Social Media in the Classroom

May 12th, 2011

With much nachas, I previously blogged about Erin Olson, a member of the Harlan Institute Teacher Advisory Network, and whose class was inspired to protest the Westboro Baptists after learning about Snyder v. Phelps through Harlan Connect who was featured in a front page New York Times article about her use of social media in the classroom.

Kvelling aside, there are a number of broader pedagogical points I would like to make that fits into my research agenda about the classroom of tomorrow.

First, on the use of a “back channel” in the classsroom:

Instead of being a distraction — an electronic version of note-passing — the chatter echoed and fed into the main discourse, said Mrs. Olson, who monitored the stream and tried to absorb it into the lesson. She and others say that social media, once barricaded outside the school door, can entice students who rarely raise a hand to express themselves through a medium they find as natural as breathing.

“When we have class discussions, I don’t really feel the need to speak up or anything,” said one of her students, Justin Lansink, 17. “When you type something down, it’s a lot easier to say what I feel.”

With Twitter and other free microblogging platforms, teachers from elementary schools to universities are setting up what is known as a “backchannel” in their classes. The real-time digital streams allow students to comment, pose questions (answered either by one another or the teacher) and shed inhibitions about voicing opinions. Perhaps most importantly, if they are texting on-task, they are less likely to be texting about something else.

Nicholas Provenzano, an English teacher at Grosse Pointe South High School, outside Detroit, said that in a class of 30, only about 12 usually carried the conversation, but that eight more might pipe up on a backchannel. “Another eight kids entering a discussion is huge,” he noted.

I first learned about opening a backchannel in class from Erin last year. I incorporated it into my law classroom and it worked remarkably well. I blogged about my experiences with a backchannel here and here.

Second, the article addresses skeptics who view backchannels as a form of distraction in the classroom:

Skeptics — and at this stage they far outnumber enthusiasts — fear that introducing backchannels into classrooms will distract students and teachers, and lead to off-topic, inappropriate or even bullying remarks. A national survey released last month found that 2 percent of college faculty members had used Twitter in class, and nearly half thought that doing so would negatively affect learning. When Derek Bruff, a math lecturer and assistant director of the Center for Teaching at Vanderbilt University, suggests that fellow professors try backchannels, “Most look at me like I’m coming from another planet,” he said.

“The word on the street about laptops in class,” Dr. Bruff added, is that students use them to tune out, checking e-mail or shopping for shoes. He acknowledged that often happens, but argued that professors could reduce such activity by giving students something class-related to do on their mobile devices, which are ubiquitous and not going away.

But the technology has been slow to win over faculty. It was used in just 12 courses this spring. Sandra Sydnor-Bousso, a professor of hospitality and tourism management, said Hot Seat did not mesh well with her style of walking around class to encourage a dialogue. She also fears that requiring students to bring wireless devices to class would increase the already high rate of social e-mailing and checking of Facebook.

“The last thing I want to do is to give them yet another way to distract themselves,” she said.

Third, social media in the classroom allows quiet students to speak up, without fear of embarrassment, a point I have made several times. Also, more students can be heard in a shorter period of time due to the equality of voice.

Purdue University, in Indiana, developed its own backchannel system, called Hot Seat, for use in all classrooms two years ago, at a cost of $84,000. Hot Seat lets students post comments and questions, which can be read on laptops or smartphones or projected on a large screen. Sugato Chakravarty, who lectures about personal finance to crowds of 400, pauses every 10 minutes to answer those that have been “voted up” by his audience.

Before Hot Seat, “I could never get people to speak up,” Professor Chakravarty said. “Everybody’s intimidated.”

“It’s clear to me,” he added, “that absent this kind of social media interaction, there are things students think about that normally they’d never say.”

During a reading lesson, she recalled, a story included the word “queue.” Using a school-issued Macbook, “one student asked, ‘What is a queue?’ ” Mrs. Weber said. “If they’d have read that individually they wouldn’t have been brave enough to raise their hands. They would have just read over it. But another student answered, ‘It’s a ponytail.’ The whole class on the backchannel had an a-ha moment.”

“I am in awe at how independent they’ve become using that as a means of comprehension,” she added.

The 11th graders in Mrs. Olson’s class said the backchannel had widened their appreciation of one another’s thoughts and personalities. “Everybody is heard in our class,” said Leah Postman, 17.

Fourth, an important note: students today learn differently, and can thrive with this type of interacting education:

“You’d think there’s a lot of distraction, but it’s actually the opposite,” she said. “Kids are much quicker at stuff than we are. They can really multitask. They have hypertext minds.”

I am in the process of putting together an article on this topic. I will try something new, and liveblog it with an open google doc. I should have it posted by later tonight. This will be cool.