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Tracking Moves on the Classroom Backchannel with Storify

Person typing on a laptopI’ve previously highlighted a pedagogical framework for using Twitter in the classroom, as well as shared more practical advice for teaching with Twitter. Both of these posts came out of my early integration of Twitter in my classroom, way back in 2009. After taking a two-semester break from using Twitter in any of my courses, I’m back at it again this semester. Unlike previous semesters, when I had been using Twitter in an open-ended fashion, I have been much more focused this time around. Rather than trying to encourage the free-form dialogue I myself enjoy on Twitter, I’ve been giving my students very structured Twitter “assignments.”

For example, in October we watched Ridley Scott’s science fiction classic Blade Runner. Since I wasn’t screening the film in class, students would be watching it in all sorts of contexts: instant streaming from Netflix in the residence hall, on a library reserve DVD in the university media center, rented from the iTunes store on an iPhone, a personal BluRay collector’s set at home, and so on. However, I still wanted to create a collective experience out of these disparate viewings. To this end, I asked students to “live tweet” their own viewing, posting to Twitter whatever came to mind as they watched the film. (I stole this idea of live-tweeting a film from Zach Whalen at the University of Mary Washington.)

As another example of a structured Twitter assignment (stolen once again, this time from Jesse Stommel at Georgia Tech), I asked students to write a “Twitter essay” of exactly 140 characters defining the word alien (if you haven’t guessed it yet, this is a Science Fiction course).

While there’s much to say about these Twitter activities, what I want to focus on here is not the assignments themselves but how I incorporated them into the classroom backchannel. More specifically, how I used Storify to track rhetorical and interpretative moves students made during these assignments.

Ryan has already written a good overview of Storify, and while I’ve been intrigued with the service ever since it debuted, I haven’t (until now) found a compelling use for it. But Storify’s become a promising solution for the mess that a classroom (or conference) backchannel often becomes, a way to provide context, order, and commentary. With my live-tweeting Blade Runner assignment, for example, I had hundreds of tweets coming in over a five-day period. Storify allowed me to preserve these tweets, but more importantly, it gave me a way to categorize the tweets, bringing to the surface some underlying themes in my students’ tweets. I took a reverse-chronologically ordered stream and reorganized it into sections like Intertexts and Allusions; Visual Design; and Men and Women (Gender).

Likewise, my Storified collection of alien definitions not only gathered all these tweets in one location, but I was able to highlight a Twitter debate that broke out among my students about the differences between the words alien and foreign. I also easily copied and pasted the text from the Storify collection into Wordle, giving me an admittedly reductivist snapshot of the definitions, which fueled our next class discussion:

I’ll close with one more example. Students were recently required to play Portal, and similar to what we did with Blade Runner, I asked students to tweet at the start of every new level. Using Storify, I was able to aggregate the tweets that focused on, say, gender roles in the game, or the theme of agency.

Storify isn’t perfect, of course. If you’re dealing with an extremely active backchannel (such as fifty students live-tweeting a videogame at more or less the same time), you have to “storify” the tweets fairly close to real time. This is because Twitter’s search function (and therefore, Storify’s search function) only goes back a few days and a few hundred tweets. My Storify wishlist would also include the ability to bookmark, hotlink to, or embed a specific section of a Storify story. A story several hundred tweets long can be clunky to navigate (and even worse when embedded on another page, which is why none are embedded here!). The ability to extract smaller sections of a story would certainly alleviate that problem.

What about you? Have you used Storify to make a backchannel more manageable, or to highlight certain aspects of a backchannel conversation? If not Storify, do you have another tool or method you recommend for building a better backchannel?

Laptop Image courtesy of Flicker user Daytona Sessions / Creative Commons Licensed

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