THE BLOG
05/21/2013 05:47 pm ET | Updated Jul 21, 2013

For Some Professors, Twitter Is a Tool for Fostering Discussion

Rather than only using social media sites in their spare time, the students in lecturer Shawn Peters' "Narratives of Justice and Equality in Multicultural America" class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison use Twitter as soon as they enter the classroom.

Peters displays a Twitter screen to his students as they watch and analyze the HBO drama "The Wire." The students use the hashtag "#wire275" to indicate that their Tweets are for that class specifically, and Peters selects a few interesting comments or arguments and follows up on them during future discussions.

"Twitter allows students to respond quickly and freely to that text in real time," Peters told me in an email, noting that he also uses the hashtag when posting material he feels might be relevant for exams.

For professors like Peters, the realm of social media is becoming a more critical component of the classroom environment. Professors' use of Twitter represents an innovative form of educational discourse as the number of social media sites and users rises in the digital age.

Last fall, Michigan State University released a report that found that courses in which students used Twitter yielded more student engagement and active learning, as well as higher grades.

In a press release, Christine Greenhow, an assistant professor in the Department of Counseling, Educational Psychology and Special Education at Michigan State University and a co-author of the report, says, "The students get more engaged because they feel it is connected to something real, that it's not just learning for the sake of learning."

At the beginning of the spring semester, I was surprised to see at the top of two class syllabi that professors had included Twitter names that they would use to communicate with students about topics relevant to the course. While we ended up rarely using these Twitter for discussion throughout the semester, it is clear that Twitter in the classroom is an emerging trend, or at least a concept that has the potential to be classified as such.

"I wouldn't classify it as a trend just yet, but I think more and more faculty are at least aware of the possibilities," Peters says.

For Anu Sivaraman, an assistant professor of marketing at the University of Delaware's Alfred Lerner College of Business and Economics, Twitter is a way for students to "disseminate readings, and a way to get participation out of students because class time is limited," she says.

Sivaraman says she's seen more professors using Twitter in the classroom during this past academic year specifically. "The biggest problem professors have is they don't know what to Tweet about ... But a lot of people are finding their niche," she says.

Similarly to Peters, Sivaraman uses a simple hashtag -- just the class number, for example, "#302" -- which she says enables students to recognize when a Tweet is meant just for them.

"I think [Twitter] is a good blend of technology and in-class discussion," Sivaraman says.

Peters explained that Twitter "provides another platform for serious engagement." It allows students to contribute to ongoing class discussions at any time, whether they're completing an assignment at 2 a.m. in the library or sitting in class.

"I am not blind to the symbolic power of using social media," Peters says. "Students really respond positively to the fact that their frumpy old professor is willing to give it a try, even if it doesn't always work perfectly."

Indeed, The Daily Bruin, the student newspaper of the University of California - Los Angeles, detailed one professor's use of Twitter and Spotify in the classroom.

Jerome Camal, a visiting assistant professor in the school's Department of Musicology, told the Bruin that "large lectures can be very impersonal," and in one of his classes last year, he had "very little interaction with students." According to the Bruin, Camal encourages the 360 students sitting before him in a large lecture hall to Tweet their questions during class.

Peters, meanwhile, has also utilized Twitter to foster discussion amongst the students themselves. For his class' midterm exam in the spring, students worked in groups to produce components of a study guide.

"They took pictures of the results, and then posted them in the hashtag, where everyone had access to them," he says. "...Twitter is a faster and more agile way for me to engage my students with the course material, and for them to engage each other in meaningful conversations."

Yet, there is a downside to the prevalence of social media, especially as many students are permitted to use their laptops to take notes during class: students using the Internet for other reasons -- like communicating with friends or shopping online -- during lectures.

"[Professors have] lost that battle," Camal told the Bruin.

Peters, meanwhile, says Twitter isn't the only site that he has been incorporating into classes. In the spring, he sometimes also used Facebook, YouTube and Spotify in a single afternoon between his "Narratives of Justice and Equality" class and another class titled "Remix and Appropriation in the Western Tradition."

"This from a guy who typed his undergrad papers in the mid-1980s on a manual typewriter," he says.

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