As the April 8, 2009 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education reported, an instructor at Penn State is encouraging his students to tweet in the classroom — during class. That’s right. He wants his students to use twitter to converse with each other and him during his class period. How shocking! How disruptive! How nuts must he be? Any sensible professor wants control in the classroom, which means students listen carefully, raise their hands one at a time when they have a thoughtful question or comment, and everyone remains calm and studious. The professor is the one who gets to do most of the talking. It’s a nice top-down arrangement that’s worked for hundreds of years of formal education. What is this guy thinking?
What Cole W. Camplese, the instructor of a group of Penn State graduate students, is thinking is that students need to engage. We’re all trying to figure out what the onslaught of digital communication, and social networking in particular, means for our everyday living. Those of us who spend many classroom hours with young adults know that digital media are changing our students who use them all the time. We can’t expect to reach them the same way we did even a decade ago. Clearly, the old education models aren’t always working, and inevitably are changing because of digital media. I give credit to professors on the forefront of experimentation in the classroom with the tools of discourse that students are engaging in outside the classroom.
True, it’s hard to imagine how a focused discussion or imparting of information can take place when everyone in the class is sending quick bursts of thought in short text messages via their phones or laptops. Obviously, what Professor Camplese wants is for students to comment on the materials being covered, not writing about things personal or irrelevant to the class topic at hand. But the technicalities of making the running stream of tweets available on screen for all to see, and analyze, throughout the class period bring difficulties: in setting up and in managing the stream throughout a fixed period of time. How can so many things happen at once? Will students actually be learning anything worthwhile?
Though this seems odd and certainly unprecedented, I admire Camplese’s approach. After all, engaged students are happier, more attentive and more apt to learn. And those in the classroom who are too shy to speak might not be too shy to tweet. Imagine if all of the students were building on each other’s ideas and comments–then had a recorded stream of their comments to look back on in subsequent class periods? This could be a new model for classroom engagement. Or it could be a huge bust. Regardless, it’s worth a try.
Last Friday, April 3, I gave a workshop at the day-long Northeast Media Literacy Conference at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. Near the end of our workshop, which I called “Media Literacy is Medium Literacy,” participants and I engaged in a discussion about the gap between generations when it comes to using digital media for social networking. They, like I, grumbled loudly about Twitter. Yet despite my personal feelings about tweeting, I told them, I can appreciate it as a form of communication highly valued by some. I can be personally uninterested, even somewhat annoyed, but professionally interested in the means and uses of this form of contact. We agreed, by the end of our discussion, that it’s best to try to understand technologies and services like Twitter because there’s no going back. And the ways in which digital communication will (and has already) change learning and education requires new ways for teachers to think about their role in the whole educational process. That is something I find very interesting.
It’s a time of experimentation, of open-mindedness, and of skepticism. Ask any professor — it’s always a good time for skepticism. But we shouldn’t let it get in the way of our open-mindedness.
If I get my technical act together I may try it in the classroom next fall. But don’t–ever– expect me to tweet about my mundane personal stuff. Not even I care about some of it.
–Katherine G. Fry