Kelli Marshall

Instructor at DePaul University

Rethinking Twitter in the Classroom

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Image: John James Audubon, via Wikimedia Commons

When I first required my students in a large lecture course to use Twitter, many of the roughly 120 enrolled did not approve. And they voiced that opinion quite clearly on my evaluations. Their comments could be divided into two categories: helpful and unhelpful.

Here are a few of the helpful ones:

  • “Make Twitter an extra-credit option instead of a requirement.”
  • “Use another form of communication than Twitter. Twitter is hard to follow when responding to other’s tweets.”
  • “The use of Twitter seemed to be a less-effective tool as a mandatory use for the main classroom discussion. Some students seemed turned off by the use of it for the course.”
  • “While some may not find Twitter a necessity, I believe it did prove more beneficial than detrimental. There were some good discussions that evolved due to Twitter. It provides for great communication with the proffesor [sic] as well.”

These comments are helpful because they express a concern (e.g., Twitter feeds are tough to follow) and then offer a solution (e.g., perhaps make Twitter optional). Unfortunately, most of my students’ comments regarding Twitter fell into the unhelpful category. (Note: Except for inserting single quote marks for clarity, none of the spelling, grammar, or wording below has been modified.) Among the unhelpful remarks:

  • “I hated Twitter.”
  • “Twitter should not be mandatory. Twitter shouldn’t be a part of your grade.”
  • “[Dr. Marshall’s] ridiculous obsession with Twitter and bringing it into the classroom is unacceptable — it does not enhance learning, it is just her pushing her obsession on the rest of us.”
  • “When I ask questions, they never really get answered, for instance, if I question on Twitter, [Dr. Marshall] will respond ‘you tell me…’ never a real response.”
  • “Twitter forces students to “dumbdown” their language. It goes against everything I have ever learned. In other words, it is detrimental to our intelligence!”
  • “Using Twitter for participation was a terrible idea and should not be done again. It would be much better if the exams were the only grades.”
  • “Twitter contributed no academic value to the course. It was an inconvenience more than anything and I felt I gained nothing by using it.”
  • “Twitter is by far the worst thing ever invented. It completely makes me lose hope in humanity. I can see the slow degradation in the intelligence of our society to this so-called social network. It truly saddens me that so many people lower themselves to posting on that piece of crap.”
  • “Twitter should be made optional. Losing points for not tweeting is like losing points for not smoking weed.”

Aside from being occasionally amusing, those comments are mostly unhelpful. They fail to discuss actual concerns regarding our class use of Twitter, and they offer no alternatives for discussion and participation. Moreover, they reveal some of the frustrations that teachers often cite after browsing their end-of-term evaluations from students. For instance, the vitriol and intended sarcasm from (most likely failing) students help no one, and such attacks can be personal, hurtful, and completely unrelated to the course. Some of the negative comments ultimately demonstrate that many students do not know and/or have never been taught how to properly assess a course or an instructor.

Nonetheless, can unhelpful comments teach me anything? Collectively, yes. Should I take them into consideration when deciding whether to employ Twitter in future classes? Yes ... but carefully.

No matter how much it might pain me to say this: The fact that so many students felt compelled to bash Twitter on their course evaluations alerted me that something was amiss. While remarks like, “I hated Twitter” and “Twitter is the worst thing ever invented,” did not persuade me to drop the assignment, they did make me rethink how I’d introduce Twitter on the first day of class.

What’s more, although many of them obviously didn’t realize it, students were truly learning via their online discussions. They were successfully analyzing Rear Window, expressing their opinions about Religulous, and considering problematic representations of gender in American Gigolo -- all in under 140 characters.

Honestly, that was the part that saddened me the most as I first read through my evaluations: They were so busy hating Twitter they didn’t realize how much they were learning or how much they were thinking critically.

So the following term, I made the students’ weekly tweeting assignments only a part of their participation grade, rather than accounting for virtually all of it. I also didn’t specify how many tweets they should post each week, which I had done before. On the first day of the semester, I walked into the lecture hall, quickly introduced myself, and projected the following “Starter Questions” on the large classroom screen.

If students answered no to all or most of those questions, they were in the right place. But if they responded affirmatively, I told them it was probably in their best interest to seek out another course for their arts elective. There would be no Twitter surprises for this group of students. They knew from the start what they were in for: a challenging introductory film course that met Friday mornings and required a few hours of homework every week, including conversations on Twitter.

This time, their remarks on my evaluations at the end of the course were quite different. Only five students — out of 80 — criticized the use of Twitter in the classroom. Four of the remarks took the form of this one: “I didn’t like Twitter, I don’t have time for it.” The fifth (and most amusing) was “off” on several levels: “Didn’t like the twiter (sic) … It is outdated and no one uses it … try facebook.”

Perhaps more rewarding, I am still in touch with some of my former students. We continue to talk — via Twitter — about gender, race, and sexuality in Hollywood. We exchange links, images, and gifs. So, yes, even though some students may not have realized it at the time, they were learning. And apparently, as my Twitter feed often indicates, some still are.

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