Students entering university generally come from a background where they have been used to significantly smaller class sizes than they are exposed to in a lecture theatre. Here the learning process is more dynamic, and (certainly in my own lessons) has a lot in common with a guided discussion.One of the things I wanted to look at when I started at Bath was ways in which we could stimulate student feedback and discussion during and between lectures to make them less of a passive experience.There were a number of ideas I had for this. The one that raised the most eyebrows was the use of Twitter. We’re a few weeks in now and nearing the end of the course in which I’ve been trialling Twitters’ use.
I envisioned Twitter being used by students in lectures with an appropriate hashtag. They could ask questions and make comments in real time as they thought of them in a non-threatening medium without feeling like they were interrupting the flow of the lecture. Students would be able to contribute to discussion without cost using any wifi-enabled device or at their own cost via SMS. The cost of participation has proved problematic for Bath in the past when trialling EduTxt for a similar purpose.

What do I see the additional benefits being? Students can discuss the content of their lectures with students outside their usual social circle, everyone can benefit from others’ questions (rather than one person asking a question at the end and being the only one to benefit) and lecturers can get useful feedback on their students thinking in lectures and use this information to guide the future direction of their courses.

Twitter is not currently used as widely in this age group as it is in older age groups. So I knew that if this was going to work I needed to get all the students onto Twitter, sell them the idea and get them tweeting before lectures started to minimise difficulties arising from using a new tool. I attach the document (you may need to be logged in to access it) that I made available to them about how to use Twitter. I also stressed to them the importance of being professional in their contributions and not make personal comments about the lecturer! Unfortunately I ran into some difficulties very quickly as the session I had to introduce Twitter turned out not to be long enough to get the students registered. I asked them to make a test tweet using a hashtag after they left but only 5 did from nearly 100 (about the same number of people from the cohort who already tweeted. By the start of the first teaching week my chemistry pseudonym had 16 student followers. It was a depressing start but I decided to press on all the same.

The idea was to start with a Twitter archive made available on our virtual learning environment so that students and lecturer could read the discussion afterwards and that any discussion could be addressed by the lecturer at the start of the following lecture. However, if the was to take off then I knew it is possible to get a ticker tape feed running in the lecture slides. This latter situation requires a lot of confidence from the lecturer in his or her cohort (!) however everyone can see what’s going on immediately and it’s a constant reminder that the tool is available for use. Apart from the threat of people misusing the service, I can imagine many lecturers wouldn’t like a distracting ticker tape rolling along the edge of their slides like the perimeter of a football match!

So when it came down to it, the hashtags were advertised at the start of lectures and this is where it started to go further down hill. The few students who were on board weren’t enough to reach “critical mass” and the lecturer deliberately took the first lectures at a slow and steady pace – the few students who were actively participating didn’t have a lot of questions and before long the final nail in the coffin came with the tweet….

I know I can’t be the only one who’s struggling to concentrate both on the lecture and the twitter feed

The student in question was right. It was a real effort to disconnect from the lecture, refresh your page, find nothing there and look up again a sentence or two later. If this was material you were confused enough to ask questions about, you sure as hell hadn’t helped yourself by tuning out for that period of time. It also takes a lot longer than I had considered to tweet.

For all of the mistakes I’d made and difficulties I had met I knew this was one obstacle that would never be easily overcome. It’s something that could be helped by having a ticker tape feed (as you didn’t have to look away to refresh your page for no reason – the messages would appear in front of you). The time taken to tweet though is time you can ill afford.

Twitter is used heavily at conferences these days to gauge the opinions of people in large audiences, sometimes to share these with the speakers and also to share ideas between different discussion groups in break out sessions but the key point in these situations is that these are usually discussions, not lectures. This suggests to me that twitter’s place in a lecture may be limited unless you change the format of the lecture. If you want to use it you need to go whole hog …

  • Get that twitter feed on the board so everyone can see it at all times you want them to be involved with it.
  • Make sure all the students with the technology to participate are registered no matter what!
  • Play to twitter’s strengths and design your teaching with the use of the technology in mind – for example, pause the lecture and direct students to discuss with others and tweet their thoughts on a specific subject e.g. “OK so we’ve looked at this reaction – now I want you to consider some of the difficulties in scaling this up? What problems might you encounter? Discuss for one minute with the 3 people closest to you, choose one answer and tweet to #orglec5

So a few ideas for the future maybe – but not in the way I originally conceived. I have to say though – there was one more hidden benefit I’ve quite enjoyed so far and that’s actually using twitter in it’s pure sense for micro-blogging. Now that I have my (albeit limited) group of followers, those that were using Twitter anyway get little news updates from me from time to time and I send them articles which I thought were of interest (usually not relevant to the course but I’m not sure that’s a bad thing anyway). Bit.ly allows me to track which articles I’ve got them to look at and which haven’t floated their boat so I’ll carry on using it for this.

If you’ve had any experience in using Twitter or similar technologies effectively I’d love to hear from you. I’d also like to thank Ian Williams once again for putting up with my hair-brained ideas.

I’ve not yet given up on the feedback initiative though … next stop … mini whiteboards. The reception from staff has been tepid so far but I really believe in these things so they’re getting the hard sell at the next staff meeting. We’ll see how we go eh?