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Monday, May 16, 2011

Twitter in the Classroom

Several months ago, a student in one of my TOK classes investigated the ways in which Twitter has changed knowledge—its generation, its dissemination, and our relationship to it. Given the role that social media has played and will continue to play in recent world affairs, I delighted in having a student pick this topic.

During her presentation, the student asked the audience, other students, to take out their phones. Normally, phones must remain off during the school day, but I allowed the students to engage with them given the topic at hand. The student presenter then used a series of tweets to outline her presentation. Only minutes into the presentation, many other students tweeted responses to her ideas in real time. The students had begun conversing about the questions raised in the presentation via Twitter long before the presenter opened the floor to discussion.

This presentation offered me the opportunity to witness students communicating via a backchannel, an electronic conversation taking place alongside—but outside of—a real-world one. Last week, the New York Times featured a short article—Speaking Up in Class, Silently, Using Social Media—that detailed how some teachers, including some elementery school teachers, are engaging with students and gauging student interest via backchannels.

The author of the Times' article noted that "real-time digital streams allow students to comment, pose questions (answered either by one another or the teacher) and shed inhibitions about voicing opinions. Perhaps most importantly, if they are texting on-task, they are less likely to be texting about something else." I like the idea that teachers allow students to participate in discussions electronically, especially if doing so will help students engage more meaningfully in course material. At the same time, much would be lost if electronic participation were to replace face-to-face conversation. Perhaps next year, I'll explore using social media in the classroom to create backchannel conversations, so long as these exchanges add value to the educational experience.

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