As I mentioned yesterday, I am teaching the same classes this semester as I have the last few. To keep things interesting (to me!), I am experimenting. Over the last week, I've been setting up my History 101: Western Civilization class to have a complementary Twitter feed. (I've blogged on this idea before) To do this, I've been following the efforts of Monica Rankin at the University of Texas at Dallas who used Twitter in a similar setting and reported on the results here and in this clever YouTube video.
My goals are not radically different from Dr. Rankin's goals. My History 101 class is over 150 students making traditional classroom discussions difficult. To make matters more challenging, I teach the class one day a week, at night, for 2 hours 20 minutes. To avoid turning the class into a series of marathon lectures, I disseminate most of the standard historical narrative through a series of podcast which I beg students to listen to before coming to class. Since I can expect students to know the basic narrative, I can avoid conducting a formal lecture during class time. Instead, I walk the students through primary and secondary sources in an effort to model how a historian analyzes and integrates primary sources or challenges the arguments in a secondary source. Some days, I am quite Socratic, asking the students a series of relatively simple questions about a source in an effort to break down the process of historical reading into simple parts. Other days, I put more pressure on the students to analyze documents on their own (through in class writing assignments) or, more frequently, in groups. My teaching assistant and I then circulate to help with specific questions.
Generally, these techniques have proven to be successful in making a large class a more dynamic and interactive environment. One weakness to these techniques, however, is that the class can easily by dominated by a cadre of more confident (and generally better prepared) students who are very comfortable with the material. These students tend to answer many of the Socratic questions and influence (generally for the better) group discussions. Students who are struggling tend to remain quiet and disengaged. My hope is that by using Twitter during class time as a back channel to the classrooms discussions, I can encourage more reserved students to participate more actively in the class. To help with aggregating student Tweets during class, I'll rely (as per Rankin's method) on a series of hashtags designated for each class. One concern that I have, however, is that various Twitter search engines tend to be laggy, taking sometimes as much as 20 minutes to find register a hashtag in a search. My hope is that this is only an occasional issue or that volume of hashtags serves to make them more visible to search engines, or that I'll find a better Twitter search engine.
I have two other goals with using Twitter:
First, my students here at UND have a tendency to be a bit technophobic (there are still students who claim "not to be good with computers") so incorporating Twitter in my class should encourage them to become more familiar with what the internet and social media applications can do. Many people here at UND still see the web as a series of more or less stable "web pages" rather than a dynamic, response environment. It is simply imperative for a well-rounded humanities student to have some familiarity with how the 21st century internet works. So, I'll add Twitter to my use of threaded discussions (admittedly old-school) and my weekly wiki pages where students can collaborate to create a comprehensive (and authoritative) set of class notes. To help my students feel more comfortable with Twitter, I've hastily created a very basic, How to use Twitter page. I'm sure that I'll have to tweak it some over the next few days.
Next, I hope that Twitter helps make a one-day-a-week class a higher priority in a student's schedule. The tendency is for students to only think about a one-day-a-week class when something is due or during class time itself. The class lacks a certain amount of persistence. I plan to update my class's Twitter page daily with different kinds of Tweets. Some days, I'll simply post an interesting link; other days, I'll post reminders about assignments; and other days, I'll post "bonus points" questions that will encourage students to check on the History 101 Twitter account regularly.
Stay tuned to hear how this all works.