Listening with Twitter
On Day 1 of a course, after I’ve given students essential information like my office hours and how to pronounce my name, I ask about their prior knowledge of the subject. In my introduction to Shakespeare, for instance, I ask which of his plays they read in high school, which they’ve seen in performance, and if they have a favourite (and why). And I ask what students hope to get out of the course, beyond fulfilling a requirement.
These conversations help me break the ice and start learning names, but also to learn what preconceptions my students have about the material. Then I can teach to those preconceptions. If they feel like his comedies are light and frothy, we focus on the familial violence in As You Like It. If they’ve got Shakespeare up on an immortal-genius pedestal, we might talk about his collaborations or read excerpts from less polished plays like (say) Timon of Athens. You get the idea.
Teaching to preconceptions is one of the foundations of the backward-design principles in Understanding by Design that Mark Sample recently wrote about on Profhacker. I’m participating in a student engagement project at my university that’s got me thinking about these principles. It’s not about proving those preconceptions wrong, but enriching and complicating students’ understandings of the material.
Imagine that you could measure your students’ preconceptions in a more fine-grained way. You could start each class with a hands-up poll and a discussion about their questions and ideas. This is a great technique, but it has two drawbacks. Did I mention my Shakespeare class has ninety students? Getting everyone to speak would be impossible and consume most of the class time. There are in-class technological solutions like clickers, but their multiple-choice options just don’t seem nuanced enough.
So I’m trying Twitter, provoked by another Profhacker post by Mark Sample (who wrote another full of practical advice). How will it work? I’ll ask students to tweet using the course hashtag (#engl205), posting 140-character questions about the material we’re reading that week. Then before I start teaching, I can quickly read those questions to guide our conversations and spark discussion in class. Students will be graded on the “thickness“ of their tweets — that is, on quality rather than quantity. And they can set their Twitter accounts to private, so long as I can follow them.
Nicholas Kristoff once tweeted that “The big misconception is that Twitter is for TELLING OTHERS what you’re lunching on. The truth is, Twitter is for LISTENING & learning.” I want to use this tool to listen to my students’ questions, to guage their preconceptions.
What do you think? Are Twitter questions the same as in-class discussion questions, or do they provoke new thinking? (I can imagine requesting twitpics of where students are reading, for instance.) Are you following other Twitter-in-higher-ed practitioners, like Kelli Marshall in Toledo, and David Silver in San Francisco?
In future posts, I’ll write about the backward-design principles that will inform this experiment, and about designing the evaluation and other guidelines for students. I’ve already blogged about avoiding the problems of groupthink and multitasking, and would welcome comments on that post. You’re welcome, too, to follow the #engl205 hashtag starting in September.