Using Social Media in Teaching and Learning

journal.pcbi.1003789.g001This week’s Digital Pedagogy workshop, “Using Social Media in Teaching and Learning,” will occur Tuesday, September 15, from 4:30–5:30 pm, with a repeat on Wednesday, September 16 from 11:00 am–noon. The location is the library computer lab (Abell 208).

Following up on last week’s introduction to Twitter for academics, this week we’ll explore how to use Twitter and other social media with students. Over the last several years, instructors have been very inventive in experimenting with Twitter to enhance pedagogy. Here are several possible use cases:

Create a “backchannel” for the class. This gives students and you another avenue of communication that can be much more dynamic and rich than, say, a Moodle discussion forum or an email distribution list. A backchannel can function both during class meetings and, especially, outside of class time. Give your course a unique hashtag and ask students to include that hashtag in every course-related post or tweet. Students then have a convenient channel to take notes, make comments, ask questions, share resource links and suggestions, and respond to one another with help. Collaborations could be established with other sections of the course, with other courses on campus, and beyond the college. You could connect the course to outside experts and other persons beyond the class who could enrich student learning.

If you are particularly bold, you could even have this activity taking place during class, letting students “live-tweet” class lectures and presentations, just as commonly occurs at academic conferences. While you might think this would be distracting, it could also be an interesting form of public note-taking and active listening, not all that different from taking notes with pen and paper. It could be very helpful to see, for example, what students take away from a presentation to post on Twitter and how conversations about the subject continue after class. Derek Bruff (@derekbruff) offers a helpful overview of possibilities in “Backchannel in Education–Nine Uses.”

Have students post observations and photos/videos from field or external locations. Many courses have occasions in which students are outside the classroom, performing field observations, visiting museums or galleries, attending events, documenting local activities, etc. And of course students are out and about on their own time as well. Create the opportunity for them to capture course-related information and share it with the entire class.

Margaret Rubega (@ProfRubega) teaches ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of Connecticut and has employed Twitter as a learning and communication tool in her ornithology class. She asks students to post tweets when they observe birds and bird behavior, noting their location and connecting their observations to course material. Students used the hashtag #birdclass, which others outside the class can also access and contribute to (check it out). Her course activity was featured in local media (“Bird Class Tweets Sightings“) and in the New York Times (“On Birds, Twitter, and Teaching“). An interview with Dr. Rubega notes,

“I wanted students to notice birds more. The assignment succeeded beyond my wildest dreams,” she says. In a lecture class it’s easy to lecture at students without making what you’re lecturing apply to the outside world,” Rubega adds. The Twitter assignment forced students to observe for themselves. And they didn’t limit their observations to campus. They posted about birds beyond the Storrs locale – they tweeted on Spring Break and during weekend trips. Students who gave Rubega the impression that they were not all that interested in birds ended up correcting others on Twitter who were confused about bird species. They wrote about birds on Twitter long after the assignment had ended.

Encourage students to live-tweet events, films, presentations, etc. Instead of having students simply watch media and events (either synchronously or asynchronously), why not have them actively engage by live-tweeting? In “Live-Tweeting Assignments: To Use or Not to Use?“, Adeline Koh (@adelinekoh)

explores some of the benefits and drawbacks to one of my most successful teaching exercises using Twitter—getting students to “live tweet” films. “Live tweeting” basically means tweeting as students are watching the film, either by reporting on or commenting on what they are viewing. I’ve tried this with documentaries, films of famous speakers giving lectures, and feature films. Every single time this activity has massively increased student engagement and learning. You can see a sample assignment I’ve used here and and student reactions to the activity here.

Other possibilities for live-tweeting might include events such as speeches and presidential debates. Imagine having students, say, live-tweet and fact-check this Wednesday night’s Republican presidential debate. They could also analyze the social media strategies of various candidates (so check out…if you dare… @realDonaldTrump, or @BernieSanders).

Use Twitter in foreign language and culture instruction and study abroad. Twitter offers many possibilities for students to practice foreign language communication and learn about world cultures from different perspectives. Students can easily begin to connect with native speakers in the target language and practice sentence composition in real-time chat situations.  Vivian Finch (@vivianfinch) describes her experience using Twitter with her German class:

My first foray into using Twitter with my German students stemmed from an excitement generated from personal use of the micro-blogging site.  I found I could easily plug into a community of individuals that I perhaps didn’t know, but with whom I shared common interests.  It was this community feeling combined with the potential for authentic target language communication that led me to begin using Twitter in my introductory German courses.  The 140 characters gave my introductory level students just enough space to communicate with me, each other, and the world at large in German, and all at their own pace, both outside and inside the classroom.  The students were able to create their own community centered on learning German and learning about German culture, and, to a certain extent, took ownership of their own learning process.

Finch has gone on to even more ambitious activities, as she discusses in “‘Adventures in Twitter Fiction’: Student Generated Digital Storytelling and the Foreign Language Classroom.” In this project students collaboratively and emergently create characters and a storyline to write a Twitter short story in German. A story hashtag pulls all of the tweets into one stream. Students creatively use their German, and also think critically about the short story genre.

There are just a few examples that might help you to start generating some ideas. Of course there are also practical issues to consider, such as how to evaluate and assess Twitter and other social media activities, properly structuring assignments and establishing clear expectations, dealing with possible student resistance, and taking into account possible student concerns regarding privacy and intellectual property. So come and join the conversation this week at the workshop and online.

Curated Resource List

#TWP15–Teaching with WordPress


During the month of June I’ll be participating in an open online course on using WordPress as a platform for teaching and learning. More broadly, the four-week course will function as a community of learners exploring topics and issues such as:

  • open education, open pedagogy and design
  • WordPress as a highly customizable framework for teaching and learning
  • examples of instructors and learners usng WordPress sites in many different ways for multiple purposes
  • plug ins, applications and approaches for creating, discussing, sharing and interacting with each other

I’ll be using this course as a vehicle to further develop and enhance a WordPress based course I’m teaching this summer at Austin College, “How the Web Works: Building Your Digital Identity, Literacy, and Network.” Beyond that, I’m looking forward to participating with colleagues to build up a rich set of resources that we can then make available to folks here at AC who want to move their teaching and learning in a more open and connected direction.

According to the course facilitators at the University of British Columbia,

Teaching with WordPress is designed to be a “connectivist” open online course, in which the contributions of the participants are crucial to what each of us learns; we will connect with each other through blog posts, Twitter and discussions on this site. Most importantly, we’ll learn from each other’s course design on their WordPress sites. It is our hope that at least some of the connections participants make with each other in the course will last beyond the course itself, that we can develop a kind of community of practice around teaching with WordPress (and/or around open education & open pedagogy, or anything else that comes up in the course).

I know it’s late notice, but if any of you want to join in, that would be great…all you need is a WordPress site and a course that you would like to work on. Or just follow along at the Twitter hashtag #TWP15.


Draftback and Writing Visualization

FiveThirtyEight points to a neat little Chrome extension called Draftback that can “play back” any document composed in Google Docs.  As the author indicates, it does this by treating your writing as data, with each individual character entry or deletion (which are already tracked by Docs) being sequenced and played back by Draftback.

This could be a useful way to help students visualize the process of their writing.  What about a workshop session like this?

  • Students write drafts of their essays in Google Docs.
  • They share them with a partner or small group (or the professor) before class.
  • Their group watches each draftback animation and notes places where the author made specific structural, thematic, or grammatical choices that contributed significantly to the current draft, as well as speculate about other directions the draft could have taken if different choices had been made.
  • Then in class, groups conduct a mini-workshop with each essay, drawing on the specifics of the draftback animation for details in their constructive criticism.

This approach could help students understand more concretely the nature of writing as process in addition to product, which is something students often struggle with but that can help immensely in both improving their writing and increasing their confidence in their own writing ability.

Guest Post: Classroom Salon–Using Video Annotation to Reflect on Student Teaching

classroom salonLast year I read Focus on Teaching: Using Video for High-Impact Instruction, by Jim Knight, and was sold on the idea of having my student teachers record themselves in the classroom and then reflecting on the video with them. I decided to implement this strategy in my Fall 2014 course, EDUC 475, “The Learner, The Teacher, and the Curriculum,” and began to explore what technology would be required. Where would students store and post their videos, and how would we engage in discussion about them in a private and secure space?

About that time I talked to Mo Pelzel, AC Digital Pedagogy Designer, who told me about a resource that would meet my needs. Classroom Salon is a web-based document and video annotation platform. Learning spaces, called “salons,” can be set up for individuals or groups of students to access, annotate, and discuss written documents as well as videos. For this class, students each have their own private salon. They post videos of their teaching that only the two of us can see. This means that they feel very safe in the learning process. I provided them with four sets of prompts to guide them in their video analysis. Students examine themselves, their students, teacher-student interactions, and pedagogical strategies. The ability to comment upon the video at specific points in the timeline makes possible a deep level of reflection and metacognition. As I watch the videos I type in my comments. The students also can see exactly where my comments are in the video. These can then become talking points as we discuss their growth as teachers.

The result is that I have seen students that are empowered to look at their work and make instructional decisions based on their analysis. They are taking ownership of their growth and development as teachers. Classroom Salon was a very helpful tool for me and my students, and I will utilize it again this semester. Several of my colleagues are following suit. I will also continue to collect data to better understand the efficacy of this approach and fully expect to share my findings at a conference on teaching.

10 Things the Best Digital Teachers Do

Here’s a helpful article posted last week by Jesse Stommel and Sean Michael Morris of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “10 Things the Best Digital Teachers Do.” The authors begin by noting that

Both of us came to digital teaching early but somewhat reluctantly. What we love most about teaching are the interactions with students, and 15 years ago we didn’t see clearly how adding digital tools would allow us to strengthen those interactions.

The truth is: Face-to-face teaching has no direct digital analogue. However, digital technology has helped us have different kinds of interactions, and with a much more diverse set of students. Likewise, using digital tools has allowed our students to interact with a global community.

Sometimes we might think that the use of digital resources would compromise the kind of faculty-student interaction that Austin College is known for, so it’s encouraging to hear colleagues affirm that digital technologies can enhance engagement with students. Give it a read and let us know what you think.

By the way, UMW has been in the news this week because Wisconsin governor Scott Walker has proposed further cuts in state funding to higher ed coupled with increased faculty teaching loads. As one state legislator put it, “Of course I want research, but I want to have research done in a way that focuses on growing our economy, not on ancient mating habits of whatever.” Just a thought as you plan your research agendas!