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).
Twitter, a microblogging platform, was launched in July 2006. It allows users to post short messages, or tweets, of up to 140 characters. These tweets can contain links to Web sites and images. A user can elect to follow other users, thereby allowing one to see the tweets of others on one’s individual Twitter feed. Shortly after the launch of Twitter, academics began exploring how this microblogging platform could be used in the classroom setting. Indeed, just 18 months after its launch, Parry (2008) wrote an essay about its use in the academic setting. In this article, Parry describes his first use of Twitter in the classroom. He notes that, with Twitter, conversations among students continued outside of class. These continued conversations, he argues, led to a greater sense of community among his students.
In a subsequent article, Sample (2010) provides a general framework for using Twitter in the classroom. Adapting a framework originally developed by Rick Reo at George Mason University, Sample describes a matrix for Twitter use (Figure 1) that ranges from monologic to dialogic on one axis and from passive to active student involvement on the other axis. Basic communications (due dates of a test, for example) would be considered monologic and passive, while student discussions would be considered dialogic and active. He notes that Twitter can be used in many different forms in the classroom to achieve many different goals.
The use of Twitter in a dialogic and active fashion can positively affect student learning (Dunlap and Lowenthal, 2009; Ebner et al., 2010). In one particular study, the authors examined the effects of Twitter on student engagement and grades (Junco et al., 2010). They used the microblogging platform for various class-related communications, ranging from ongoing class discussions to class reminders and showed increased engagement and higher grades among students using Twitter in the classroom as compared to a control group of students.
While several studies like this one have demonstrated increased learning gains associated with the use of Twitter, I argue that instructors have not capitalized fully on the most powerful benefit of this social networking platform – the ability to include outside discussants. With Twitter, we can include various people with different areas of expertise in our discussions. We no longer need to be limited by the expertise of the people in our class. We no longer need to limited by the viewpoints or personal experiences of the people in our class. To this end, I have used Twitter in the classroom specifically to engage a larger audience in our class discussions.
Biology of HIV/AIDS is an upper-level seminar course primarily for biology majors. Enrollment is limited to twelve students. Most class periods are devoted to student-led discussions of primary journal articles. Students also read related general interest articles, and we add in discussions of relevant social, economic, and political issues as warranted.
While this class has been successful and well received, I have always looked for ways to extend our conversations beyond the appointed course meeting times. Often, it seems, students and I have more meaningful and more varied conversations during chance meetings in the College Union or at the local coffee shop. Social networking platforms, I reasoned, would provide my students and me with an ability to have these unplanned conversations without relying on chance encounters. Moreover, social networking platforms allow us to have these conversations at all times. The class schedule no longer dictates the time of our encounters.
To explore the feasibility of using social networking platforms, I chose to use Twitter. As an active user, I knew that many individuals and organizations posted useful information about HIV/AIDS on Twitter, and I expected that several individuals would be interested in joining our class discussion. In short, I anticipated having a ready-made audience. At the beginning of the semester, only a few students had Twitter accounts or were regular users. I provided the class with a brief introduction to the platform and encouraged everyone to sign up. We agreed on a class hashtag – #BIO361. Within Twitter, a hashtag (any word preceded by the number sign) allows users to quickly and easily search for related posts. I informed students that I would post information and encouraged them to gather information and post their own questions and thoughts, including our class hashtag in every post. Participation was voluntary and not graded.
Over the course of the semester, there were approximately 350 tweets using our class hashtag, from 67 different Twitter users. As noted earlier, the class consisted of 12 students and me. Thus, 54 non-class members joined our conversation. Many of these non-class participants were not just one-time participants. Indeed, five of the top ten participants were not members of our class (Figure 2). Thus, the use of Twitter allowed us to expand the number of participants in our class discussion. It is worth noting that these outside contributors were not actively recruited to participate. While I posted information about our class on several sites, these individuals freely joined our conversation.
Not only did the use of Twitter increase the number of participants in our class discussion, but it also increased the level of expertise. The outside contributors brought with them various perspectives and areas of expertise. For instance, the major non-class member participants (and their Twitter profiles) included:
- @aetiology – lab rat (microbiologist/infectious disease epidemiologist) and occasional blogger, full-time nerd
- @alissasadler – Internet nerd helping leaders in health & science innovation tell their stories & share their knowledge
- @peds_id_doc – Pediatric Infectious Disease Fellow, and vocal fan of patient-centered care.
Each of these individuals contributed information to which we may not have had immediate access. Each of these individuals also provided a unique perspective to our conversations. For example, one of the participants, @alissasadler, is an advocate for the use of harm reduction strategies to decrease HIV transmission. She provided the class with very compelling reasons for decriminalizing drug use and for government-funded needle exchange programs for injection drug users. While we examined these issues in class, the perspective of an outspoken supporter of these approaches added greatly to our in-class discussions and broadened greatly the information to which my students were exposed.
On a few occasions, the use of Twitter also provided students with nearly immediate feedback. Following a class discussion about the efficacy of vaginal gels containing antiretroviral drugs, a student posted a query about how the availability of these gels would affect condom usage. Within a short period of time, several non-class members provided thoughtful, important replies (Figure 3). One even supplied a link to a recent study that addressed this very issue. In this case, members of our extended Twitter discussion group provided detailed, nuanced responses to a student question quickly and accurately.
While the use of Twitter benefited our class discussions about HIV in very direct ways, it also had at least three indirect benefits. First, it allowed me to address information literacy, a topic that I had not intentionally included in the course. Second, it helped me gauge student interest in various topics. Third, it reshaped the learning dynamics of the class. These unintended benefits have allowed me to think more intentionally about the content and organization of all of my courses.
While I have discussed the benefits of extending classroom discussions beyond the members of the course, this approach does raise obvious problems. When discussions are limited to the students and instructor of a course, the instructor has firm control over the content. When the discussion becomes more open, that control becomes less firm. When using Twitter in the way that I have described, that control becomes almost nonexistent. In Twitter, the use of hashtags is not formally regulated. Anyone can use a particular hashtag in his or her tweets. Anyone can search for and read tweets containing a particular hashtag. Thus, as I have described, anyone can participate in the conversation. Anyone can add any type of information to the discussion.
The risks of this open access became apparent to us shortly after the semester began. An individual began posting derisive, homophobic tweets that included our class hashtag. This type of trolling is not unusual on Twitter or other Internet chat platforms and the inclusion of the terms “HIV” and “AIDS” in many of our posts probably heightened the chances that we would be targeted in this way. These posts, though, led to a very productive in-class discussion about information literacy. As a class, we decided on an approach to this individual (ignore the individual and the offensive tweets completely). We also had a very meaningful discussion about information literacy more generally. How do you determine the veracity of a particular tweet or an individual tweeter? Should you retweet a post before exploring its accuracy? Of course, these questions do not apply just to Twitter. As students rely more and more on the Internet as a first source of information, their ability to critically analyze sources of information becomes more and more imperative. By using Twitter in the classroom, I saw, in a very real way, how important it is to include these discussions in every course that I teach.
The use of Twitter in the classroom also provided me with a unique insight into the interests of my students. At the end of the semester, I used a simple word cloud generator to analyze the words used by students in their tweets (Figure 4). The results were somewhat surprising and informative. The dominant words in the word cloud did not necessarily mirror the dominant topics in the course syllabus. For instance, “gel” and “women” figured prominently in the word cloud. By looking at individual tweets, I can assume that these words were used primarily in conversations about vaginal microbicide gels. “Strategy,” probably in reference to the National HIV/AIDS Strategy (NHAS), also appeared prominently in the word cloud. While we discussed vaginal gels and the NHAS in class, the student discussions of these topics on Twitter exceeded our in-class discussions of these topics. This insight into the interests of the students has caused me to expand my in-class of coverage of both topics. Thus, analytics associated with Twitter* have informed future iterations of this course.
Finally, by using Twitter, we redefined the social dynamics of the classroom. Students could interact with each other, the instructor, and practitioners. They saw that various outside participants could add to their learning and that outside participants were interested in their learning. Because of the open nature of Twitter, students saw and, I believe, better appreciated the value of life-long learning.
Conclusions and Future Directions
My use of Twitter in the classroom began, quite frankly, as a lark. I enjoy new technology and thought Twitter would be a fun add-on to my class. The results exceeded my expectations. We extended the class discussion beyond the classroom walls, beyond the appointed class times, and beyond the registered class participants. The students, I believe, benefited from the diverse opinions and varied areas of expertise that the non-student participants provided. Moreover, the use of Twitter allowed me to more intentionally discuss the important topic of information literacy. Finally, analytics associated Twitter have allowed me to better capture the interests of my students and could inform future iterations of the course.
Based on my initial use of Twitter in the classroom, I consider this platform to be a useful pedagogical tool. But where do we go from here? While a number of non-class members contributed important information to our class discussion, this same outcome may not occur universally. Part of the interest in my course, most likely, was driven by the topic; a large community of people affected by or interested in HIV/AIDS regularly use Twitter. Would the outside interest demonstrated in this topic be replicated in, for example, an introductory biology course? Perhaps not. Twitter, however, still could be used to broaden classroom discussions. Instructors at different colleges and universities could coordinate their use of Twitter, thereby creating a larger virtual community. If Introductory Biology were offered at Institution X and Institution Y during the same semester, then the instructors teaching the courses could arrange to use a common hashtag. Throughout the semester, students and instructors at both institutions could participate in a common discussion. By using social networking platforms like Twitter, we as educators can create larger virtual communities, which, in turn, will provide our students with a richer, more vibrant learning environment.
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About the Author
A professor of biology at Davidson College, David Wessner teaches introductory biology and courses on genetics, microbiology, and HIV/AIDS. He recently co-authored Microbiology, a textbook for undergraduate biology majors, and is a co-author of Vision and Change in Undergraduate Education: A Call to Action. He also is a member of the American Society for Microbiology Committee for K-12 Education. Prior to joining the faculty at Davidson, David conducted research at the Navy Medical Center in Bethesda, MD. He earned his Ph.D. in microbiology and molecular genetics from Harvard University and his B.A. in biology from Franklin and Marshall College.
* Methods for analyzing Twitter activity are rapidly evolving. Within Twitter itself, tweets can be searched for specific hashtags. Other programs, most notably Hootsuite, provide more advanced analysis options.
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