If I had to name the leading cause of distraction in my classroom it would be, without any doubt, the smartphone. Most if not all of our millennial students have one, and I would venture to say that the overwhelming majority of them use at least one social media app as well. Chances are that your students have a presence on at least two of the three major social media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. Of these three, Twitter is by far my favorite, due to its innovative role in the college courses that I teach.
My Twitter conversion
I’ll admit that I was a skeptic at first. I didn’t get it… at all. Why only 140 characters? A what-tag? “No, silly, that’s called a pound sign,” I thought. “Twitter is dumb, and the fad will be over soon enough,” I would tell myself. But an ever-increasing number of my more hip friends had Twitter accounts. They would talk about how they sent tweets to Danny DeVito after an episode of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. I was even scoffed at on a date for not having a Twitter. Finally, I had had enough, and I created my own account. I followed my favorite sports teams, celebrities, news outlets, politicians—you name it. I soon discovered that I could get all the up-to-date information I wanted via one platform. I was immediately hooked, and judging from my college-aged cousins, so are our students.
So in spite of my earlier point that smartphones and social media apps can be an annoyance in the classroom, I decided to fight fire with fire by adding social media to my pedagogy. Much to my surprise, Twitter has helped me connect to my students outside of the classroom in a far greater way than I could have ever imagined. Below I lay out some helpful tips on how to incorporate Twitter into your classes.
Use “professional” twitter handles
Although social media was once a way to keep in touch with friends or make new ones, most journalists, politicians, and businesspeople now keep an active social media presence. If your students are communication, political science, or business majors, most likely they will eventually have to create and maintain an active social media presence for themselves or a future employer. At a time when the value of an undergraduate education is increasingly scrutinized, employing professional social media use in the classroom reinforces the idea that college is supposed to be where students acquire the skills needed for employment after graduation: group work, time management, keeping deadlines, etc. I require my students to create a Twitter handle based on their first and last name so that it can also be used in other classes.
If you are, say, teaching a marketing class, you may be tempted to begin with something like a group project in which students maintain a Twitter presence for their imaginary advertising firm. Slow down. Instead, start by making Twitter something optional. I started by posting extra credit assignments on Twitter. For example, in my intermediate Spanish classes, I have asked students to tweet me their thoughts (in Spanish) about the President’s immigration plan from the State of the Union. The 140-character limit allows my more timid students to participate without feeling overwhelmed. Below is an example of a question I asked one of my classes (“What does it mean to be Lasallian?”) via Twitter. One of my students had a particularly great response (“to never stop exploring”), which I retweeted. (Click on the image to enlarge.)
Other options include having students regularly post links to pieces related to the unit or chapter content, critiquing and retweeting of other classmates’ posts, and following an important figure or organization related to the course. Below is an example of a tweet I posted congratulating two of the graduating seniors in one of our sections. Notice their responses (in our course’s target language!) below my original tweet.
Get to know your way around the Twitter app
I often remind my students that email and Twitter are the two best ways to get in touch with me. Obviously email is preferred for personal matters, but Twitter is a great way to keep in touch with students before exams or due dates. If a student’s question is one that other students might have, I like to respond by typing a period before his or her handle. Seasoned Twitter users will know that your replies that start with a Twitter handle do not show up in your followers’ feeds. However, placing a period before the handle allows that reply to easily be seen by all your followers. This way, if I know that my response might answer several students’ questions, they can check my feed to see if I have already addressed the issue. (Here is a quick review of the basic sharing functions of Twitter). If you allow notifications from the app, you can see instantly that you have a tweet from one of your students. It is completely up to you how “available” online you want to be for your students.
Some of my colleagues laugh or look at me cockeyed when I tell them that I use Twitter in my classroom. Why would I want to add extra work to my already busy teaching load and take away time from finishing my dissertation? My answer is threefold: Twitter has given me (1) the opportunity to integrate a new professional skill in the classroom, (2) a different approach to better connect with my students, and (3) an innovative way to elicit increased course participation.
What about you? Have you included social media or other nuanced technology in your undergraduate teaching? Tell us about it in the comments!
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