Pedagogy and Social Media or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Twitter

December 11, 2012 The lecture is a reviled pedagogical tool. As a student, no amount of coffee can keep you awake during some especially excruciating ones. Having recently been on the other side of the podium after a long night of rewrites, I can claim that the sentiment is shared on both sides. There is definitely a consensus that a lecture is not the best teaching tool in most circumstances – even the normally opinion-balanced Wikipedia doesn’t try too hard:

“Critics point out that lecturing is mainly a one-way method of communication that does not involve significant audience participation, (as opposed to) active learning.”

“(Lectures) represent a conception of education in which teachers who know give knowledge to students who do not and are therefore supposed to have nothing worth contributing.”

Clearly, we’ve moved far along in understanding pedagogy to recognize that however knowledgeable you are, you don’t know enough. I am also sure there are very few doubts about the effectiveness of active student participation in classes. Unfortunately, in an era of rising tuition, budget cuts and classes bursting at the seams with students, the lecture becomes one of the few pedagogical tools available (or even possible) in the academic space. Knowing these constraints, are there ways to re-invent a pedagogical tool dating back to the Middle Ages (thanks again, Wikipedia!) that align it with contemporary, effective methods of learning?

This fall, I had the opportunity of being a Graduate Student Instructor (GSI) in Prof. Ananya Roy’s Global Poverty class. The scope of the class lends itself to being a seminar class, as does the range of the material and majors ranging from Development Studies and City Planning to Mechanical Engineering and English Literature. Unfortunately, this class is an administrative nightmare due to its size – for this semester, the student count started in the high 800s, before stabilizing at a relatively reasonable (!) 559. Each discussion section has about 30 students and is meant to be the space for active learning, but starting at Berkeley Time and ending at Pacific Time doesn’t leave a lot of time to be a truly satisfying discussion.

At the start of the semester, the idea of using Twitter to spur discussion in class came up during a couple of meetings. Twitter’s 140-character limit on posts lends itself to quick thoughts and questions, while the lack of previews of images and videos helps parse through many posts quickly – both aspects that had the potential to bridge over some of the issues in encouraging discussion in class. As some of you who have taken the class earlier know, the lecture has a strictly enforced no laptops/smartphones rule and the main concern was the utility of selectively allowing use of electronic devices that clearly had the potential of being distractions – how does one know if someone is texting their significant other or commenting on the oppressive global coffee commodity chain? The other, larger concern was how much more effective would this be in getting students to talk? In spite of some apprehension on the part of everyone involved, we decided to experiment with using Twitter as a tool to during lecture. Another major concern – as a student, how much of the lecture would you lose while trying to compose a 140 word tweet in the middle of class?

The first attempt was during the week on different perceptions of the impact of foreign aid, the centerpiece of which is a debate of Jeff Sachs’ and William Easterly’s opinions on the matter. Students were encouraged to tweet using the #globalpov hashtag and all tweets appeared live on a screen behind the lectern.  The discussion following this class is usually contentious, with strong opinions on both sides. The use of Twitter seemed for this class was like adding fuel to the fire – the debate on screen was a lot more explosive than the one between the original authors. The tool seemed effective in getting normally reticent people to share their thoughts. At the same time, the live stream was incorporated into the lecture with key tweets used to segue from one topic to another or to initiate a discussion in class.

At the same time, many students (and most of the GSIs, including yours truly) felt that the live stream running throughout the lecture was too distracting. The effect was apparent in the discussion section too – while more students talked, they seemed to be referencing their friends’ and colleagues’ tweets more than the reading or lecture material itself.

The lessons from this first experiment helped make minor adjustments to the next time Twitter was used in class and a few more tweaks later, there was some stability with the use of Twitter during lecture – the feed was displayed only during some portions of the lecture to initiate discussion on the material covered so far and tweeting would not be as distracting.

The use of Twitter during the lecture seemed to do what it set out to do –upset the one-to-many pedagogical hierarchy of the lecture.

It also lent itself to other experiments, such as GSIs tweeting from relevant fake ids to bring in reading material in the course of the twitter discussion…

… Preparing crowdsourced lecture review notes …

… or let students at opposite ends of the auditorium converse, in the middle of lecture

It was outside the class that Twitter seemed to have an unexpected impact, letting learning continue beyond the four hours of class and discussion time, whether it’s answering questions about the reading material…

…or talking about current events…

… or in trying to earn brownie points from a professor.

For a popular course that involves itself in contemporary debates about development, the #globalpov helped take the conversation far beyond the walls of Wheeler auditorium…

…and initiated the creation of this video, based on class material (and a deep, abiding love for Bono?)

It’s perhaps too early to comment on how effective social media can be for education. In light of the problems that face public education, especially in California, a conversation on the use of social media in education can safely and appropriately be relegated to the backburner. The debate over using social media for education is a never ending one, both sides being equally interesting cases.

But this experiment over the last few months has had at least one convert: me. For a self-proclaimed Luddite, I saw no benefit in using Twitter in class. As a GSI policing the 600-strong auditorium, ensuring that open laptops aren’t checking out 9gag seemed like an additional burden. Making a twitter handle was a big, unwanted step but the benefits soon began outweighing the constant urge to update my feed. Discussion sections became easier to start off – knowing what my students were tweeting (and tweet-stalking them before a section) helped prepare discussion questions. Active tweeters were usually not the ones who spoke up in section, and referencing their tweets in class helped break the ice. The ego boost received on being quoted or re-tweeted helped, of course, in the conversion.

Now that the semester is over, I expect the conversation to continue on Twitter and keep tabs on what’s happening in one of my favorite classes, just as some of these Cal alum are doing…

Join the conversation on Twitter using the #globalpov hashtag.

Siddharth Nadkarny is an architect from Mumbai, India and currently pursuing a Master of City Planning degree at UC Berkeley. His interests lie in international development and urban systems.