The best way to combat lecture boredom is to ask students to take out their smart phones and tweet. And, possibly, the easiest way to introduce how Twitter works is by providing students with a provocative image and asking them to tweet a sentence that includes both character and action in order to tell the story of the image as seen in the example in Figure 1.
The image of the snake portrays a story, a frozen moment at the end of the beginning of a life. The creature is both earth-bound and ethereal in appearance. The story of this snake would be that it was born late in the fall on a day too cold to sustain life; crawling from it’s egg, it found a warm location on a stretch of asphalt; and as the temperatures dropped, it tied itself into a knot of such beauty and mystery, one so taut and unlikely, that it will surely die within the hour. A tweet cannot encompass the breadth of this story, so I simply wrote: “Newborn snake tied in a Celtic knot.” When an image like this is shared on a social media service or platform like Twitter, it engages the audience in the age-old tradition of storytelling, Likewise, introducing Twitter into the writing classroom provides a social environment that allows students to form a community of practice and engage in formal learning through digital storytelling.
Twitter can be integrated into classroom practices for a number of purposes and a number of ways. Here are my top five twitter activities:
- Tweet course announcements prior to the start of class
- Tweet sentence-level exercises
- Tweet questions for the instructor or guest speaker during lectures
- Tweet questions to the instructor outside of class
- Turn twitter activities into a narrative to summarize what happened
Before you get started, you will need to understand basic Twitter terminology:
Twitter terms that you might need to know:
Social network service – a platform that builds social relations among people
Social Media – interaction that occurs or takes place through a social network platform that builds virtual or online communities that create, share, exchange information and comment
Twitter - an online social networking or broadcasting service in the form of a microblog that allows users to send text-based messages of up to 140 characters in addition to other forms of media such as images and videos.
Microblogging - the posting of short entries or updates on a social networking service
Tweet - a microblogging message limited to 140 characters
Hashtag - the # symbol is placed before keywords or topics in a Twitter message to facilitate a twitter search for that specific keyword (see Figure 2 below)
Backchannel – an online conversation that takes place in real-time alongside a primary spoken activity, created with a shared twitter hashtag
Widget - an application that allows a user to perform or access a service
Twitter feed widget – a service that displays current tweets from a specific hashtag or twitter user (see Figure 2 below)
Refer to the above terminology when needed. Next, I will explain how each of the five Twitter practices can be integrated into your writing course.
1. Tweet course announcements prior to the start of class. Tweeting course announcements prior to the start of class will help situate the students in terms of setting expectations and establishing motivation for attendance. Announcements or reminders can concern guest speakers, special treats, links to online slideshows or any other material that will facilitate the start of class. This activity, in effect, sustains interaction and communication (Gao et al, 2012, Lowe & Laffey, 2011, and Rinaldo et al, 2011).
2. Tweet sentence-level exercises. A key goal when teaching basic writing is to emphasize the story telling nature behind constructing a sentence. The subject and verb of your sentence should be seen as characters and action (Williams 2007). Furthermore, Tweets are limited to 140 characters (letters, spaces, and symbols); this microblogging format generates a writing style that requires both clarity and conciseness. In addition, Twitter is a social medium where the sharing of digital stories is a community event meant to engage and provoke further conversations. This practice will show students “how to learn” and encourages interactive activities (Gao et al, 2012).
Tips for writing effective tweets
- Don’t use all 140 characters, shorter tweets are more engaging
- Include a hashtag on a keyword, making it simple to follow course tweets
- Tweet at another member or @anothermember to create a conversation
3. Tweet questions for the instructor or guest speaker during lectures. Create a back channel by asking students to tweet questions during class and take time to read and answer those questions during or after the lecture or presentation. This practice will allow the quieter students an opportunity to participate and enables immediate participation (Elavsky et al, 2011, Gao et al 2012).
4. Tweet questions after class to the instructor. This forum will provide a quick and dirty Q&A system to solve common problems. You will find yourself looking forward to such tweets since both parties are limited in scope in terms of messaging length, 140 characters. The shared conversation will benefit the community as whole and reduce your workload. This activity also sustains interaction and communication outside of the classroom (Gao et al, 2012, Lowe & Laffey, 2011, and Rinaldo et al, 2011).
5. Turn twitter activities into a narrative to summarize a class activity. A Twitter feed can provide a narrative of Twitter moments. After an activity, you can read through the feed to discuss what happened, what worked, and what students should take away from the lesson. In this manner, you are essentially documenting the process (Wright 2010, Gao et al 2012).
The following tips and instructions will prepare you to introduce Twitter activities:
- Identify a specialized hashtag accompanied next to a keyword for each section or course that you are teaching. For example, I use #eatmontreal for a food writing course that I offer (see Figure 2 below).
- Next, create a twitter feed widget or online display for your hashtag and post it on a prominent page of your online course management system or website (see Figure 2 below). Directions for making a twitter feed widget will follow.
The following steps will help you sign up for twitter and create a twitter feed widget for your online course management system. If you don’t have an online course management system, you can sign up for free server space on the Internet with a number of blogging sites, such as Blogger, Weebly, WordPress or Tumblr, to name only a few. To create your twitter feed widget, you will need a personal computer and Internet service.
Tip: In order to complete this task, you should have an online course management system such as Moodle or Blackboard or a course website and a basic understanding or knowledge of how to embed HTML code or hypertext markup language on a web page. If you don’t have this understanding or capability, consider omitting the Twitter feed widget.
1. Open Twitter in your browser window: www.twitter.com
2. Sign up for an account or log into your current Twitter account.
Tip: Avoid using dates and underscores when choosing a Twitter name. If possible, use your full name to establish the authenticity of your account.
3. Once you are logged into your account, select the Settings button located on the upper right side of the page as shown in Figure 3.
4. Once you have opened Settings, select Widgets as shown in Figure 4.
5. Select Create New.
6. Select the Search option for your widget design as shown in Figure 5.
7. Type your course hashtag.
8. Select Save.
9. Copy the code provided and paste as <> or html code onto the home web page of your course website or learning management system as shown in Figure 6.
10. Select Save.
You are now ready to integrate Twitter practices into the design of your writing course as shown in Figure 7.
Writing is a social activity
The narrative paradigm theory argues that all human communication consists of storytelling (Fisher 1987). What this means is that we experience life as a series of stories, and like all good stories, each one must contain characters embroiled in conflicts that move along a timeline. The storyteller’s audience measures the truthfulness or authenticity of a story contextually by reflecting on shared history and culture. Twitter provides such a setting, one intended for the sharing of stories and ensuing conversation, one which can potentially engage students in a social learning environment that provides an ideal community of practice for becoming writers. Situated learning theorists contend that communities of practice shift the learning process from the cognitive to the social (Hunga & Yuenb, 2011). As a learning tool, social networking services like Twitter can enhance students’ sense of classroom community and provide an ideal community of practice that operates within and outside the classroom boundaries (Hunga & Yuenb, 2011 p. 713). Its popular appeal has created a world of storytellers. Since its inception in 2006, the Twitter microblogging social network service has enrolled more than 180,000,000 users worldwide (Dijck 2011).
Recent studies indicate that social networking services like Twitter can impact learning outcomes and increase student engagement (Heiberger and Harper, 2008; Heiberger and Loken, 2011; Rinaldo, Tapp & Laverie, 2011; Wodzicki, Schwammlein & Moskaliuk, 2012; Manion & Selfe, 2012; Kassens-Noor, 2012). Mills and Chandra (2011) discovered, “As with learning in general, microblogging establishes an active social dynamic among the participants to create an open, fluid, and continuous dialogue, for the students and teacher to quickly identify shared starting points for discussion” (p. 43). For example, Heiberger and Loken (2011), in a quasi-experimental study, found that Twitter increased interactions between student and faculty, improved cooperation among students, promoted active learning, and encouraged them to provide prompt feedback. When students find themselves engaged, they spend more time on task and even deliver a better product.
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