To tweet or not to tweet - Communication professor Randy Beam sits in his office in the Communications Building. Beam has made Twitter a required part of his Communication 361 class; his students use the social-networking site to drive traffic to their individual blogs. Photo by Joshua Bessex
For years, social media has been viewed as the ultimate distraction for students. Professors compete with Facebook and
Twitter for the attention of students who are constantly tuned in to social media.
But instead of fighting social-media use, a growing group of educators have started to use Twitter as a learning tool.
Among them is UW professor Randy Beam, who has made Twitter a mandatory part of his Communication 361 class. His students have set up blogs that they update throughout the quarter and they are required to use Twitter as a way to drive readers to their blog.
“They’re supposed to use Twitter and Facebook as ways to tell people what they might find on the blog,” Beam said. “In other words, they’re trying to build a community around their blog.”
Beam also created a class hashtag, #com361, and requires his students to follow him on Twitter.
“I’ve asked them to follow me because I’m using the Twitter feed in part to tell them about things going on in the class,” Beam said. “In a way, it’s starting to take the place of Listservs, and as the term goes on, I’ll probably rely on the Twitter feed more frequently to alert people to things going on in the class.”
While some professors are using Twitter to further education, some use it as a way to reach their students. Oliver Fraser, a TA for Astronomy 101, uses his Twitter to post office hours and update students about the class.
“It’s really nice when you want to broadcast something that’s not really going to be relevant a few weeks from now,” Fraser said. “It’s for things that are right in the moment.”
An October 2012 Pearson and Babson Survey Research Group study found that Twitter use in the classroom is growing. One third of professors are using social media for teaching. The study also found professors who teach in humanities and arts are more likely to use social media in the classroom than math and science professors.
Many UW professors are using Twitter as a way to continue the conversation outside of the classroom.
Beam tweets about issues relevant to what they are discussing in class. He provides a short description and a link to the original content or source.
“It’s not that I’m tweeting about my views about something, more about something I’ve seen that might be relevant,” Beam said.
UW senior and COM 361 student Alyssa Keehn said she doesn’t always have time to read the articles Beam provides, but she likes having the option.
“The fact that he’s providing them is nice,” Keehn said. “I think it can further the education outside the classroom. Only a few students are going to pick up on that, but it’s cool that teachers are providing that extra [material].”
UW professor Katy Pearce has created a hashtag for her mobile communication class as a way to stimulate class discussion and provide additional help. The class studies the social impact of mobile communication, so Pearce said it seems fitting to incorporate Twitter.
“It seems like it’s a nice way for the entire class to have a discussion if they want,” Pearce said.
If one of her students has a question or wants to share a link to a relevant news article, they can tweet it using the class hashtag, #mcom12, and Pearce or another student will respond.
For example, UW student Jeremy Lange tweeted a photo of an old pay phone with the caption, “A relic from the past #mcom12.”
Pearce also created an assignment involving Twitter. Her students are required to tweet a question at the author of a book the class is reading.
Although Pearce does not require her students to follow the class hashtag, it is mandatory that they have a Twitter account.
If one of her students doesn’t have a Twitter account or feels uncomfortable sharing their account information with the rest of the class, Pearce told them to create a new account just for mobile communication that could be deleted at the end of the quarter.
In Beam’s class, the majority of students already had Twitter accounts, but the few who did not were required to create one.
Keehn did not have a Twitter account prior to taking COM 361 and was reluctant to create one.
“It’s kind of rare that your education forces you to get involved in a social phenomenon,” Keehn said. “I do think it’s beneficial, I just think initially I was a little resentful because I wasn’t engaged in Twitter.”
Keehn said if teachers are going to make Twitter mandatory, they should explain how to use it in case some students aren’t familiar with it.
“If Twitter is going to become a staple or part of the classroom, professors can’t just assume that everyone knows how to use it because we’re young and all young kids use Twitter,” Keehn said.
Beam said that as more technology tools become available, it is becoming increasingly important for students to teach themselves how to use them.
“We’re in a day when teaching yourself is becoming increasingly important as technology tools become available and potentially useful in a wide variety of occupations,” Beam said. “It’s not really going to be possible and maybe not even a good use of time to teach students about every specific tool.”
Instead, Beam said educators should help students understand that they have to continue teaching themselves as new technology emerges.
“[I] try to socialize students to the idea that they’ve got to continue to teach themselves and become self-educators,” Beam said.
Even though the college-age generation is known for its social-media savvy, some professors aren’t seeing their students engage in Twitter like they had hoped.
Pearce’s students haven’t been interacting on Twitter as much as she anticipated.
“There’s maybe a couple that are using it,” Pearce said. “A bunch of them seem to follow [the class hashtag], they’re just not tweeting back.”
UW professor Ia Dubois is also having trouble getting her students to use Twitter. Students are often too shy to ask questions in her Sex in Scandinavia class, which usually has about 250 students, so this quarter she is incorporating Twitter to instigate conversations that could make students uncomfortable.
“I thought a Twitter venue would encourage the students to ask questions about homosexuality or prostitution rather than in person,” Dubois said in an email. “My TA would then alert me or give me the questions they tweet and the class could easier respond to those, but nothing has really happened as I have not thrown myself into the process first.”
As companies become more active in social media, Beam said many employers expect students to use social media as well.
“I think increasingly employers, and I can speak mostly about employers in communication professions, expect that students will have experience with social media,” Beam said. “In some cases, part of the interviewing process now asks students to talk about how they use social media in their journalistic pursuits and asks them to see how well they’re doing in terms of engagement.”
Pearce warned students to be aware that all social media platforms are public, even if they have privacy settings.
“It is not uncommon for employers to search for people on social media,” Pearce said. “If students are going to have any social-media site affiliated with their real name or somehow identified with them, they have to be really conscious about what they’re presenting to the public.”
Pearce said she has used Twitter to build a positive reputation for herself, which has helped her career. It increases the number of people that read her academic work and helps her network with new people.
“There’s a really good community of people that I have this sort of virtual relationship with,” Pearce said. “I’ll get invited to give a talk at a different university and those people really only know me because of Twitter.”
As long as students use Twitter sensibly, both Pearce and Beam think it’s beneficial for students to have a Twitter account.
“I really think it could work to [students’] advantage to have a really nice, professional social-media presence,” Pearce said.
Reach reporter Sarah Elson at firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: @sarah_fairfax
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