Tweeting in Class

November 5, 2009

DENVER — Do Twitter skeptics really believe the popular microblogging service offers no educational value, or are they just afraid of it?

For W. Gardner Campbell, director of the Academy of Teaching and Learning at Baylor University, there is no question that fear of straying from the status quo has inhibited the development of Twitter as a teaching tool. “I go to conferences like Open Education 2009, and I come back with T-shirts like this: ‘Reuse, Revise, Remix, Redistribute,’ ” he said Wednesday at the annual Educause conference here. “And all it adds up to is more punishment at the hands of well-meaning, sometimes, but ultimately self-preserving institutional structures.”

While some higher ed officials — including nearly everyone at Wednesday's debate between Campbell and Bruce Maas, CIO of the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee — use Twitter for fun, many balk at the idea of incorporating it into the classroom.

Not Campbell, who also serves as an associate professor of literature and media at Baylor. “This network has been vitally important to me as a professional,” he told a packed audience, many of whom were discussing the session live via Twitter on a projection screen near the stage. Eventually, after he realized how useful the site is as a real-time resource for feedback and information, “I think, ‘If this network is good for me as a learner, could it be good for my students as learners?’ ”

Maas, representing a more sober view of Twitter’s educational utility, pointed to studies indicating that young people have not been as active in the realm of microblogging as their older counterparts. He said the evidence that the site might prove more a distraction in the classroom than a resource was right there in the room — Maas gestured to the overwhelming activity on the session’s Twitter discussion thread (the number of comments approached 500 by the end of the 45-minute gathering).

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But Campbell had a different take on the implications of audience members feverishly typing away while a presentation is still in progress. “That’s a godsend!” he said. “Suddenly, I’m not just the one at the front just dispensing everything, and the students aren’t just sort of milling about doing their thing — we’ve actually got a team of people working together. And Twitter is the glue that holds the team together.”

It’s also a data-gathering resource. Live discussion threads, Campbell noted, give professors loads of data on the previously mysterious question of what exactly is going on inside the heads of students during a lecture. No longer is a student’s ability to participate in classroom discussions contingent upon whether he is willing to raise his hand and has the good fortune to be called on, he said.

Nor is this sort of interchange bound within the walls of the classroom. Campbell mentioned the case of Monica Rankin, a history professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, who invited real-time Twitter talkback in her lectures. That social media experiment, he said, begat others: A graduate student at another program documented the experiment and posted it to YouTube; the professor began blogging about the experiment. “It wasn’t within the silos,” said Campbell. “What you saw here in this experiment was a lot of people climbing out of their fallout shelters… What happened was an institution-wide conversation that they shared with the world.”

And that, Maas said, is where CIOs start to get uncomfortable. The CIO’s role in the Twitter debate is not really to argue against the effectiveness of the service as a teaching tool, but to worry about the security and privacy risks that might come with moving course discussions out of the walled garden and on to the open Web.

“Security people,” he said, “have come up from the technology path. They’re not really from the sociologist path. So we really have a long way to go in finding the right security balance.”

Campbell acknowledged that the idea of having students tweet during lectures can be a scary prospect, not just for CIOs and public relations managers, but for faculty. “What if something gets quoted incorrectly? What if somebody says something that you didn’t want to share with the world?”

“Well, what if?” he continued. “It’s a cost-benefit trade-off.”

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