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Revisiting Twitter as an Educational Tool

A peek at TEP's Twitter feed

A peek at TEP’s Twitter feed

Twitter, the popular microblogging site that allows users to post 140-character “tweets,” both intrigues and irritates faculty, according to a Faculty Focus survey. Some embrace it as a clever way to teach concision and get students writing, thinking, and connecting with the course material and one another. Others consider it distracting and antithetical to sophisticated communication.

The Teaching Effectiveness Program Tweets daily, and has just added a Twitter feed to its Web page: we want to make visible a campus-wide and national network of people talking about teaching and learning issues. As we explore Twitter’s promise and limits, we’re investigating how the UO community experiments with and expands the possibilities of the medium. For example, Jessyca Lewis, who teaches marketing in the Lundquist College of Business, says that Twitter “has been the most fantastic teaching tool I have ever used. It makes the classroom and learning experience incredibly interactive.”

Faculty members across the University have used Twitter to facilitate class discussion and to gauge and deepen students’ interest and level of understanding. Tiffany Derville-Gallicano, assistant professor of public relations in the School of Journalism and Communication, told TEP in a 2010 interview that she uses Twitter to:

  1. Facilitate timely responses to student questions.
  2. Create a collaborative, interactive learning environment, where students can share examples to make material memorable and meaningful.
  3. Share relevant links.
  4. Allow introverted students to contribute and provide immediate feedback on her lectures.
  5. Help her memorize student names thanks to profile pictures.
  6. Keep up course-related conversation outside of class.

In the three years since that interview, Gallicano’s use of the platform hasn’t changed dramatically. However, she did note that her 200-level students increasingly already have their own Twitter accounts. With the growing number of students using Twitter for individual social networking, Gallicano also discussed another benefit of teaching social media in the classroom—raising awareness of personal branding. “I think it’s really important for students to think about the content of their accounts and the pictures they use,” which form part of a lasting “digital footprint,” she says. Faculty members often must remind students of the permanence of the Internet and its long-term effect on their professional image. “Even our students in the J-School need help with this in their early college years,” Gallicano added.

Relating classroom themes to the real world

Instructor Lewis incorporates weekly Twitter chats into her marketing courses to give students the opportunity to interact with real-world topics and professional social media managers. For example, Lewis and her students recently joined a chat run by Kmart’s social media team: “Our class just jumped into the professional chat. I had them look at what they were doing, why they were going it. It’s becoming such a big part of marketing and I feel like to leave that out would be missing a big chunk of what’s going on in the industry,” Lewis said. Twitter chats such as those in Lewis’ classes allow students to link course content with timely examples from public life, expanding the boundaries of class.

Lewis elaborated, “Big brands are holding these [Twitter chats] all of the time. It’s a new form of communicating with clients.” Lewis says she wants her students prepared for this aspect of professional life.

The concise 140-character format of Twitter challenges students to hold meaningful and purposeful conversations in a condensed format as well. This in itself is a lesson for students about the importance of relaying an idea or statement in a clear, succinct way. Rachel Tanner, graduate teaching fellow in the Department of English, uses Twitter in her classroom to teach this exact skill: “It occurred to me a few months ago, as a friend of mine told me about trying to pitch his business idea at an investment conference, that learning to be concise in your expression is a valuable skill in the marketplace. I sometimes ask my students to answer fairly complex questions on Twitter because they’re forced to think about word choice and economy of thought.”

Creating discourse communities

Tanner says she tells her Writing 122 students, “One of the most important goals in this class is the development of a discourse community—a group of peers who discuss issues as a way to discover, explore, and test their own ideas. This discourse community shouldn’t have to end, however, when we leave the classroom.” Twitter becomes the avenue for the discussion to continue after class is over, to help bring students together, and encourage those who do not normally speak up in class to contribute.

“I read an article last fall in The New York Times Magazine called ‘#InPraiseOfTheHashtag,’ in which Julia Turner argues that the hashtag has come to constitute a new literary device, and implicit to her argument is the idea that something about the social aspect of Twitter has started to change something about how people read and write,” Tanner explained. “I decided to try to incorporate Twitter into my composition syllabus in order to tap into this other facet of reading and writing to which I don’t have full access with the more traditional means at my disposal.”

Tanner also brought up the notion of ‘community’ and education in an ever-growing digital world: “Not every community—increasingly fewer and fewer communities, actually—is a physical community; I think it’s useful for my students to think about their roles in digital discourse communities as well as analog ones.”

She added, “Our students don’t really need to be taught how to connect to each other online, but teaching them to be aware of their online environments, their roles in those environments, and what their roles could be in those environments is part of encouraging their cultural awareness. I think that we do a disservice to our students when we try to keep the internet out of our classrooms, and that we should instead be encouraging them to engage as much as possible (and as critically as possible) with the endless resources that the internet places at their fingertips.”

Facilitating in-class discussion

Lewis allows each marketing student to Tweet comments during class lecture time to a designated hashtag and has had great success: “They Tweet to ask me questions or they’re sending me a lot of videos and articles relevant to the course. It’s helped me, and them, feel like we know each other a little better. I feel as though I’ve been more available to them versus just email,” she said. Giving students the opportunity to Tweet during class helps professors like Lewis gauge what material is particularly interesting or confusing to students.

Meghana Deodhar, a student of Lewis’ in the Lundquist College of Business, recognizes both the benefits and pitfalls of a classroom entwined with Twitter: “I can imagine using a laptop in class may be highly distracting for some students. I think this learning tool works well with students who are able to exhibit self-control and can focus on class rather than the plethora of things easily accessible on a laptop or phone. For me personally, it has helped me stay focused in class because it is way more interesting to hear what other students have to say rather than reading a textbook.”

Deodhar continued, “Tweeting in class has really helped emphasize the main points that are discussed. People Tweet the takeaway messages from class discussion or guest speakers and hashtag their Tweets as #mktg420. This allows me to re-process what was discussed and helps me to remember it concisely due to the character limit for Tweets.”

Using Twitter for professional development

The benefits of Twitter are not only for students. University instructors also use Twitter in their own professional development. Assistant Professor of English Courtney Thorsson uses Twitter to connect professionally with a wide range of experts in her field: “I find Twitter useful as a way to stay connected to other scholars of African American literature around the country. The academics in my field whom I follow often post links to useful articles, books, and interviews; have conversations via Twitter about debates in our field; and live Tweet from various conferences,” she commented. “This is particularly useful to me as I am at a geographical distance from many who work on African American lit and as I cannot attend every conference I might wish to or always have these conversations in person.”

Thorsson also commented on Twitter’s use as a promotional tool stating, “I’ve also begun to use Twitter to share information, videos, and links pertaining to African American literature events I organize at UO. This is a way to make the African American literary studies at UO more visible to folks outside Eugene.”

Lewis uses Twitter to connect with those in higher education and in professional roles in the marketing industry. Her connections have helped her teaching and enriched her students’ experiences, she says. “There’s a list of the top 100 marketing professors on Twitter and I’m connected with a good many of them. They correspond with me or they post marketing articles that are very relevant to my class…and that I’m finding incredibly helpful. When we connected with the Kmart marketing team, that was all done through Twitter. I was connected with someone and found out he was a part of the social media team, and that’s when he invited the class to join their professional Twitter chat.”

Getting started with Twitter

If you haven’t yet incorporated Twitter into the classroom and want to know how, Assistant Professor Gallicano offers this advice:

  1. Make an account and familiarize yourself with the platform.
  2. Ask students to raise their hands if they’ve used Twitter. If most haven’t, then you can go into some basics of using it.
  3. Note that it’s optional if you choose to make it so, as some students may find it distracting.
  4. Talk about how they can use Twitter to explore examples and post questions.
  5. Create a unique hashtag for the class to Tweet with.
  6. Establish ground rules to make Twitter discussions a safe and respectful place to express opinions.

TEP encourages you to see what we’re Tweeting, and to join the conversation @UOregonTEP.

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Lauren Osborn is a senior majoring in public relations and advertising in the School of Journalism and Communication. This year she has interned at TEP, developing its social media strategy and increasing awareness of its resources within the UO and higher education communities. Next year she will go on to work in corporate communications in the California Bay Area.

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