Musings on preparing for a new course: the use of Twitter as a course tool
Alice Kim, PhD, Teaching Commons
What I love most about teaching is the feeling I get when my students get excited about the course material and when I can see that the material is resonating with them. What I hate about teaching is that it scares me - I’m anxious about every lecture until it is over, only to begin being anxious for the next class. Preparing to teach a new course, one that I have not taught before, also elicits feelings of both love and hate - love because it is a fresh start and hate because it is a lot of work. I’m currently teaching a new course that I started preparing for this past summer. In this blog post I reflect on my experiences with a specific aspect of the course design, incorporating the use of Twitter in the course, from the planning stages to implementation to the current stage in the course.
To provide some context for the reader, I teach large lecture-style courses in the Psychology Department here at York University. There are typically about 200 students enrolled in my courses. The lectures take place once a week and are three hours long. I aim to take a ten minute break after each hour of lecture, and during these breaks students often line up to speak with me and ask questions. Typically, multiple students end up asking the same question and the answer to many questions that are asked would likely benefit all students in the course. In both of these scenarios, I often repeat the question and answer to the entire class after the break. Moreover, many students who line up to speak with me during the break do not get a chance to do so before the break is over. Additionally, although I enjoy speaking with students individually, I also miss out on taking breaks myself during the lectures, which I would benefit from both to organize my thoughts for the remainder of the lecture and for general self care purposes.
As I thought about how I could manage this situation in my new course, it dawned on me that I could use Twitter to catalogue any questions students want to ask me during the breaks. The idea was for students to tweet their questions using a hashtag specifically for the course (e.g., #course_code), which would enable me to keep track of questions posted by my students and reduce the time spent on redundant questions. I could then take up the questions with the class after the break, so that all students could benefit from the questions and answers. This seemed like an attractive solution. Although students could have also logged into the course Moodle site and posted their questions on the discussion board, the use of Twitter for this specific purpose seemed much easier and streamlined. I also use the Moodle discussion board for my courses, but in a more asynchronous manner that is spread out between, as opposed to during, lectures.
As I thought more about this use of Twitter in my course, however, certain issues came up that I knew I had to address before I could implement the use of Twitter in my course. First, in some cases, students will have questions that are personal or that they just don’t want to take up with the class. To address this issue of confidentiality, I made it clear to my students (both in writing on the syllabus and verbally in person on the first day of class) that in these cases, they are welcome to come speak with me during the breaks or office hours. Importantly, the use of Twitter in my course was intended to create more time both for myself and for students who specifically want to speak with me directly.
Another issue that came up was the notion of the digital divide, which essentially brings to light the fact that you can’t assume that all students have access to a smart phone, tablet, PC or any other devices along these lines. Although most students at York probably do have access to one or more of these devices, assuming that all students have access to at least one of these devices may inequitably isolate those who don’t. To address this, I encourage students in my course to work in pairs or groups during the break to come up with any questions they might have about the material that was just covered in lecture or how this material relates to material from past lectures. In addition to nudging students to engage in a dialogue about the course material with each other, by working in pairs or groups there is also an increased likelihood that any given student will have access to a digital device (via a member of their group if they don’t own one). I also let my students know that if, for any reason, they prefer to write down their questions on a piece of paper, they can also do so during the break and leave it for me at the podium. Then after the break, I take up any questions that were tweeted and left for me at the podium.
Lastly, it crossed my mind that some students might just want some face time with me (their course instructor) and that it is most convenient to reach out during the lecture breaks. Personally, I enjoy speaking with my students and I think it is important for students and course instructors to interact with each other. In fact, by using Twitter as a means of reducing time spent on questions that are asked multiple times by different students, there is more time to engage with students who are specifically seeking to interact directly with me to discuss the course material.
The course I’m teaching is currently about halfway finished and, despite my big dreams and expectations, students have not been using Twitter to the extent that I had anticipated. I’ve narrowed down the reasons as to why this might be to two main factors. First, the use of Twitter in my course is also a very new idea to me and I often forget to check for students questions on Twitter using the course hashtag. Consistently checking for students’ queries sent via Twitter would likely encourage students to use this medium in this manner. Secondly, students may wish to keep their identity (and non-course related tweets) anonymous from the course instructor. Understandably, when corresponding with their course instructor, students may wish to present themselves in a specific light that does not necessarily align with their Twitter feed, name and profile picture. The latter is the prerogative of the student. I can, however, work on the former by being more disciplined about regularly checking for students’ tweeted questions.
The use of Twitter in my courses is just one aspect of course design that I’m currently tweaking. My teaching practice is a work in progress - that’s how I like to keep it. I look forward to sharing other teaching-related experiences in future blog posts, but in the meantime feel free to reach out to me via Twitter (@AliceSNKim).