The Chronicle of Higher Education this weekend ran a story on Teaching with Twitter. Aside from its appealing alliteration, the story presented two case studies of faculty who use Twitter in the classroom. One was from a consumer science class at Purdue and the other a history class at University of Texas at Dallas. Both used Twitter as an official back channel for their classes providing students with another opportunity to ask questions, interact with one another, and archive these remarks (organized through twitter hashtags) so that students could return to them later. The faculty members report more or less positive experiences from setting up these Twitter back channels, although the Chronicle story and the faculty members themselves admitted that there was some risk involved. Students could, for example, use Twitter as a place to snipe at the professor or other students in a semi-anonymous setting. On the other hand, Twitter could serve as a platform to engage students more fully in the classroom experience -- especially students who are too shy or reserved to speak out.
Longtime readers of my blog know that I experimented with Twitter in a graduate seminar. In my experiment, I hoped to encourage the students to "read actively" and tweet their impressions of the various books as they read them. These impressions could range from quotes to questions, visceral responses, or even complaints. I had hoped that the Twitter feed would make the exercise of reading -- typically an intensely private, personal, and reflective time, into something that was public, social, and dynamic. The goal was to break down some of the intellectual isolation (first year graduate) students sometimes experience when reading a challenging text and encourage them to formulate ideas while reading to break through the tendency to read a book passively.
Using social networking applications to increase student engagement is an interesting example of how technology as technology can engage students in new ways. My History 101: Western Civilization class this fall is relatively large (150 students) and meets once a week, at night, in a large theater style room. The basic content driven lectures are available online (here). The classroom time focuses on "primary source" texts (i.e. texts from Antiquity and the Middle Ages), recapping the major points in the content driven lecture, inclass writing assignments, testing various models for understanding the past, and informal question-and-answer sessions that focus, generally, on more difficult concepts. I playfully refer to the classroom time as a live concert environment and the podcast lectures as the studio album. While this can produce an exciting, improvised, and responsive environment, the class tends to become dominated by a relatively small faction (10%-20% (i.e. 20-30) students).
Many of the students in the class are freshman from smaller high school who find the large classroom to be a very foreign and maybe intimidating environment. At the same time, as Monica Rankin points out, many students are comfortable with the social-networking environment native to Facebook, Myspace, and Twitter. The plan would be to use the familiar and more intimate environment of the social media to bridge the gap between the student and their classmates (and teacher) in the large lecture-style classroom.