How One Teacher Uses Twitter in the Classroom

Teachers are always trying to combat student apathy and University of Texas at Dallas History Professor, Monica Rankin, has found an interesting way to do it using Twitter in the classroom.

Rankin uses a weekly hashtag to organize comments, questions and feedback posted by students to Twitter during class. Some of the students have downloaded Tweetdeck to their computers, others post by SMS or by writing questions on a piece of paper. Rankin then projects a giant image of live Tweets in the front of the class for discussion and suggests that students refer back to the messages later when studying. The Professor’s results so far have been mixed but it is clear that more students are participating in classroom discussions than they used to. A video about Rankin’s classroom experiment follows.

It’s funny to hear this history professor admit that “there are some topics we discuss that need more information” than Twitter’s 140 character limit allows. Some! Said like a true Twitter convert. It’s also nice to hear a teacher talk about technology and say, “it’s going to be messy but that doesn’t mean bad.” Welcome to the social web, where that’s a great attitude.

Rankin wrote a few pages of thoughts about “The Twitter Experiment” on her school web page as well. “Most educators would agree that large classes set in the auditorium-style classrooms limit teaching options to lecture, lecture, and more lecture,” she wrote. “And most educators would also agree that this is not the most effective way to teach. I wanted to find a way to incorporate more student-centered learning techniques and involve the students more fully into the material.”

Rankin’s experiment is similar to another effort at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, written up this Spring in The Chronicle of Higher Education. Another related example is available from Marquette University. Education consultant Jane Heart maintains a directory of more than 1000 learning professionals on Twitter.

Twitter truly is a paradigm shaking technology platform, but Rankin’s use of it at the University of Texas also illustrates some of its shortcomings. Most importantly, Twitter search and archiving are notoriously short-lived. The service was really intended for fleeting tweets about casual activities, and it seems to have been architected that way. Short lines of poetry, ruminating about the history of the world, penned by young scholars standing in the doorway to the rest of their intellectual lives? Not so much. These students will be lucky if they can retrieve their earliest Tweets at the end of the term.

Asking students to discuss their classes in a very public forum has got to raise concerns for some people as well. Rankin says participation isn’t required, but it’s because of these kinds of concerns that private, education focused services like EdModo have a market. That closed communication comes at the expense of public knowledge sharing, but classroom innovators may not be able to have it both ways in the long term.

The tide certainly seems to be turning though, in favor of education augmented by these kinds of technologies. A March draft proposal for UK primary school education guidelines, for example, includes nationwide instruction in the use of tools like Wikipedia and Twitter.

For many other ideas about how to use Twitter in the classroom, check out this presentation deck on the topic.

You can find ReadWriteWeb on Twitter, as well as the entire RWW Team: Marshall Kirkpatrick, Bernard Lunn, Alex Iskold, Sarah Perez, Frederic Lardinois, Sean Ammirati, Doug ColemanDana Oshiro, Steven Walling and Lidija Davis.

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