivist that will work on any platform. Like the desktop version, it generates several useful graphs and charts. The drawback to the web version of The Archivist is that you are limited to three archives at any given time (whereas TwapperKeeper allows an unlimited number of archives).

Whichever archiving option you go with, be sure it allows you to export the archive in a usable format (both TwapperKeeper and The Archivist can export your archive into an Excel or OpenOffice spreadsheet). Once you’ve got the full archive in your hands, you can analyze it with a variety of tools. It’s always enlightening, for example, to dump your class’s Twitter output into Wordle and see what ideas stand out, as in this word cloud from my graphic novel class last fall, created about a third of the way into the semester:

Wordle Word Cloud

Assessment

The final question to consider as you incorporate Twitter into your teaching is one your students will of course be asking: Are we being graded on this? For once, this is not an inane question to ask of a professor. How do you assess what students do on Twitter? The answer is, honestly, something I’m still working on. Or, to put the burden back on you: how you assess what your students do on Twitter depends on what you want them to do, how much you value it, and how much you want them to value it (or at least value what you value).

Speaking only from my own experience, I tend to evaluate my students’ use of Twitter holistically. While I follow the hashtag and will jump into the conversation, I don’t grade every tweet. In the past I’ve counted Twitter as part of the class participation grade (which generally counts as 15-20% of the final grade). And using the graphs produced by a program like The Archivist, it’s plain to see which students are active and which have fallen off the chart:

Twitter Usage Pie Chart

However you decide to assess your students’ Twitter activity, the key is to make your expectations clear. It’s also valuable to review your expectations occasionally. One effective tactic a few weeks into the semester is to show the class a chart like the one above. The students who find themselves to be a tiny sliver of the pie quickly realize they need to be more active. 

How about You?

I’ve covered organization, access, frequency, substancearchiving, and assessment, but most of my advice comes from either firsthand experience or from what I’ve learned from other faculty on Twitter. What have I missed? What tips do you have? What other questions would you like to have answered about teaching with Twitter?

[Classroom photograph courtesy of Flickr user velkr0 / Creative Commons Licensed]

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