by David R. Wessner, professor of biology, Davidson College
Robust classroom discussions augment the learning process greatly and improve the critical thinking skills of our students. Our discussions, however, necessarily are limited. We are limited to the knowledge, experiences, and perspectives of the members of the course. With the use of social networking platforms like Twitter, we can overcome this limitation. We can extend the conversation beyond the members of the class, beyond the classroom walls, and the beyond the appointed class hours. In this case study, I describe how I incorporated Twitter into my class with the express goal of having my students interact with a broader audience. The results were encouraging. First, several non-class members regularly tweeted using our class hashtag. Each of them provided an expertise that augmented our class discussions and furthered our understanding of the material. Second, the use of Twitter allowed me to more intentionally integrate information literacy into my class. The students thought more critically about sources of information. Finally, this approach to broadening the classroom conversation may allow students at different institutions to interact with each other. Separate classes, at separate institutions, could partner to form a larger virtual community, thereby providing our students with a richer educational experience.
Many studies have shown that various forms of active learning improve student outcomes (Ebert-May et al. 1997; Freeman et al., 2007; Knight and Wood, 2005). While active learning can take many forms, most examples involve some form of discussion. In the think-pair-share model, for example, instructors ask students to contemplate a particular question or problem, talk about the issue with a fellow student, and then present a synthesized answer to the larger group (Lyman, 1981; Tanner and Allen, 2002). The success of this approach seems quite obvious. Each student needs to clearly articulate his or her viewpoints to his or her partner. Both students then must evaluate each other’s answer. Finally, together, the students must synthesize a new answer that may or may not perfectly reflect either of their original answers.
While the benefits of discussion-based learning may be obvious, the approach is necessarily limited. Whether we have a class with twelve students, twenty students, or fifty students, our discussions ultimately will be confined to the knowledge, viewpoints, expertise, and experiences of the class members.
So how do we overcome this limitation? How do we increase the viewpoints, expertise, and experiences brought to our discussion? We could make our classes infinitely large. Obviously, that solution is not feasible. Social media platforms like Twitter, however, may allow us to solve this problem. By using social networking in our classes, we can create an infinitely large, and presumably more knowledgeable and informed, virtual discussion group. Moreover, by involving actual practitioners, we can create for students a community of practice (Lave and Wenger, 1991).