The advent of social media and social networking has allowed people to create spaces where they can electronically gather and communicate. With that idea in mind, instructors could use these sites to engage students in a different kind of classroom environment, one that is wholly online. Students in this kind of chat room-like space have the ability to interact with the entire class. In this way, the teacher is only present to act as a sort of catalyst for the students, nudging the discussion in the appropriate direction and offering activities and assignments that allow students to create meaning on their own.
An online classroom space can easily reflect a physical classroom space. It seems that the instructor could valuably employ an environmental mode of teaching. George Hillocks, Jr., in What Works in Teaching Composition, states, “The environmental mode is characterized by (1) clear and specific objectives, such as to increase the use of specific detail and figurative language; (2) materials and problems selected to engage students with each other in specifiable processes important to some particular aspect of writing’ and (3) activities, such as small group problem-centered discussions, conducive to high levels of peer interaction concerning specific tasks. Teachers in this mode, in contrast to the presentational, are likely to minimize lecture and teacher-led discussion, structuring activities so that, while teachers may provide brief introductory lectures, students work on particular tasks in small groups before proceeding to similar tasks independently” (144). Because the instructor is just another voice in the online space, he/she withdraws some part of his/her authority. Because of this, students are encouraged to take a more active role in the class and perhaps will take more from their participation than in a normal classroom setting.
Students were emailed a reminder the night before that class would not be held in the computer classroom but online. The class was a 50-minute block on Friday morning at 10:10. The instructor signed in to Twitter and tweeted “Good morning! Check in using the hashtag #OUENG151.” Students were then required to check-in by tweeting the hashtag #OUENG151. At 10:10, class began. The free write was tweeted and students responded, just as it had been done in the normal classroom setting.
After a few minutes, students were informed of their partners for the day. Students were paired together based on their writing ability. Students were advised to create a hashtag with their partner for quick access to their conversation.
After (and as) students were communicating with their partners, the lecture portion began. The lecture was about writing a researched argument essay. Students were advised to favorite the tweets containing information as a way to return to them quickly and because the tweeting would move too quickly for them to write down notes. The lecture tweets discussed key terms, discussion, and direct quotes with citations from the previous night’s reading. Questions about the material were also tweeted. Students were not required to respond to these, and only a few did.
Students were then asked to tweet their topic and stance for their researched argument essay. Students were encouraged to critically respond to their peers, helping them to see both sides of an issue and to play devil’s advocate.
After 50 minutes of tweeting and responding, students were informed of their homework that was due the next class period: begin work on their essay and to write a one-page Twitter reflection on the class period. Students were told to thoughtfully and critically respond to the class, instead of only writing “I liked it.”
The students were then thanked and told the class was finished.
All 22 students checked in using the hashtag #OUENG151. However, this check-in tweet was the only tweet from some students. Three students checked in late.
Students were required to be on a computer with a reliable internet connection. One student used his phone to access the Twitter feed. Students were also required to look at their textbook for answers to questions and to follow along in the lecture.
Analysis and Conclusions
Holding a composition class on Twitter is beneficial because it seems that students feel more comfortable sharing and talking about writing, but it is not as productive as a physical classroom.
Giving a lecture online in writing gives students a greater chance to receive the material than a verbal lecture. By tweeting a lecture, students are able to favorite lecture tweets so that they will remain in order and available whenever the student accesses their favorites feed. This way, students can learn what is said as needed, rather than scribbling down frantic notes as the instructor speaks. Rereading the tweets is better than taking notes because the notes cannot get lost—they are online in the feed unless the instructor deletes them—and because they are word-for-word what the teacher intends to communicate rather than a student’s interpretation of what the teacher has said. Although lecture tweets could get lost among the chaos of other tweets on a feed, as long as students favorite them, they will remain in order by time and date on the student’s favorite tweet feed.
Holding class on Twitter showed that students seem to be more comfortable talking with peers and the instructor in an online space than in the classroom. Students appeared to be bonding with their partner, which might not have been done if they were face-to-face. Many students said “hi” or “hey” with exclamation points and smiley faces. Some students that sat across the room from each other were asking how the other’s morning was going or how they were doing. Students also seemed more composed when they asked questions, and they used specific wording, like this student: “How do we know how to balance our info about what we are proving and still give positive info on the other half of the argument?”
Again, the internet wall seemed to act like a protector for some students who normally do not speak out during class. Students even attempted to make conversation with the instructor after class was dismissed, which shows Twitter can easily slide from a formal classroom space to one of informal communication. Of course this slide to the informal may invite students to say something disrespectful that they normally would not in class. One student felt confident enough to start correcting his peers’ grammar in a non-constructive way. This student was told his actions were not appropriate and that he should stop; the student would have been managed the same way if in a normal classroom.
Assigning students partners allowed almost all students to receive some valuable advice or critiques, perhaps more so than peer help in the classroom. Because students were paired based on ability, the stronger students were able to independently work while the instructor intervened and helped the weaker writers. Some students who normally were very quiet in class were critically thinking about serious topics, like teaching a second language during elementary schooling. It appears that the ability to think before writing to phrase a comment or advice in a particular way is more beneficial than verbally critiquing. This would be especially helpful for students who can write more fluently and clearly than they can speak, especially if they have the time to review what they want to say and how they want to say it.
The disadvantage of Twitter is the time it takes for tweets to show up on the feed—sometimes up to a minute. When 23 people are tweeting at the same time, the feed becomes chaotic and there are overloads of tweets. Students were told to create a hashtag in order to quickly find tweets from their partner, but this was a failed idea. Students took too much time planning hashtags with their partners, so the lecture portion was intermingled between these tweets on the timeline. It would have been quicker for students simply to mention their partners and look at the mention feed on their personal Twitter accounts or for partners and hashtags to be assigned during the previous class. The hashtags were also suggested so the instructor could easily grade the partner-work; however, those hashtags were not available longer than a few days after the class.
As stated, the chaos of tweets made the lecture portion of the class problematic. The students were tweeting to their partners saying hello and figuring out hashtags when the lecture started. There really is no way to say “stop” to prevent the students from tweeting because students may just navigate away from the feed while waiting for tweets to begin again. Likewise, a few students had side conversations as the lecture was occurring. Although generation Y is known for their multitasking abilities, this kind of distraction would not as easily occur in an actual presentational mode classroom. The instructor attempted to tweet important points in all capitals in order to grab students’ attention among the tweets—ironic, because writing in all capitals is translated to yelling, much like a instructor would in order to calm the chaos in a normal classroom.
Facilitating discussion during and after the lecture was a struggle both regarding content and time. Most students simply copied sentences straight out of the textbook when they were asked a question about the concepts in the reading. It seemed that many students would see what someone else tweeted as an answer and copied it or slightly altered it to look original. And because so many students were tweeting at once, it took a long time for tweets to load and students were often still answering the questions when the lecture moved forward.
Perhaps the least positive result of holding class on Twitter was that some students checked in but did not participate. Some students acknowledged that they were doing other things (like laundry) while it was easy to infer that others were simply not prepared to take the online space as serious as the classroom. The latter refers to one student who bragged that he was currently hunting. This means he most likely did not have the textbook or materials with him and was using his smart phone. This was not only disrespectful to the instructor but was also disrespectful and unfair to the student’s partner who would not have received help if the instructor had not responded instead.