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Twitter Experimenting

July 8, 2009

It’s been a cruel, cruel summer, leaving me here on my own. It’s been a cruel, cruel summer, now you’re gone.

Wait, that’s not right. That’s Bananarama.

What I meant was that it’s been a busy summer, and I’ve been leaving this blog all alone.

But no more.

Here’s a video about Monica Rankin’s Twitter Experiment. Rankin is a history professor at the University of Texas at Dallas (alma matter of my youngest, and most-recently-married brother). Watch the video, then we’ll talk.


A little while back I read a blog post by Olivia Mitchell titled, “How to Present While People are Twittering”. In it Mitchell lays out the pros for encouraging your audience to participate in the “back channel” while you’re talking to them. It’s a lot like the old practice of sharing notes while in class. But with Twitter, imagine that every note you write can and will be read by everyone else in the room (except perhaps the teacher — more on that in a bit). I was, to say the least, skeptical.

I remembered the largest class I’ve yet taught in a computer lab — the afternoon section of the CyberCulture Studies course, a 30+ student seminar. There were times I enforced the “screens down” rule (it was a laptop lab — screens down = computers off) just (I will admit it now) to try to get them to pay attention to what I (and their classmates) had to say. I know they were Twittering and IMing and e-mailing during class. I also knew what they were doing was directly related to the content of the class, but they weren’t necessarily aware of that. That was a problem. Plus, I do like being the center of attention when I know what I’m talking about. As I did in that class.

But then I went to this year’s Computers and Writing conference. I knew it would be Tweeted and I wanted in. So I joined Twitter (@digitalrhetorVT) and jumped in. I decided the best way to get me to really use Twitter was to use it as my notetaking service. I could then pull up all of my Tweets and have a handy compilation of my thoughts about the important aspects of the panels and talks I attended.

I became one of those students I had tried to shut down.

And I liked it.

Having seen the dynamic from both sides now, I agree that it can be a good thing. People really do Tweet about the things they’re impressed by in the talks. It was great reading about the neat ideas going on in the other panels. And it was really nice being able to see what other people in the panels I attended were turned on by. In one session I had a great mini-discussion with Cheryl Ball (@s2ceball) about the points one of the presenters was raising. And while I presented at C&W, I know there were people in the room Tweeting away.

The best use of this I saw was actually one of the most contentious parts of the conference. Barbara Ganley (formerly of Vermont’s own Middlebury College, now a freelance consultant to the digital stars) gave a talk that was firey and provocative (though perhaps not as well-calibrated to her audience as any of us would have liked). The crowd started to turn ugly — all on Twitter. Interestingly, at points in her talk, Ganley had a running feed from Twitter up on the giant screens behind her. So, when things would get dicey, we could all see what everyone was Tweeting — even those not on Twitter on their laptops or phones at the moment. This kept the crowd much more civil, I think, than they might have been. (Which is a shame. It was a good talk, and important. But several of the notes she hit really soured the audience to her and her message. She should have paid more attention to the kairos!)

So, back to Dr. Rankin and her Twitter Experiment. Would I do this in a large (25+ students) class? Absolutely. And I would, without fail, have something like TwitterFall up on the big screen showing the realtime Tweets from the class. That’s just to keep everyone honest.

Would it work for the smaller classes? Probably not. It’s hard to have a sustained discussion of complex material with fewer than 10 people in a room. Yes, it can be done and is done, but it’s hard. That doesn’t give the people in the room time or space to “hide” and mentally regroup or process while others pick up the slack. Diverting the already-strained attention and cognitive overhead of a small group from out-loud conversation and processing to Twitter conversation and processing just seems cruel and counterproductive to me.

Another point, one Rankin doesn’t really make in the video, is that when you’re having a conversation, you can pause and read the last few Tweets. It’s hard to do that when you’re lecturing or presenting. But I think it might really help the discussion. Shy students wouldn’t have to raise their hand, interrupting the flow, and try to express themselves in front of the group. And yet their ideas could be heard, read, and discussed.

So, do I think this should be SOP? Maybe in large classes, and especially in computer-equipped classrooms. But does the instructor have to make a space for the back channel and then tend to that space just like any other pedagogical space? You better believe it.

The more I think about it, the less worried I’m becoming about students “goofing off” on the computers, and thus needing to have “screen down” days or times in my classes. But I’m realizing I need to channel their computer use (i.e., ADD/ADHD/continuous partial attention) in productive ways.

And really, isn’t that why we’re all there?

Categories: Literacy, Teaching, Technology
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