Should You Use Social Networking Sites to Teach at University Level?

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By Dr Catherine Armstrong

Many university lecturers are now familiar with the problem of students ‘playing’ on their mobile phones while they’re supposed to be listening to a lecture or contributing to a discussion. But what if you were to encourage your students to use their mobile phones during the lecture? Read on for advice on a radical new teaching technique.

Why encourage students to ‘tweet’ in class?

Twitter is one of the social networking sites most commonly used by young people and adults. Its potential for helping us keep in touch with friends is well known, but what about its usage in the classroom? Many academics shy away from embracing this kind of technology, believing that they are useful for social purposes but have no place in formal education. Other scholars are keen to integrate the type of technology that their students are most familiar with into their classroom setting.

Sugato Chakravarty, Professor of Consumer Sciences and Retail at Purdue University in the U.S., has started employing the Twitter website in his lectures. As most academics know, lecturing is a notoriously passive way for students to learn. They often get no input as to the direction and content of the session and the lecturer has little idea how much information the students have absorbed. The use of Twitter could change all that.

Professor Chakravarty encourages his students to use Twitter to send his teaching assistant messages during the lecture. Out of the mass of irrelevant commentary, Chakravarty says that there are often a number of relevant and enlightening points posted by the students. Students feel empowered by the process, because it means that they can contribute to their own learning without having to speak up in a room full of hundreds of others. It also provides a cloak of anonymity that gives confidence to shy students, although, of course, if he chooses to, the Professor can find out who sent which message.

Sometimes the lectures take an unexpected turn by adopting this method of giving the students a voice, and certainly any lecturer using this technology would have to be confident enough to think on their feet. But it is incredibly rewarding to have that direct engagement with students and, as Professor Chakravarty says, they will be on their mobiles during class anyway, so they might as well be engaging with the topic of the day rather than discussing partying!

Negative aspects of Tweeting during lectures

The perceived anonymity students think they have when using this system can lead to problems. Naturally, this aspect is open to abuse. Students might use it to cheat and ask each other for exam answers. More likely, they will drift hopelessly off-topic and the discussion will only have tangential relevance to the topic their lecturer hoped would be the focus.

Another problem is the lecturer’s confidence level. You have to be really sure of your material to allow students to comment directly like this. If you make a mistake the students will definitely let you know about it, so if your confidence as a teacher is shaky, then this sort of approach probably isn’t right for you.

Sensitive topics are another problem area. Young people are used to being very forthright using these sorts of technology. Opinionated and even bullying tones can easily be developed when a pack mentality takes over. If you are teaching topics such as abortion or sexual abuse in your classes, this sort of technology might not be appropriate. One teacher described having to quickly shut down an avenue of discussion when it developed into ‘flaming’ (hostile exchanges).

Another option for the technologically challenged is to take these concepts and be inspired to try other ways to encourage student interaction. One professor even resorted to the old-fashioned approach and asked her students to write questions on pieces of paper and pass them up to the front of the class; a sort of low-tech version of the Twitter interaction.

Why might using techniques such as this benefit me as a jobseeker?

You might feel that using this sort of technique is only for the very bravest of lecturers and not for you. But even if you’re not planning to use this in the classroom any time soon, it is important to keep abreast of the developments in teaching practice, especially those driven by technology and those that enhance the student experience. Being able to show that you have thought about these issues on job application forms and at interview will be key to setting you apart from other candidates.

Employers do not necessarily want you to be at the cutting edge of teaching practice, but they will want you to appreciate the benefits and problems inherent in introducing new technologies to the classroom. They will also want to know that you think reflexively about your own teaching and are constantly trying to improve your practice. So, while Twitter in the classroom might still be very rare, showing you are aware of such technologies is vital to your own career development.

For more on Professor Chakravarty’s experiences, please see: Teaching With Twitter: Not for the Faint of Heart by Jeffrey E. Young.

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