Learning in the Twitter Age: Faculty embrace challenges, opportunities of social media

On a mid-September Tuesday, Associate Prof. Chuck Rybak’s English 333 students are busy analyzing the symbolism of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.”

“Monster narratives are really narratives to show our faults,” comments one student.

“Monsters manipulate the weaker parts of people,” adds another. “ … Have we become the prey?”

Thought-provoking stuff, and about what one would expect from an upper-level English course. But rather than commenting aloud, these students are making their voices heard via Twitter, using the 140-character micro-blog to add to the discussion in real time.

“I think (social media platforms) are just nice, easy, kind of gateways into experiencing — those are traditional Humanities skills — archiving, curation,” said Rybak, a digital humanities scholar in his second semester of using Twitter in the classroom, “but also in a way that’s public, and takes them to social media that’s not just friend-based — that they can see an actual professional use for it.”

Whether for building rapport or enriching or archiving class discussions, social media use among UW-Green Bay faculty is varied in both quantity and purpose. These technologies have benefits and drawbacks, professors say, and they can sometimes blur the lines between professional and casual correspondence.

“The neat thing is that the more the technology’s getting into people’s hands, we can use it for more things,” said Human Development and Psychology Prof. Regan A.R. Gurung, who regularly uses Facebook and has experimented with Twitter in some of his courses. “But let’s not forget about the old things — to use a classic football analogy, there are so many fundamentals.”

Dude, where’s my etiquette?

Faculty members have some amusing stories about students forgetting or disregarding those fundamentals. One student called Gurung “dude” in an email, then swiftly and apologetically explained that the slip-up was inadvertent — that in fact, he’d been in “Facebook mode” when he sent the note. For Psychology chair and Associate Prof. Ryan Martin, who uses Twitter to supplement class discussions, a student’s faux pas was a bit more public.

“Someone took a picture of the person next to them sleeping in my class and tweeted it,” Martin laughingly recalled. “And said something along the lines of ‘obviously experimental psych is super exciting.’ So that was awkward and funny.”

Whether intentional or not, it can be easy for students to engage in overly casual correspondence — or worse — in today’s text message- and social media-heavy world, Gurung said. Many freshman seminar courses, including Gurung’s, cover the fundamentals of email etiquette and other communication at the outset, so students aren’t left wondering what’s appropriate. But even as communication challenges occur, faculty say social media present plenty of opportunity — both for connecting with students at the outset, and enriching what they learn along the way.

“You want your foot in the door to increase rapport with our students,” Gurung said, “and our challenge is, what’s the best foot in the door? And for some of our students, matching with the faculty, it’s Twitter. For some, it’s Facebook — for some, it may be Tumblr. It then becomes a match between the comfort level of the faculty member and of the student.”

‘Nobody has to ask for the notes anymore’
For Martin, using Twitter in the classroom has taken on a couple of different forms. He first offered extra credit for tweeting, then made it an assignment. After noting that some students were just going through the motions — and that he had an awful lot of tweets to track — Martin made it optional. He gave students five reasons they should tweet, from increasing familiarity with him to having fun and establishing a good repository for class-related articles and other information.

To take it a step further, Martin and Rybak both use social media aggregator Storify, which allows them to capture tweets and integrate other media to establish a digital record of what happened in class.

“I tell students all the time,” Rybak said, “if you’re absent, look at the Twitter feed and see what we talked about in the last class So nobody has to ask for the notes anymore.”

Rybak and other faculty members note it’s important to use digital tools like Twitter for inquiry and research — not just because they’re shiny new options or touted as next best thing. Still, Gurung say, there are different ways to measure the value of what can be gained from taking a class virtual — even if it comes with some bumps along the way.

“There’s probably something that shouldn’t be underestimated — the excitement, fun factor of a class Twitter feed,” he said. “Even though it may not be explicitly seeming to serve a pedagogical purpose, if it’s making you a little bit more interested in the class, so that you’re paying attention or whatever, then it’s done its job.”