Classroom Twittering: An Introduction

This is the first in a series of guest posts on social media for students and teachers by Emily Bowles. Emily used to work in marketing but is now studying a PhD on representations of Charles Dickens 1857-1935 at the University of York. You can follow her on Twitter  @EmilyBowles_ and read her blog on Dickens, theatre and literary reviews at the Nineteenth Centuryist.

Working for a marketing agency for a couple of years taught me a lot about social media for business, and the ways in which digital marketing can target the right people, generate leads and boost sales. Starting my PhD enabled me to use and adapt these skills for my own work and for teaching. This is the first in a series of blog posts in which I’m intending to cover different platforms and techniques for taught students and the ways in which research students and academics can use social media to enhance their own work.

Social media is a lot of things to a lot of people. Today’s students have grown up with it as a communication tool, staying in touch and learning to express themselves digitally. Often it’s the educators who are coming to it ‘late’, trying to find ways to bring the worlds of social media and academia together in exciting ways that make the most of a skillset that a lot of their students already have, as well as teaching best practice when it comes to presenting yourself online.

What can Twitter do for you?

Working this out is the most important step. A lot of people start a Twitter account, get bored and stop – people who have been using it for a while find this baffling! But it can take a while to turn it into the valuable resource that it can be. Twitter works best when you’ve got a good reason to use it, rather than just as a kind of digital diary. For students it’s important not to let it turn into an extension of a Facebook account, because it’s much more public. Work out what you want to get out of it. Contacts, ideas, conversation? What kinds of people do you want to talk to? Could talking to students in other places around the world bring something new to your class? What are the questions that really interest you? Helen has already outlined some brilliant guidelines for using Twitter – the emphasis should always be on sharing ideas and having a conversation, but in a professional way.

It’s also not enough to just try to ‘get something out’ of Twitter. This applies to students, businesses, anyone engaging with social media. You need to give something back – no conversation should be one-sided, and participating and sharing are important parts of social media.

Explore what’s out there

One of my favourite things about Twitter is hashtag conversations. You’re probably familiar with these as they’re pretty common on all kinds of social media, including Facebook, but there’s more to it than what pops up in the ‘Trends’ section. Social media management tools like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck aren’t just useful marketing tools, they can help individuals find interesting conversations through the keyword tracker. Just as following people gives you a feed of their tweets, these tools can track particular words and hashtags and generate a dedicated feed. For research students, #PhDchat is a great one (I probably spend too much time looking at the #Dickens tag myself). The #twitterstorians hashtag is possibly the greatest demonstration of how social media should work that there is, and grants you access to an interested and interesting community of people willing to help you answer questions and discuss ideas regardless of what level you’re at (its founder, Katrina Gulliver, has also written a brilliant article on using Twitter as an academic). If your students are using personal accounts but you want to get them talking to each other, introduce a hashtag. #EN105 is a good example of a class sharing articles and ideas on, ironically, society and the problems of social media – as a side note, make sure your hashtag isn’t taken!

Get innovative

The biggest problem educators often have with introducing Twitter into the classroom is finding ways to do it that support learning and don’t detract (and distract) from what you’re already doing. I’m going to go into this in more detail in future posts, but here are a couple of examples of fun and engaging ways to use social media in the classroom:

Retelling a story

If you take a look at #OMFtweets you might be a little confused about what’s going on. An alligator is talking to an inspector, among other things. These tweets are part of a reading project – people have taken on the roles of characters from Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend and are interacting in character on Twitter in line with the installments that they’re reading. This is easily adapted for a class, and could be used to encourage students to think about how the characters relate to each other and the period in which the novel is set. They can think about tone, form and narrative style.

Similar things can also be done on Facebook, and condensing plots and characters into short tweets and statements can help students get a better grip on what they’re studying and the key points.

Tweeting the past

Another popular hashtag is #OTD, sharing events that happened on this day in history. Some accounts have taken this further, recreating diaries and accounts in real-time – see this one from the Archives of Ontario which tweeted the War of 1812 as recounted in the diary of Ely Playter. Getting students to take it in turn to produce content like this, find something out and share it with other people is a great way to get them to take ownership of their learning and encourage conversations in the classroom and online.

Further reading:

EducatorsTechnology.com also has a an extensive list of more than fifty ways to use Twitter in the classroom, aimed mostly at students pre-university, but the ideas can be adapted in new ways.

Do you use Twitter with your class and/or for yourself? What strategies do you use to encourage your students to engage?

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