The Twitter Experiment: Fall 2012 Recap

This post is designed to be part of an academic-year-long experiment of using Twitter in my First-Year English courses. The Related Documents section at the bottom has links to the original assignment, student survey report, and updated assignment.

Where it started. 

My original intentions for the assignment were to promote collaboration in each section and across sections, help students reflect on material, introduce them to a new medium for writing, and serve as a generally helpful tool for keeping up with the class. Typically, I would ask students 1-2 discussion questions a week and have them respond at least fourteen times throughout the semester. I made the project 5% of the final grade.

From the outset, I labeled the assignment as “The Twitter Project” so that students knew they were participating in this experiment with me. Because of its experimental nature, I was quite flexible with the students and had many foibles myself in the design and implementation of the project. Below, I will share  what was learned and where it’s headed based on my assessment and students’ feedback to the project through a survey.

What was learned and where it’s headed. 

On the first day of class, I discovered that my preconceptions about students’ knowledge of Twitter was incorrect. All of my students knew what Twitter was, and many of them already had accounts. And even though there was some critique of the project in the student survey, only one respondent selected “More help on understanding Twitter” as a way to improve the use of Twitter in the course. The same respondent commented that Twitter is a “loose concept” because “it is not the social media that I use.” Thus, even this student is familiar with the form of media, but perhaps more connections could be made to the generalities and particularities in communicating in various social media.

A surprising trend I noticed as the semester went along and confirmed in students’ response to a survey was that students who used Twitter often were least likely to complete all or almost all of the Twitter requirements. Of those who completed half or fewer of all of the Tweet requirements, 70% reported themselves as frequent Twitter users. Meanwhile, students who used Twitter infrequently or only for this course were most likely to meet or exceed the number of required Tweets. Of those who met all or almost all of the Tweet requirements, 70% were infrequent Twitter users or only used it for class.

Is it that students don’t like for their “worlds to collide,” as George Costanza would phrase it? Perhaps. One frequent Twitter user (who didn’t complete all of the requirements) commented that Twitter “isn’t really something that is useful when it comes to school work. There a social networking world, and then academics world.” Another frequent Twitter user (who didn’t complete all of the requirements) commented, “Seeing as how I’m an avid twitter user, I thought it would be more fun to use twitter. While it was helpful sometimes, I got bored with it.”

Ironically, about 50% of respondents asked that there be more interaction with other aspects of the course. One way that I tried to do this was to begin class discussions with Tweets they had sent it. (Admittedly, this aspect did wane as the semester got busier.) However, per students suggestions, I am looking for a way to integrate Twitter into the classroom as more than a stand-a-lone assignment. While I understand the concerns of students seeing Twitter and the classroom as two separate worlds, I hope more integration will help dispose of that false dichotomy for them, and I plan to make this aspect of the course more dynamic and integrated with more parts of the course.

There were a few logistical issues in the project as well. From my standpoint, a particularly frustrating aspect of the assignment was the tallying of Tweets. As well, students overwhelmingly suggested more frequent communication of the number of completed Tweets. For whatever reason, I didn’t anticipate this troublesome issue of counting Tweets and communicating the number of completed Tweets; I suppose I expected that 14 was a low number and students would complete them easily. A lack of clear communication led to many students hurriedly posting their tweets at the end of the semester. Thus, I plan to use a common document (such as Google Docs) to help students check their progress. As well, the number of required tweets has been split for a mid-semester and end of semester check.

Another idealistic expectation was that students would communicate to one another through Twitter–creating a collaborative experience. However, this never happened, and students recognized this: over half of the survey respondents were neutral or disagreed that “Twitter was useful in student collaboration.” Similar to using online discussion boards, the requirement that students respond to one another’s posts is purposeful–and it’s one that I have added to the spring version of the assignment. Students will be required to respond at least four times throughout the semester to a classmate’s post by adding to it or amending it.

Aside from all of the changes that need to be made, students seem to have had generally positive experience with the experiment. Students agreed that Twitter was helpful for reviewing material; as one student commented, “Twitter was most helpful when I was able to read what others had posted about a subject matter. It helped me to look at the topic from a different point of view[. . . .] It also helped me to retain the information longer when having to interact with it again. In a way it is like studying because I am having to review and talk about the information again.” Students also rated the experiment highly on communicating with instructor and exploring new/digital media.

Overall, while there are many kinks to be worked out, I enjoyed seeing my students participate in responding to questions and seeing their varying points of view, especially those who were quieter in class. For the spring, I’ll make the experiment more interactive and integrate it with all aspects the course; doing this and tweaking logistical issues should create a more learner-friendly pedagogical tool. I’ll update you at the end of next semester.

Related documents.

The original assignment is here, the survey PDF is here, and the updated assignment for the spring is here.

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