My second blog post reflecting on teaching innovations of 2012 is dedicated to my use of Twitter during one undergraduate module in the year just passed. My original intention, in embedding a Twitter widget within one of my Moodle pages, was merely to issue the occasional message to students to aid communication of, for instance, my progress with marking of their assessments. However, when I announced our ‘official’ Twitter hashtag to the students, to my surprise and delight, they started to use it not just for my module but to tweet about other areas of the programme as well. Even students not on the module started using the hashtag!
A few weeks into my module, I discovered that students who brought to class mobile devices that were connected to the wireless network (see my previous post on BYOD) had been tweeting on the lecture during the lecture, prompting me to tweet back during the break. At this point, with the help of several colleagues from the Learning Development Centre (thanks are due to Neal Sumner, Siân Lindsay, and particularly Ajmal Sultany), I investigated a means of live-tweeting during lectures without interrupting the rest of the teaching such as my use of PowerPoint and audiovisual examples.
Having looked into a number of different desktop-based Twitter clients to see whether they would meet my rather specific requirements, I found that Twhirl worked perfectly, with a search set up for the hashtag. I needed to increase the number of seconds for which the desktop alert is displayed, to give the students sufficient time to read it before it disappeared (I have to confess that since the alerts are only visible for c.15 seconds, a student and I had to mock up the photograph, right). I also found it necessary to lower the resolution on my laptop, because otherwise the alerts would have appeared off the far right-hand side of the screen when projected through the teaching pod.
It took a little while to get it just right, but having found workarounds for the various technological and logistical challenges, in several classes (with the aid of my trusty iPad) I provided a running Twitter feed before, during, and after the lecture, which helped keep students’ attention focussed on the key points and issues particularly when audiovisual examples were playing. A few students (though perhaps not as many as I’d hoped) followed my lead and tweeted their own thoughts too, all of which were displayed in real-time on the projector screen at the front of the classroom. We also received tweets from former students who have taken the module in the past, from staff elsewhere in the University who picked up news of the lectures via Twitter, and even, occasionally, retweets from users unknown to us – an ideal reminder that we were discussing real-life issues that have a bearing on the real world, beyond the confines of the University.
Disadvantages to live-tweeting include that the author of a given message is publicly identified rather than anonymous (perhaps this was why some students were using the hashtag only outside the classroom, rather than having their tweets appear on the projector screen during class), and that the tutor cannot anticipate the appearance or content of a tweet so there is a danger that it might interrupt the flow of the lecture. Nonetheless, although an ambitious undertaking it did seem to be an effective way of using Twitter to enhance teaching, without placing it at the centre of teaching. It also provided a novel means of engaging the students – including some who might not have been quick to contribute to face-to-face class discussion.
Were I to take Twitter back into the University classroom in the future, there are a couple of additional possibilities I might seek to implement. One is to pass a mobile device or two round the class and appoint specific students to be responsible for providing a running Twitter commentary for a given lecture. Another is to embed tweets within my PowerPoint presentation via add-in Twitter Tools, such that they are automatically posted (and the alert received) upon reaching the associated slide. Using these Twitter Tools, it is even possible to include a tweet cloud in a PowerPoint presentation, and to embed a real-time Twitter ticker feed at the bottom of each slide, which might ultimately obviate the need to use a desktop-based client. Much to think about for 2013!