Twitter Does Not Always Work As A Class Requirement

Using Twitter as a required tool in a Race, Gender and Media class this summer taught me some lessons about the limits of social media in a mass communications classroom.

Just posted my final grades for the Race, Gender and Media class I taught at the University of Alabama this summer.

Most all of the students did well– very well!

But, I need to grade the new tool that we used– Twitter. For this class, it gets a “C”

With just eight 4-hour class meetings,  this Race, Gender and Media  course was heavily based on screening media projects that emphasize issues of race and issues of gender in the mass media.

I’ve been posting summaries of their tweets here.

Most recently, students tweeted on Spike Lee’s film, Bamboozled.

Last week, they tweeted on Media Education Foundation’s “Further Off the Straight and Narrow.”

And earlier in the term, they shared on Twitter their reactions to Part 1 of  CNN’s 2009 documentary, Latino in America.

Educational Tweets

I laughed each time the students would use the term “educational tweets”  when announcing to their followers that they were about to send comments about a movie, film or documentary we were watching in class.

I think it was a signal that their educational work was crossing over into a social space.

The enthusiasm was not especially high as I was asked “Do we have to Tweet about this?”

After all, microblogging is occurring on a social networking platform.

I’m NOT sure this activity works as a required classroom activity

It’s Different From Journalism and Public Relations

With any course, you have to establish specific expectations in order for a requirement to be taken seriously.

The expectation over the five media projects on which we Tweeted was that EACH student would send at least 2 tweets per project.   That’s a total of 8 tweets for the whole term.

Most students didn’t have a problem doing that.

While in a course like newswriting and reporting, we are teaching students how to use social media as a tool for research, building reputation and relationships, those same skill expectations don’t necessarily transfer in a conceptual course such as Race, Gender and Media.

For those used to using social media to socialize, they may not be building much of  a reputation by commenting briefly on things their followers haven’t seen.

More importantly, “forced Tweeting” doesn’t result in the profound insights that add much to our classroom dialogue and discussion– a goal I had for this component of the class.

We Did Get Feedback

Another goal I had was for those outside in our class to engage students on some of the things they were saying about the projects we screened.

Using Twitter handles of some of the principles in the projects was one strategy to encourage such engagement.

We did have one producer of one of the projects DIRECT MESSAGE me inquiring about the project.

I pointed him to the posting using STORIFY  summarizing the tweets.

Another student tweeted to a professor in a previous class that he was watching a particular film.  The professor re-tweeted his post.

So I guess these count as feedback and interaction.

The Bottomline on Requiring Twitter

One of the biggest reasons I like teaching courses in the summer is the chance to experiment with different, unconventional ways of teaching and learning.

This was the second time I required students in a class to have a Twitter account and use it.   The results were, at best, mixed.

Here’s what we learned:

1.  The best Twitter usage in a classroom environment comes from those who are already used to the tool and know how to engage followers

Forcing students to do something like this as we would a written assignment doesn’t make them any more prepared for the workplace.  The motivation has to come from within. A grade is not enough.

2. Online interaction via social networking is NO SUBSTITUTE for face-to-face classroom interaction.

Our best classroom discussion came in the last 30 minutes of  the last class meeting this past Tuesday.  No Twitter needed– just students comfortable sharing their feelings and plenty of time, which we didn’t have at 8:30 Tuesday night.

3. STORIFY is NOT the best tool for context

On my syllabus I noted that I would be summarizing tweets using the STORIFY tool.  It had a limited amount of space for contextualizing the tweets.   So it didn’t quite meet my need in this setting.   STORIFY works best if the 140-character missives are pithy, memorable often with links take the reader somewhere.

4. Teaching Twitter really requires time

Before putting an assignment like this into the class, the instructor needs to build in time for students to “lurk a little”– see what other Twitter users said about something similar to the topic on which they’ll be tweeting.  This means more classtime is necessary.

5. Twitter works best in a skills-oriented class

I think a course that is showing students to how to use Twitter as a tool for engagement in an advertising or public relations campaign or to find information for a story or engagement a readership or viewership on a news item is one thing.  Requiring students to contribute via Twitter is an entirely different story,  where the skills and importance of using the medium  are not as clearcut.

So, I won’t use Twitter again in this class, but I will take that effort and roll it back into the face-to-face classroom discussions.    Lesson Learned!

Author: George Daniels

George L. Daniels is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama. After spending eight years in the local television newsroom working as a producer at stations in Richmond, Virginia; Cincinnati, Ohio; and Atlanta, Georgia, Daniels moved from the newsroom to the classroom. He’s conducted research on diversity issues in the media workplace and change in the television newsroom as well as media convergence. Before going to work in television news, Daniels worked briefly as a freelance writer for The Richmond Free Press in his hometown of Richmond, Va.

3 thoughts on “Twitter Does Not Always Work As A Class Requirement”

  1. George,

    Thanks for sharing your experience. I learn a lot by reading what other instructors have tried.

    I agree with your comment about the problem of potentially invading social space. If students are motivated to tweet — that’s great. Requiring it puts it in a different category. I’ve had success using Twitter (voluntarily) in a large lecture as a way for students to comment and ask questions. They’ve had some interesting conversations during TED videos, for example.

    Perhaps requiring students to share in class their favorite Tweet about a particular subject (without actually having to Tweet) might be a way to get them engaged in the public conversation without crossing over into their private-public space.


  2. I agree with your comments. I would rather require students to participate in blogging and online forums. Although I integrated Twitters into my summer Computers in the Classroom course, I did not find it as effective as using Nings and other online collaborative tools and professional networking opportunities. I also agree that those who already have experience with Twitter fare better than those who are new to it. I have discovered that professors who require Twitter find that after the course is over, few students continue to use Twitter for professional development. However, I have had some success with using TodaysMeet to connect students in a course for back channeling and exchanges with students in other courses or for dialogues with those in the field. Although I am a fan myself of Twitter for PLN, I cannot say that is the same for others, even for the teachers I teach or the professors at my college. I get mixed results, and there’s a steep learning curve for some to use Twitter’s features well. Many teachers don’t have the patience, inclination, or time to select Twitter as their preferred PLN.

  3. Wondering if they used a hashtag for their tweets. If they used a hashtag that was specific for the class, and one that others followed that was connected to the films concepts, that would connect the class and automatically connect them with a larger audience willing to discuss. Using the twitter website is an automatic way of having the twitter experiment not result in the type of learning you expected. Using something like tweetdeck would allow easier access to tweets with their hashtag. Also wondering if they were used in class, something along the line of showing the tweets with the hashtag as a conversation starter. Great idea, interesting course…don’t give up on twitter 🙂

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