Can students really learn on Twitter?

Once again this question came up in twitter conversation a couple of weeks ago when this JSOnline article, Professors experiment with Twitter as a teaching tool, was shared. The article highlights how educators, Gee Ekechai and Linda Menck, incorporate Twitter into curriculum. I was thrilled to note Ekechai and Menck emphasized the key learning skills of the Twitter exercise (listening, information-gathering, multitasking and succinct writing) and how they saw it as their responsibility to teach students about this social media tool because it is becoming essential knowledge for their chosen communication career fields.

Skip down in the article and you begin to get a sour taste in your mouth…reality hits. How can you teach about communication tools without using them? Does informality hinder education? Why does there have to be a wall between students and professors? This line of thinking was what I experienced during the SxSWi education panels. Professors are afraid of eroding the respect barrier between students and professors if conversation outside of the educational topic is discussed. Therefore, reaction is to restrict conversations. Let it remain theory.

“Not all of yourself can be public,” he said. “There are notions of professionalism. Just the little back and forth that you have with your friends – you may not want your students to ask you about that.” -John Jordan, Associate Professor in UWM’s communication department.

Correct. The professor must remain professional and realize what is tweeted is public 24/7. I encourage students to follow the banter I have with colleagues online. Read the links shared and offer their opinions. If they read a tweet I posted about being frustrated with a project, the students learn I am human and I turn said frustration into a learning opportunity. To be on Twitter does not mean you have to expose yourself entirely. We are communicators! We should know how to set boundaries for ourselves and teach our students to set their own boundaries and the needs for such limitations.

“With the experiment nearly over, Young said he doesn’t see the tool as useful in an academic sense because he can’t restrict the conversation to people in his class, as he can when he uses Marquette’s online class organization tool, Desire2Learn.” (McGee Young, assistant professor of political science at Marquette)

Why restrict the conversation to only class members when there is a wealth of knowledge amongst those on Twitter? I do not know everything or claim to know everything. I appreciate the wisdom and experience of other communicators and enjoy when they jump into the conversation. Of course there is the possibility a troll may stumble into the discussion. As I said above, use this as a learning opportunity to discuss the dynamics of online conversation and detractors.

“If there’s 25 of you there in a crowd of 500, and you’re trying to have a discussion in the midst of a large crowd, you can talk to two or three people at a time, but the other 25 aren’t going to be part of the conversation in any meaningful way. That’s what happens with Twitter.” -McGee Young

It is my responsibility as the professor to facilitate the conversation on Twitter or any other social media channel we are practicing. Use hashtags to easily follow the conversation and not let dialog get lost in a crowd of 500 tweets. Take charge…not control. I do not shelter my students necessarily, but I will not make them sitting ducks either. Keep the conversation on topic while in class and during facilitated offline class discussions. Share and encourage dialog not broadcasting.

The article ends with the following quote by Marc Tasman, a lecturer in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s journalism and mass communication department.

“If there’s a tsunami coming, start swimming with the current.”

Please do not look at Twitter or social media tools as a natural disaster. I spoke about twitter for several semesters before I felt comfortable enough to incorporate the channel into select curriculum. I learned from the best: Karen Russell, Barbara Nixon and Mihaela Vorvoreanu.

During the 2008-09 fall/winter semesters, I required students to participate actively in Twitter for a three week exercise in two marketing communications classes. In the first class, students were required only to follow me and fellow students. I began by sharing links and asking questions about the articles of interest. The conversation was slow at first, but then students began to get excited about sharing their findings and asking questions in return. Many students found this dialog to be helpful in exploring ideas and answering questions about their blog posts (also a class assignment).

In the second class, I had the students follow Mashable’s list of 40 of the Best Twitter Brands and the People Behind Them. Students wrote a paper about their experience with the top brands and evaluated conversation/broadcast ratio. Most students found the brands to be broadcasting and detracting from real conversation happening organically in the channel.

I can talk about what I think my students learned or at least what I hoped they learned, but if you really want student insight of a Twitter class assignment, I encourage you to read Professor Mihaela Vorvoreanu’s recent blog post where she shares the responses of an anonymous survey of her PR students from the Spring 09 Stakeholder Communication class.

I shudder to think I am ending this post with a Spiderman quote, but it rings true for this issue and the educators featured…

“With great power comes great responsibility.”

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  • Karen Russell

    Sorry I’m so slow to comment. I wanted to mention that I’m going to change how I teach Twitter to allow students the chance to tweet for a client org. and not just as themselves — hoping this will give some who just don’t like Twitter a different view on its usefulness. I’ll let you know how it turns out next fall.

  • Lauren Vargas

    That is a great exercise. Can’t wait to hear how it works!