Dr Emma Rich, University of Bath @emmarich45

Professor Andy Miah, University of the West of Scotland @andymiah

Around the end of 2011, a few geeks in Sweden set up the Swedish Twitter University, which brought lectures in a series of tweets to a class of, at least, around 500 followers. It may have been the first time that Twitter was used to deliver higher education and with the recent debates about massive open online courses (MOOCs), it seems apt that we reflect on what Twitter might do to transform the classroom and open up a new space for public education?

This week, we put together an experiment that tested these limits, creating a seminar that took place entirely within Twitter, using a bespoke hashtag to bring together all of the content. Running a seminar in Twitter might sound like a relatively simple exercise: ensure students have devices through which to tweet (mostly their own, but if not then a computer or loaner, or share), then position your Visiting Professor – aka Andy Miah – in front of his computer and let rip.

There was a bit of prep time involved too. Emma was in the classroom, doing some pre-reading and preparation with the students, who were all in the same place. They need not have been, but this introduces an interesting debate: is there something to gain by being ‘Alone Together’ as Sherry Turkle would say. While mobile devices can allow us to remove the physical classroom all together, there value may be analogous to going to the cinema or watching television. Both involve watching a movie, but there’s some additional value in the physical, shared experience. In this case, not by design, but more by last minute planning, the students were all together. They also watched a livestream of all tweets, introducing an additional dimension to the experience – literally a silver screen of collective content. The session was pitched as a Q&A based on something Andy had written and over 40 minutes around 110 tweets flew through cyberspace.

Did it work? Was there much gained by this experience? Did the students get anything more – or less – than they would have, if they had just had Andy in the room giving them a talk? This is a difficult question to answer, but it was certainly different and, you could argue that universities need to prepare their students for communication in the ultra fast lane of social media.

This Twitter seminar gave students the rare opportunity to ask questions and post comments to Andy through tweets and receive individual replies. You can read the discussion via storify, here The method encouraged reciprocity, instinctive thinking and recognised a shift in how education takes place in the 21st century, from a reliance on formal education to a recognition of spaces like social media as important sites for learning. This unique social media event gave the students an opportunity to experience public pedagogy first hand, in addition to developing their own sense of working within the public domain, a crucial skill in a world of 24-hour connectivity.

Spontaneity and immediacy are of course seen as some of the celebrated strengths of social media like twitter. Consider its role for example in alerting the public of information or news about significant events such as natural disasters before it even breaks in the mainstream. Responding in the twitter debate, within seconds, students were receiving replies from Andy and thinking on their feet.  But conveying a message in 140 characters is challenging, particularly if one wants to avoid over simplification in complex, critical debate. Do we prepare students well for this? Quick thinking and summarising you views carries potential risk which for many means a fear of ‘tweeting’ and putting critical views in the public domain.

Just this week, the BBC published an article on Twitter users: A guide to the law, which suggests that ordinary social media users need to have a grasp of media law. Through the defamation bill and other laws, it may be clearer to us what we can and can’t say on platforms like twitter.  Perhaps clearer social media law will offer both staff and students clarity and confidence in engaging with social media in the classroom. However, this law doesn’t of course address issues of reciprocity, etiquette, or how we make ‘cold’ connections in the networked world.

If the Twitter debate hadn’t been facilitated in a formal capacity, many of the students would not have felt it appropriate to contact a Professor (or other ‘esteemed’ twitter user) in the way they did during the debate. We do not know the future of these emerging technologies and so ‘demarcation and rules’ do not seem so fruitful here. Fluidity, flexibility and responsiveness seem like important skills for students to develop as part of their learning. Apart from anything else, it’s a great way to bring some additional life into lectures and encourage students to think about their online presence; something they inevitably will have, but which is usually separate from their learning.

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