Classroom give-and-take launches into Twittersphere

March 5, 2013

Photo: Twitter

Photo illustration

You can toss away that paper; Twitter just became your study guide. 

To prepare for the first midterm in Shawn Peters' class, students tweeted their notes about utilitarianism, social justice and other themes addressed in the HBO series “The Wire.” #Wire275 is one of almost a dozen academic ventures into the “Twittersphere” on campus.

Twitter is changing the way students and professors interact in more classes than ever before. Instructors are expanding their classroom space online by using hashtags for discussions, sharing articles and more. Professors and students are working together to provide a new communications channel in the college academic experience.

Hashtags are phrases preceded by the symbol # that group tweets with common themes together. Twitter users can read all of the messages tagged with a common hashtag. For example, #UWSocial is used by campus social media communicators.

Ten courses have added Twitter to the syllabus this semester. Though journalism courses lead the way, other departments and programs embrace Twitter as a powerful resource.     

Justice and Equality in Multicultural America explores societal issues while watching episodes of “The Wire.” During class, a window showing #Wire275 tweets rolls out students' reactions to the episode they are watching. “It’s like a movie with director’s commentary, except it’s your classmates,” says Asaf Segal, a junior in the class.

Image: Twitter messages

Since Peters started teaching the course in fall 2011, Twitter has connected students in Madison to cast members of the show. "The more interesting interactions have been with people outside of the class," says Peters. He has discussed his course with actors Michael K. Williams and Wendell Pierce, who portray key characters in the series. "I want students to have conversations with me, the text and each other. Twitter allows us to do this in a nimble and fast-paced way," says Peters.  Twitter is not only changing the conversation in classrooms, it is making it faster and more inclusive. 

“It’s a large class and Twitter helps students feel like they’re connected and can approach me,” says John Hawks, an anthropology professor. In his 250-person lecture, Hawks displays #UW105 tweets in the corner of the screen and answers questions as students tweet them.  #UW105 tweets vary from Hawks’ television appearances to sharing supplementary readings. “I set it up for personality and motivation. It creates a backchannel for the class."

Image: Twitter message

As modern journalism evolves, campus classes have as well. Journalism courses were the first on campus to use Twitter hashtags. "We're in the midst of an information revolution," says journalism professor Sue Robinson. For 22 iPad-wielding students, the curriculum of  "Social Media and the News" focuses on professional applications of social media. Robinson started using blogs in classes in 2007 and now trains future journalists to use the latest digital tools.

"Twitter has brought me closer to my colleagues while introducing me to journalists," says senior Corinne Burgermeister. Between tweeting with classmates at #sman_uw and scavenger hunts with other students around the country, Burgermeister says that monitoring social networks can be overwhelming. "The class doesn't end after 50 minutes. You feel the pressure to keep working and tweeting," says Burgermeister.

Robinson's class is exploring the differences between personal and professional use of social media while applying the fundamentals of journalism. Students have strict guidelines for how to tweet and blog while using Tumblr, Pinterest and other social media to produce content online.

While Robinson and her students keep up with the latest digital trends, she predicts that more classes will adapt Twitter to their pedagogy.  "You can't ignore how people are going to communicate," says Robinson.  

—Alex Kowalsky