Revisiting the Twitter Experiment (In Context)

Contributed by Tara Zepel UC San Diego
April 06, 2011
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As a teaching assistant for an upper-division writing class taught by Elizabeth Losh in the winter of 2011 at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD), I was part of the Twitter experiment turned Twitter exploit.1  On a standard day, the class took the inevitable form of many large classes with a two-hundred plus student enrollment – a lecture.  Over the course of the quarter, these lectures followed the broad theme of the course’s title, ‘CAT 125: Public Rhetoric and Practical Communication Online.’  Seeing an opportunity for a greater degree of student participation using the very social media technologies we had been critically discussing, Professor Losh invited a pedagogical experiment.

For thirty minutes of class one Thursday, students would be encouraged to use Twitter to generate a more organic and student-directed discussion than is customary in a large lecture setting.  On the scheduled day, Professor Losh opened the specified #cat125 feed, reminded students of the invitation to tweet and switched to her lecture slides as she began her lecture on the topic of disability and social media.  Thirty minutes later, with the majority of tweets pertaining to content unrelated to the lecture, the experiment ended with a tweet induced collective coughing fit.  Immediately following, Professor Losh introduced a guest speaker in honor of Diversity Day on campus and the Teaching Diversity conference held the same day.  Professor Tom Humphries, Associate Director of the Education Studies at UCSD and an established scholar on language and culture among Deaf people, took the stage.

Given an outcome that diverged from the anticipated use of social media to engender class-related discussion, the question that immediately surfaced was did the experiment fail? The events and conversations that unfolded surrounding this pedagogical experiment actually address two interrelated but separate issues: 1) the effectiveness of a twitter-enabled backchannel in a university lecture hall and 2) the affective alignment of this backchannel with content.  My focus in this commentary is primarily on the first and although the pedagogical value of the experiment was not that which might have been intended, something was learned in relation to each of these issues.  The experiment did not fail.  My response is not one characterized by a fear of technological dystopia or distraction.  Equally, it is not one that embraces techno-futurist utopianism.  It is above all a response that concerns the important role context has to play when incorporating networked social media into established pedagogical structures. 

What Exactly Happened?

In the weeks leading up to the set date, Professor Losh introduced Twitter and how to tweet to a lecture hall where everybody had heard of the micro-blogging platform, but only half knew how it functioned and even fewer had an account.  Admittedly, even as a graduate student who specializes in a new media field, I fell into the group of non-account holders but I was excited at the prospect of the experiment.  So, I created an account and prepared to join in on the conversation.  On the day of the experiment, we hoped that the Twitter backchannel would allow for multi-way dialogue and/or commentary about the lecture material among those seated in the lecture hall.  This was not the reality.

Once the experiment started, a handful of isolated tweets did address the topic of the lecture.  After watching a YouTube video created by a young woman with autism2 one student wrote, “#cat125 I have always kind of wondered what it might feel like to live inside an autistic mind, at least now I have seen it….in some form.”  Others expressed discomfort with the material.  However, most of the dialogue that occurred, that is the tweets that responded to and referenced each other, concerned topics that had no relation to the lecture. 

One such conversation topic involved the prospect of trending in San Diego.  A student tweeted, “i wonder if we could actually get #cat125 to become a top trending topic. that would be ridiculously fun.”  To which another responded, “clearly we aren’t tweeting enough if we aren’t even a top trending topic.”  Shortly thereafter, @TrendsSanDiego confirmed that the tweet frequency had tipped: “#cat125 is now trending in #SanDiego”

The other topic of choice was the plan of a coughing uprising.  One student, who appeared to have conversed with another over a non-Twitter channel proposed, “#cat125 i say at 2:30 we all randomly start coughing … the proff isn’t tweeting so she won’t know whts going on hahaha.”3 The suggestion prompted other tweets such as, “lezz doo itt! #cat125” and “#cat125 2min left guys!  The countdownnnnnnn haha.”  At 2:30 the coughing began which prompted me to check the twitter feed to confirm what I suspected, that this collective action began with a tweet.  This was the official end to the experiment.

Is Twitter an Effective Backchannel?

During our regularly scheduled and far more intimate section meeting later that day, I asked a group of fifteen students what they thought of the experience, both critically and viscerally.  Did it succeed or fail?  A desired outcome of the experiment was to destabilize the traditional lecture dynamic.  Using Twitter, students could have a collective voice and engage with and discuss the material on their own terms. 

Yet, first words out of many of my students’ mouths were, “She [the professor] didn’t tell us what to do.”  The students wanted a defined and transparent assignment, ideally, or instructed suggestions, at the least.  When I responded that the purpose of the experiment was precisely to break these constraints and pushed the students to further develop their opinions, the conversation quickly veered into the realm of traditional pedagogical expectations and norms.  All but two of the fifteen students voiced that they expected some level of direction, especially in a lecture setting.  Some even felt that such direct guidance was a necessary element of education.

The other point that my students brought up in our post-experiment discussion was one of distraction.  The majority stressed that because they had to divide their attention between the twitter screen feed on their phones or laptops and the lecture material on the projection screen, they could not effectively pay attention to either.  I confess I also felt the pull of multi-tasking between two separate screens.  While this perceived tension may allude to a valid criticism of new technology and suggest the need for a degree of coherence when using networked media for pedagogical purposes, it is also a bit perplexing. 

Without exception, in the CAT 125 lecture hall and in every other classroom I have sat in since laptops and cell phones became regular attendees of university classes, students routinely have some communication or entertainment technology running in the background.  The usual suspects are e-mail, Facebook, SMS, and computer games.  Yet, the majority of them are also using their networked devices to reference the course website, look up a word or an event, and type notes as the professor talks.  Before laptops and cell phones, it was passing notes and doodling.  Put simply, students are good at multi-tasking. 

The twitter experiment, then, should have appealed to their incredible multi-tasking abilities. Since Twitter’s launch in 2006, several instructors have incorporated twitter in the classroom, many with similar intentions of bolstering student participation in a lecture setting.  Monica A. Rankin, an assistant professor of history at the University of Texas at Dallas, used twitter as a backchannel in a class of ninety students.  Sugato Chakravarty, a professor of consumer sciences and retailing at Purdue, encourages his lecture hall of 250 students to do the same.4  Others, such as Dave Parry, an assistant professor of Emerging Media and Communications, also at the University of Texas at Dallas, have employed Twitter in smaller class sizes with success.5  So why, in this case, did the students collectively use Twitter for other purposes?

What ties each of these other examples together is the use of the platform on a regularly scheduled basis.  Professors Ranking, Chakravarty and Parry all foreground Twitter as a standard component of the classroom experience and address the commentary stream during the class period.  What we asked students to do was to experiment with Twitter on a single occasion, without any facilitation and without the presence of an authority figure.  One might think that in a class focused on the rhetorical use of online communication, students would apply the critical analysis and use of online media modeled in lecture to their participation in the experiment.  However, based on the two main points raised by my students, this was merely an assumption.  It seems that as a group, the students chose to partially shed their identity as students in a classroom precisely because the request did not fit within their expectations of the roles and responsibilities teachers and students should have in a university context, in general, and a lecture class, in particular. 

Is Twitter an Affective Backchannel?

The key concept to take from this discussion is one of context.  Interestingly, context is also at the center of the second issue that informs the question of the experiment’s success.  After the experiment officially ended, and having kept to her policy of nonintervention, Professor Losh joined the stream and asked, “@_@ why is everyone coughing #cat125?” to which a student replied, “I didn’t know what to say…#cat125 deleting account now…”6

It is important here to recall that the focus of the day’s lecture was the intersection of disability and technology.  There is something unsettling about the perceived insensitivity of using a Twitter backchannel to organize a coughing coup given the topic being discussed at the front of the lecture hall.  Whether the student who deleted her account in reaction to the coughing did so in relation to a disrespect for the professor, or for the subject-matter, or both is unclear.  I can say that while my students were quick to defend their use of Twitter for non-educational ends, they were horrified when I suggested the potential way their collective actions could be interpreted.  Of course, only about a third of the students in the lecture that day actually participated in the Twitter stream, but even in terms of initial reactions to the experiment, the students simply did not take the disconnect with the lecture content into account.  It simply didn’t register. 

The fear that digital media is making us more insensitive or allowing us to live in our own self-defined reality is not what I have chosen to address here. What I can say, on the basis of exploring one particular use of Twitter in the classroom is that new networked and social media technologies offer a tremendous potential for disrupting an educational structure that often unintentially promotes passive engagement and single-direction learning.  However, specifying and paying attention to the context in which these tools are used is a necessary step for working out the glitches from this opportunity.  The fact that the students used Twitter in a way that, for the most part, was not related to the class and was seemingly disrespectful does not mean that the experiment failed.  What it does mean is that as technology continues to enter the culture of pedagogy, we must take seriously where these glitches reveal we are butting up against existing walls and continue to experiment, tweak, and break these down from the inside out.