Twitter in the Classroom

Every day I read a new story or see a new video that helps explain course concepts. I imagine most of you are in the same boat (heck, you’re subscribing to a newsletter from a website whose purpose is to at least attempt to give you that!). When Jay Smooth puts out a video “On Don Lemon, Race and “Respectability”” where he explains how black men can save the world by pulling up their pants while also explaining politics of respectability, I want my students from Race, Class & Gender to watch that clip. When BuzzFeed has a whole article about women being “fashion victims” or killed, attacked by strangers, or date raped in ads – I want my intro to sociology students to open it up and see with their own eyes the evidence of rape culture I lectured about. But I can’t include every clip and

every news story in class. So how do you get them engaged in this outside material?

My solution has been to use social media – sometimes for assignments and sometimes for optional extra material – in order to get students to voluntarily become involved in materials NOT assigned for class. Today I want to tell you about Twitter, how I use it, it’s benefits, and it’s drawbacks.

We are probably all familiar with the 140 character social media space that sanctions megalomania (for those not familiar, check out ProfHacker for a “How To”). My negative description there reveals something very important about adopting social media in the classroom – unless you use it on your own, don’t use it in the class. I try to tweet. I do. You can follow my stream of … mostly nothing at @BridgetWelch. I’ll get on it and get active for a few days thinking, “This is it. I’m going to be a tweeter dammit!” and then it dies. However, for those of you that are tweeters out there or think you may become one, Twitter does offer some interesting classroom applications.

When I used it (and published this study on that use), I assigned short application tweets to an assignment backchannel (this is designating a special search term). We also live tweeted class films and on-campus events. Students could tweet questions to the course backchannel or directly to me (see here for other ideas). You can do a lot of interesting things with twitter and PowerPoint like: polls, live twitter feeds (if you do this, please have a dedicated backchannel for that day’s lecture … otherwise they are reading everything that has EVER been posted to the class backchannel), and you can automatically tweet major lecture points as you cover them in class. You freely download a lot of these tools (e.g. here and here). For example, I would use the feedback slides to embed recent student twitter assignments on a dedicated PowerPoint screen and then discuss good and not so good answers to the twitter prompt.

Concerns about Social Media in General

Anonymity: I always have professors worried about student anonymity. If you are going to tie grades to Twitter, you have to be able to track involvement. Some professors have held that they have students who cannot have an online presence (e.g. who have been stalked or are in the witness protection program – I’m not really sure about that one, but it really seemed to be what the person was suggesting). My answer to this has always been that you can either figure out a way for them still to participate (e.g. email you their tweets, print of others’ papers and turn in physical comments) or tell them about the ONE TRILLION different ways you can make an anonymous email and create a pseudonym that only the instructor knows.

Is Private, Not Public: I also have people who argue that social media is entertainment, it is for their private lives, and professors shouldn’t enter into students’ private lives. After I stop laughing over the notion that anything we put online is in anyway shape or form private, and that it isn’t in the students’ best interests to learn that NOW, I make it clear that I do NOT follow my students on Twitter. The only thing I see is their posts on the page/group, their twitter handle, and/or their public profile picture (which makes for some interesting impression management discussions!). Further, if a student is concerned with this, they can make an account just for class and keep it separate (which I tell them). Finally, this depends on your goals. If you don’t track involvement, students can simply opt out. It can be as much, or as little, a part of your class as you want


If you are interested in engaging your students outside of the classroom, providing them space to ask questions of you and each other, and a place to provide further materials to augment or support points you made in class, Twitter may work for you. The first thing you need to do is find out HOW your students use technology. Do your students tend to tweet or use Facebook? Do they use something else altogether?

Students already have a web presence. They already need to add an email, your school’s course management system, some professors have online quizzes or tests through a book rep or other website, and they may have other systems at your school. In our paper we called this Log-In Overload. Asking them to ADD even more (e.g. tweet when they Facebook) is a failing proposition. Similarly, try to do something that YOU use as well (or can at least get into). It makes life so much easier when you are used to using the social network site as part of your daily routine (avoid our own log-in overload).

Finally, think about what you want to use the online space for. This will tell you if you want students to practice writing concisely, Twitter is a great tool for that (and one that if you read my blog posts you know I could really benefit from). However, if you want to develop more than your student’s succinctness, Twitter may not be the platform for you.

Bridget Welch teaches at Western Illinois University.

– SociologyInFocus.com –