A few days ago, I published a post about using Twitter in my contemporary political theory course. I’ve used Twitter in this class before, in 2009 and 2011, and I refine the way this online component works each time. I’ll be refining it again this year.
All of the changes are designed to increase participation from my students. The most obvious way to do this, of course, is simply to require them to participate. In the previous iterations of the course, participation on Twitter has been voluntary … just like in-class participation. I always tell students that showing up for every class earns them a C for class participation; it’s the expectation. The more they participate, the more their participation grade improves. The Twitter component allows them to participate even if they don’t like speaking up in class; it allows them to participate on their schedule; and it allows them to participate in ways that are often a bit different from the standard professor-student question-and-answer dynamic.
So, even though it might increase participation if I require them to use Twitter, I’m holding firm to the idea that it should be voluntary. It’s value-added and I’m not going to force their participation. In fact, forcing students to participate when they really don’t care is more likely to make the quality of participation significantly worse for the students who care about the course and want to use Twitter to keep the discussions going outside the classroom. Since we use a hashtag to keep up with the discussion, it would be a burden for engaged students to have to sift through the required tweets by students who won’t log in for another week in order to find and respond to tweets written by the classmates who are actively tweeting.
What sorts of changes am I planning, then?
1. More general questions and fewer specifc ones, especially at the outset. While I’ve always started with broad questions that can be answered by anyone and that can be answered without any background in political theory, in the past I’ve quickly transitioned to more specific questions that touch directly on class readings. My sense is this strategy works well for students who are engaged from the beginning, but sets the bar to participation too high for students are unfamiliar with reading political theory and for anyone who isn’t enrolled but who might be following the class Twitter account.
2. Encourage more participation from outside the class. While the whole notion of using Twitter is designed specifically for the students in the class, I think that participation from other Twitter users will improve the conversation. First of all, it emphasizes to the students the importance of the questions and problems their class is addressing and, I imagine, makes those questions and problems seem more interesting. The more other people have to say about the material the students are studying, the more relevant that material seems. And secondly, outside participation means adding diversity of thought and experience to the conversation. If there are multiple perspectives, the conversation is likely to be more interesting. I’m hoping that people who read this post or the post from earlier this week will decide to follow the class account and join in. And I’m planning to advertise to my followers on Twitter for the next few days as well.
3. More discussion of Twitter in class. In the past, I’ve been content to leave Twitter at the door to the classroom, but this semester I plan to kick off each class session with a brief reference to the ongoing Twitter conversation. We only have three fifty minute sessions each week, but I can spare two minutes at the beginning of each class to talk about some interesting or controversial point that someone made on Twitter. Ideally, this will encourage students to jump into that conversation to agree or to disagree with the point I bring up. It might even lead to students actively working to get their tweet into that two minute conversation at the beginning of class.
4. More participation by me. This seems obvious, but it can be challenging. In the past, I’ve tried to limit my own responses or to respond with further questions because I don’t want to shut down a conversation. If the professor responds, it has the potential to come across as “the answer” and then only very self-assured students will continue to debate or challenge. Most others will presume the matter closed and await the next question from the class account. I plan, this semester, to tell the students that tweets from my own account are fair game for debate, that they explicitly don’t represent “the answer.” I’m hopeful that this change will allow me to take more of a role in the conversation, to send out more tweets than I have in the past, without shutting down conversations.
Those are the four big changes I’m planning for this year. Maybe you have some suggestions too?