At Wright State’s first conference on multimodal composition in 2011 I attended a presentation on Facebook use in the freshman composition classroom. While using Facebook in the classroom was not an original concept, the ideas presented were new to me. The instructor both attempted to turn the site into a discussion board and also encouraged collaborative communication outside of class.
But these concepts are not new. Several social media sites have been utilized in an academic fashion (see lit review for a focus on Twitter in different disciplines.) Even some technologies created for classrooms, like Blackboard, have the option to virtualize class with the “lecture hall” and “office hours” tools.
What all of these options do, of course, is to remove the physical aspect of a classroom—the room, the bodies, the materials. Instead, they turn the online space into a chat room, where multiple voices can be “talking” and “heard” at once.
The idea for holding a composition class on Twitter stemmed from two theories. The first was that the subject matter (writing) would be better discussed if students were actually writing, rather than verbalizing. The second was that a large portion of what students do in the classroom—talking, writing, discussing, thinking, questioning, and sometimes complaining—can be transferred into written words. If students can do all of that in the classroom, they should be able to do it on a social network site, a place that is intended for community involvement and sharing. If students could make meaning in the classroom, they should be able to have the same process without physically sitting in the classroom.
The one-hour class period held on Twitter went by so quickly that there wasn’t time to consider if the class was going well or poorly. Tweets from 22 students would appear at the same time, and it was my job to respond to all of them while facilitating lecture, discussion, and activities. Rather than seeing this as challenging, I viewed it as exhilarating. Finally students were participating! Finally I didn’t have to work on my “teacherly pause” while students mustered up the courage to raise their hands in class!
My initial reaction after the class period was that it was successful. It felt like I had the chance to comment on several students’ thesis statements, and I saw many students commenting constructively on their partners’ statements. Not only that, but students were giving each other encouragement, saying things like “I think I’m going to like your topic!” and “Dude, I wrestled I think I can help you out on that one” [sic]. For the first time, I saw students getting excited about paper topics. Students were also giving advice efficiently by pointing out opposing arguments and specific examples to use; that is, it seemed the 140-character limit was forcing students to get right to the point.
It wasn’t until I started grading that I realized the class wasn’t the most valuable use of our time. The fact that the class took a long time to grade was the best way to reflect on the class. I realized that it seemed like all students were participating because of the influx of tweets when only about half the class was really engaged with the material and activities. Some students did not even tweet at all after checking in, and some students didn’t talk to their partner at all.
Looking back, I realize multiple steps could have been taken or changed in order for a more productive class: [will move these suggestions to the appendix]
1. Partners and hashtags assigned before the Twitter class.
2. Lecture notes online in PDF so students could view them before and have a hard copy if they wanted.
3. Fewer questions asked about the reading and less discussion. Instead, focus on activities like in class.
4. A Twitter 101 class so students could navigate as quickly as the professor.
"…I liked having class through Twitter because my classmates and I could be more open than we usually are in our actual classroom. I felt comfortable replying to people I normally don’t talk to while in Ellis, because I had time to think about what I wanted to type. Also, there wasn’t that awkwardness of “That boy sitting beside me just responded to my Tweet, do I say anything in person?
Another reason I liked this class was the fact we had a certain person to watch for. My partner was Jess Mitchell, so I paid close attention to Twitter to see when she would tweet. She was able to respond to my thesis and she helped me come up with quality supporting evidence for my topic. I was glad I had one specific person to reply to, or else I would’ve gotten overwhelmed trying to reply to all of my classmates.
I also liked how when we tweeted our research thesis, everyone was helping each other out by narrowing and fixing errors in their topics."
- Maggie Deitz
Holding class on Twitter was beneficial for increasing students’ agency as writers, but it was not worth sacrificing the productivity of a normal class to reach this agency.
The main issue with this class was that there was not enough time to get through all of the activities planned for the day. Part of the problem was the actual medium used—Twitter not does immediately load tweets and so the class and instructor had to wait for their feeds to update. Thirty seconds here and thirty seconds there add up to several wasted minutes of the 50-minute class period. Many students also mentioned the concept of “falling behind.” This could be attributed to the wait time.
Once tweets were loaded, students might have 20 or more tweets to sift through to find the instructor or their partner and then comment accordingly. The instructor knew what to say and how to respond; therefore it was not a problem for the instructor to keep up with the flow of tweets. Also, the instructor knew what and how to comment back to students whereas some students might have struggled with both critical thinking and wording sentences under such pressure.
Some students did manage fine. One student even opened three browser windows to keep tabs on the instructor’s feed, his partner’s feed, and the main class feed. This kind of quick thinking and multi-tasking is indicative of a Generation Y member. It would have been beneficial to introduce this concept to the rest of the students or even had a lesson in class beforehand to discuss strategies for approaching the class Twitter.
Although many students cited difficulties keeping up with the flow of tweets, many also commented that having a partner was beneficial to organize the tweet overload. By assigning students a partner, they were able to mention each other when critiquing. This way a student could look at the mention feed on their homepage and see all of the tweets from their partner. They could even navigate away from the main class feed during work time.
It seems that this type of virtual space is best used for collaboration rather than lecture. The class would have been more productive if more time was spent on peer review and activities that encouraged students to apply the materials. In this way, the class could have the same productivity as a peer review day. Lecturing could instead be turned into a PDF file that the instructor could link for the students, who then could read it on their own; the PDF would be similar to the notes students would write down in class. Lecturing in a virtual space is also less beneficial for auditory learners, so again a PDF would be helpful for students to be able to refer back to.