Fairfax, Va. — Students at George Mason University shifted their feet and chatted outside a classroom here on Tuesday morning, waiting for Stephen Groening’s class on cellphone cultures to begin. On tap was not an ordinary classroom discussion about the assigned readings. Instead, the entire conversation would take place by Twitter, and students were nervous.
Some had created Twitter accounts just for the class, while others were not sure how the discussion would go. “I am completely overwhelmed by this concept,” said Emily Clough, a senior history major, as Mr. Groening began setting up three projectors to beam Twitter streams on the classroom’s walls.
Mr. Groening, an assistant professor of film and media studies, offered the course for the first time this semester to encourage students to think about cultural issues associated with mobile phones. The Twitter discussion was just one of the course’s many experiments in “experiential learning.” Others have included asking students to create photo essays with their cellphone cameras, and a final project in which students use their phones to organize flash mobs.
The professor was not sure what to expect as the class began tweeting silently about the assigned reading. In the darkened room, tweets scrolled down the projected screens, and thumbs worked furiously as students tried to keep up with separate discussions on articles they had read.
“I was super-nervous because to me, teaching means a lot of talking—giving a lecture or giving a discussion,” said Mr. Groening. “I was more scared for this class than I’ve been in years because the kinds of tasks that I associate with teaching I wasn’t able to do. I was worried that it would get out of control and either be very much off-topic or nobody would have anything to say.”
Students definitely had something to say. They wrote more than 200 comments marked with one of the tags used for the class, #cellphonecultures. (The class relied on so-called hashtags, used in Twitter to organize messages by theme.) The conversation did go off-track at points, triggering giggles. “Cell phone class, IM DYING! I need to talk so badly, help me!” tweeted Christina Mannino, a junior. She and Brian Le, a senior, had decided to practice for their flash-mob project by tweeting at one another to stand up. Soon, a group of students was standing as others tweeted their confusion.
In the wrap-up discussion, Mr. Groening asked the students for their thoughts. Most had trouble following so many hashtags and felt restricted by Twitter’s 140-character limit in making their points. Others argued that social media can act as a way to remove students’ reserve, though, since some students adopted informal language they would not normally use in the classroom.
Not all students were familiar with Twitter, and some had technical difficulties trying to join the discussion. While others, Mr. Groening noted, “were completely at home.”
Ms. Mannino enjoyed the experience, saying she had found it easier to express her thoughts without classmates’ focusing on her opinions, as they would have in a typical discussion. “I felt very independent in my voice throughout the Twitter feed, and I thought it was a fun and creative way to get our class engaged,” she said.
Mr. Groening was also wondering whether the unusual format helped students understand the material better or got in the way. In the end he found that the discussion lacked depth.
“There’s all this emphasis on having your own blog, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, but what about the skill it takes to read and listen to those things?” he said. “For all the technophilic love given to networked communication and peer-to-peer learning, it’s not the best educational mode—there’s something about linearity and dialogue that works better than the chaos you saw today.”
[Image: Stephen Groening listens to students in his cell phone cultures class. By Alexis Glenn, courtesy of George Mason University.]