Face it. I have a class of 92 students. I'd like to engage every single student and give them a great experience. But with this many people in class there's no way I can engage or get engaged with each of them to the extent I'd like. Especially not using "traditional" modalities like term papers, lab reports, and exams. But engagement is the goal of my course. In my opinion engagement is more important than content mastery for my students, all of whom are fulfilling a science requirement that many consider to be an obstacle to completion of their degree. Darwin, the central figure in my undergraduate biology course, was a genius. But forcing students to learn what he learned just doesn't work. Sorry to say but I can't find a reason for anyone who's not a professional biologist to have to learn about sexual selection, population bottlenecks, or commensalism. They're part of the theoretical canon of biology and yes, I hear you, they can make our students "better scientifically literate citizens" whatever that means. I am interested however, in teaching my students new ways of observing and analyzing their world. It's a toolkit that will take them further in science and the rest of their endeavors than, say, the Hardy-Weinberg equation. My goal is to teach an experiential way of learning that truly keeps giving, to paraphrase the philosopher John Dewey's words. But to accomplish this I need to engage. And to engage with my students I need to reach out--frequently, informally, succinctly. I want them to do the same.
So if I assign a reading I can ask for a quick tweet: "what did you think of it?" And I can hope for answers. My students will be advised upfront that I want them to engage, and that their engagement will be measured in part by their tweets. Using a question from the reading as a kind of prod, I will get responses from students that warrant a reply from me. Of course my replies will contain further questions and in this way, I hope to carry on multiple conversations with students in real time. These conversations always lead to teachable moments and they help me get to know my students better. As we get to know each other better we relax. We discuss. We engage.
Student engagement in the course, with me, and with one another is my main goal. But there are more. I want my students to observe deeply, to contemplate on what they observe, and to communicate about the process. To "check their work" in this arena I can ask them to tweet me photos, comments, sketches, maps, you name it. I can ask them to "slow observe" something for five minutes, ten minutes even, which seems like an impossibly long period for a 19-year old. Then a quick snap and a note about what they observed and what they think they "saw." I see their photo. I ask a question. My responses are built to encourage further discussion.
I used Twitter last time I taught this course to monitor and comment upon people's work during lab. I asked them to read a piece and respond, and then begin the lab exercises I had prepared. Sometimes I asked for frequent tweets, every five minutes or so, to see how people were progressing with the work and to see how they were responding to the challenge. Part of each lab I design is meant to give students a chance to reflect on their own process of learning. Tweeting is an excellent way to get an idea of how that process is going for students. And believe it if you will. It's possible in 140 characters to discern an engaged tweet from one that's no so much. Also if someone's cracking gum I can send a discrete note instead of policing, which isn't my thing. Not with undergraduates.
Last time I taught this course I stood in front of lab the whole class period tweeting, retweeting, "liking," and commenting on student work. Colleagues would pass in the hall amazed at the focused silence in my classroom, or sometimes the focused chaos. But they were more than a little discomfited that I was on my phone the whole time instead of "professing." Had I lost control? Was I that apathetic? Little did my colleagues know my students and I were deeply engaged as a group and that in any given lab we might generate dozens of conversations and hundreds of tweets. That's engagement.
A couple of years ago we had a monster winter in Boston. Several Mondays in a row were cancelled, and I think some Tuesdays too. What a great opportunity. I assigned my students some readings, some snowbound activities they could do in their room, and for extra credit, a walk in the snow. "Please respond with a tweet" kept my students on board and gave me something to do during those long days of whiteout conditions. Lots of folks at the university professed to do something with students those days but I think I'm the only one who had students active, busy and involved online the whole time. And I was conversing with each one of them individually.
You would be right to tell me I could use our university's proprietary blackboard site for this kind of work. But have you tried to click through the maze of prompts and symbols there? And have you ever tried to use it in your mobile device? Now think about your students. How useful is that clunky vehicle for the snapchat generation? If you're worried about a record of your student work there's good news. At the end of the semester I can track every tweet a student made. Privacy? If someone's concerned they can use twitter's private messaging. Though I prefer the open channels of communication so I can retweet and get some group ideas rolling.
And in lecture? Twitter gives me an effective way to hear students' comments, to get an idea of how they perceive an idea. I use it often in lecture as a way to get people to stop taking notes, think for a minute or two, and send me a response to a question or challenge. To use Twitter in lecture you have to not be afraid of minutes of silence while people think and tweet. You also have to be willing to admit that your ideas and the material you're "covering" don't hold primacy. Students need to be engaged in lecture too.
What we lose in verbiage we gain in communication. Relaxed, simultaneous, responsive. No slipping a ten page paper under the door and getting it back with red marks a week later. Does anyone read those comments the professor made so laboriously? So this year, as I've done successfully in the past, I'm planning to change labor into play, drudgery into fun, and excess verbiage into interactive communication. Students will still have a couple of exams and a formal paper, as well as small-group presentations to the class that will count toward their grades. They will still be expected to master the material, which admittedly occupies a minute slice of the biological canon. But they will also engage, interact, explore, and have some fun with me as we learn together about how we learn. I'm expanding my Twitter experiment from a couple of years ago to see where it takes us. You're welcome to join us.