Social Media, Part III: Creating "Boundless" Classrooms

Thanks to Mike for starting this conversation and to Paul for encouraging this discussion. What I like about Twitter will echo much of what Mike had to say, but some of this bears repeating because of the numerical difference between my Twitter experiment (around 80 students in two sections of junior level classes and his class (around 30 students).

Creating Boundless Classrooms and Performing Digital Citizenship
Kelly Baker

One week into my experiment with Twitter in my 300 level classes, I was convinced that I failed. My pedagogical anxiety lead me to wonder whether this experiment could work. And then, a tweet appeared in my class hashtag (#rest351) from a random student not enrolled in my class. This student proclaimed on Twitter and into the ethers of the internet that I was “annoying liberal” with the hashtag #shocker (I must give this student props for the hashtag usage here). I did not know the student; the student did not know me. And yet, the student “hijacked” my hashtag, and my class learned a valuable lesson in how public the internet can be.

This is what appears to have happened: One of my students tweeted about readings in my course on how to do history (John Fea) and narrativity in American religions (Tom Tweed). Random student “followed” my student, and thus, decided to respond to my student's tweet using the course’s hashtag. Digital citizenship and disembodied discourse became topics of discussion in my class: anybody can respond to anything on the internet (Believe me, I know this lesson because if you blog long enough you learn it). It is a public arena, and people on the internet can be jerks. This provided an excellent teaching moment in my classes. My students looking at me day-to-day in class might say something like this, but generally, they wouldn’t because we have a working relationship. Moreover, we “see” one another. We exist in spaces together three times a week. Engaging with someone class period after class period makes me familiar, so while they might find me “annoying liberal,” it is unlikely that they would utter this directly to me in class. Embodied discourse breeds familiarity while disembodied discourse can easily breed contempt, aggression, and rudeness. Before critics of social media starting beating the drums of criticism, I would argue that disembodied discourse, Twitter, also familiarizes and humanizes too. As with most things, it all depends on how we practice it.

So, here's my somewhat short list of the possibilities and perils of creating “boundless” classrooms by using social media, particularly Twitter.

1. Connecting with each other beyond the physcial space of the classroom. Since we all live an increasingly digital world, this extends the classroom into that space (what Mike calls "third space") while also teaching them how to master social media, which is becoming a valuable skill for employers in the 21st century workplace.
2. Connecting with others beyond our class. Since our hashtag is a part of Twitter, this is not a private discussion but a public one. This means that not only are my students interacting with one another, but they are also interacting with other folks on Twitter. I like this in particular because some of the scholars they are reading (hint, Paul Harvey, hint) are on Twitter, so there's room for interaction.
3. Providing another “space” for classroom discussion that allows those uncomfortable with speaking in class an outlet to engage other students. Twitter provides a venue from students not as bold in class discussion to present their ideas and questions. Some of my students never talk in class, so Twitter gives them the ability to participate in a less nerve-wracking way.
4. Enriching dialogue within and outside of the classroom. Like Mike, I continually check my class's Twitter feed to apply Twitter conversations to class and vice versa. My students follow suit by bringing up points from Twitter and elaborating on them in discussion.
5. Posting discussion questions multiple times a week. This lets me check in and see how the reading is going for both classes. What works for them? What needs further explanation? What interests them? What doesn’t? What are they learning? Moreover, it gives me a good sense of what trips them up prior to class, so we can spend time working through more difficult chapters or sections. Hopefully, this improves student performance not in discussion but on writing assignments too.
6. Fostering good digital citizenship and etiquette. Interacting with my students in class and on Twitter is my chance to emphasize the importance of empathy, respect and engagement in classroom interactions and in general. I try to model these behaviors to encourage them too. I am not sure this always works.

1. Twitter is a random, random digital space. It is chaotic, and it takes some time to get used to. The learning curve is steeper than I imagined. Appearing is search hashtags requires a "reputation" on Twitter that can take some time to establish.
2. Students tend to tweet in cycles. I currently have a group I call my "Sunday night tweet squad" because they only tweet before the midnight deadline. Like Mike, I might require tweeting on multiple days as part of the assignment next time.
3. Everything is public. My classroom became boundless and public suddenly and simultaneously, which is exciting and unnerving. We all had to realize that we were participating in public culture with all the benefits and pitfalls. This requires thinking about how one participates in public space differently from the safer confines of the classroom. Hopefully, this makes students self-aware rather than uneasy.
4. Tracking tweets is hard.This can easily become a logistical nightmare with 80 students tweeting 4 times a week. For me, this is a time drain because I am constantly checking up on the class feed and intervening in discussions.
5. "Trolls" hijack comments and your hashtag. This again returns to etiquette. I tell my students to ignore agressive or harmful comments and to not engage folks who clearly want a fight. Part of participating in social media means establishing boundaries and negotiating encounters, and sometimes that requires ignoring those causing trouble.
6. Twitter breeds familiarity. This one is the component that I am the most ambivalent about. My students often follow me on Twitter now, though I don't follow them, which means that I self-censor my own Twitter participation because of them. This makes me more familiar to them than I might have been otherwise. They can, then, "follow" my conversations and get know me through this digital media. On the one hand, this familiarity can lead to trust, and on the other, I am not entirely sure how I feel.

Overall, I don't think my Twitter experiment is entirely a failure, and it could be successful. The possibilities of integrating social media outweighs the costs, but now I wonder how different or similar this digital pedagogy is to tried and true methods. For me, Twitter functions as an excellent supplemental tool, and I would eager to hear what others think.


Anonymous said…
Creating boundless classrooms via Twitter and other social media are good netiquette. Many people think of learning as scientific when it is not, it's social. Since learning is social, social media is the best way to teach. This does not mean that Facebook is the best teacher just because it's the most popular because it's bad netiquette to be friends with your students. Teaching is one to many communication and so is social media.
Curtis J. Evans said…
very helpful discussion, especially for someone like me who's never used Twitter, does not have a Facebook account, etc., but who is open to new ways of reaching and making material more interesting to students. I've been puzzling over your comment that "embodied discourse breeds familiarity." Since this comment follows your statement that students would not call you an "annoying liberal" directly in class, I'm assuming that the point is that the various social media you describe is somehow more "freeing" for students, allowing them to say things that they would not feel free to say in class. But I wonder how one balances this free for all media with an equally robust civility, respect, and a governing of our inclination to utter the first thought that comes to mind. Perhaps my views have been colored by the kinds of comments (anonymous and with names attached) that one finds in response to articles in, say, the New York Times or the Washington Post. Obviously, a teacher/student relationship means a different dynamic is at work than postings from diverse persons upset over political issues discussed in a major newspaper, but the temptation to emote and utter whatever comes to mind seems quite strong (in these settings and this is not a good development if you have the perspective that raw "honesty" of this kind is not often productive. The discomfort of speaking in class, as you note, can in part be rectified by the social media you describe. That I find a most compelling point. But I'm still not sure about the implicit drawbacks (familiarity is the one you mention in particular) that you suggest flow from "embodied discourse" are necessarily inherit to face to face contacts in a class setting. Or that this is necessarily rectified, if indeed it is a problem, by the various social media you describe.
Kelly J. Baker said…
Curtis, actually, what I was trying to get to was the common assumption that internet discourse is somehow more negative, aggressive or harmful than face-to-face engagement. I think the internet is "freeing" when used anonymously or under an obscure handle like the commenting at the NY Times and other news sites, blogs, or online forums. "Online dis-inhibition" is the jargony term for this.

This post comes from a paper that I gave at Nexus symposium at UTK over the weekend about "disembodied discourse" and civility. There was nervousness over internet culture as a breeding ground for uncivil behavior. My Twitter experiment, barring the random tweet from a student outside of my class, actually showcases how a permanent Twitter identity attached to one's name maintains civility because I am grading them and policing their behavior, much like I do in face-to-face interactions. So, I actually talk to my students about what to post on Twitter and take off points for aggressive, negative or hurtful tweets. This space isn't as freeing as other forms of online interaction with anonymity.

As far as embodied discourse, I am not entirely swayed by the arguments that face-to-face interaction actually encourage good behavior either. (I am actually trying to work against this some, which is unclear in the post.) I am highly biased considering the people and topics that I research (intolerance, racial supremacy movements, etc.) In class, students still say inappropriate things, but not quite as much.

Rather, the familiarity logic breaks downs when looks at end of the semester evaluations, in which students get to anonymously comment on the instructor and the class. Maybe, the anonymity piece is the most important?
Curtis J Evans said…
Thanks, Kelly, I see your point. All of this is very helpful. And the type of subject matters you address, I'm sure, can be a site for difficult issues. I've also had the experience at FSU where students, for a host of reasons ranging from their personal dislike of me to my deducting points for missing too many classes, unload in the harshest ways and say some rather nasty things. Yes, anonymity is the key here when they feel uninhibited and unaccountable. So clearly it is not simply social media or the internet.

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