I admit it. I'm an avid reader of ProfHacker and often find myself inspired by ideas I find there -- ideas such as teaching with Twitter (Framework and Practical Advice). I also have several colleagues who tried Tweeting with their students and so it has been something I've thought about for a while. This semester I was inspired to use Twitter with my students for these reasons as well as the fact that my basic focus for the class was to explore the idea of writing for different audiences and for different purposes. Also, as I frequently teach online (as I am this semester) I was looking for a way to improve communication and increase the connections we make in class.
In the past I have worked to channel class communication to take place within BlackBoard and restrict the use of other channels of communication, such as email, to specific discussion of private issues, such as grades. I did use online chat programs, such as Instant Messenger, to confer with students about papers but this was hardly a daily occurrence. While the restriction of class interaction to BlackBoard did make teaching dozens of students more manageable and make all information available to everyone -- and not just the student who asked the right question -- it doesn't really promote a lot of give-and-take (in general). I have had (and am participating in some right now) great discussions in BlackBoard but there is also a lot of one-way communication rather than an actual conversation. Plus, the simple truth is that you have to log into BlackBoard to join the conversation. For busy students (and teachers) this doesn't happen as frequently as is possible using a communication channel such as Twitter. I have Twitter on the home page of my computer and mobile devices. I never just glance at BlackBoard like I do Twitter.
One of the reasons that I like Twitter for myself (the person, not the teacher) is that it allows me to communicate with friends and colleagues immediately. I can glance at my Twitter feed (as I do several times a day) to see what they are doing and/or thinking. Sometimes it is something interesting to me professionally and sometimes it is funny and sometimes it is poignant. I love these glimpses into the lives of my friends but I also love the ability to stay in touch with what is going on in the world as well as my profession.
I have found that pushing my students on to Twitter offers me similar glimpses into their lives. Whenever I check my class Twitter feed I gain new insight into who my students are and what interests them. Granted sometimes there is Too-Much-Information because some students don't filter but in general I know when someone is feeling under the weather or overwhelmed by life. I would not have known either of those things in a traditional online class although probably would have in a face-to-face one. While I might not really care what my students ate for dinner last night, I do like knowing more about their lives outside of class as it makes them more real and more accessible. I think for that reason Twitter has made me a better teacher.
However, more than simple personal benefits, Twitter has had a direct impact on my teaching and the class in other ways that are beneficial. I can push out messages via Twitter that I would have previously had to send via announcements or email. Those methods work but also require more effort on the part of the students to access (they have to log into BlackBoard or their email server to see if there is anything new). They also seem so formal and heavy handed that I try to use them sparingly. I do post a new "Announcement" in BlackBoard every week (more if something comes up) but hate to overuse it. I can Tweet once or twice a day and it feels much more informal and more accessible. Of course that is my perception. We'll see how the students feel about it.
I have not required a certain number of Tweets from my students but instead required that they Tweet about certain things at certain times -- for example, Tweet about the reading selection you just posted to the class annotated bibliography on the class blog. This seems to have worked fairly well. Students are posting regularly about class business as well as personal lives. What I have found is that these posts help me keep track of the various subjects that students are working on (they were tasked to choose a theme for the class that included their intended profession) because I am getting regular reminders of these subjects. I hope the students are also seeing these trends and intersections among their work.
A month into the semester and I feel that Twitter has helped me get to know my online students better and to stay connected with them, so I feel my experiment has been worthwhile. In the end, the proof will be in the pudding -- did it improve my students' experience in the class? Some students have already commented that they feel more connected and like knowing there are real people "out there" reading their messages and classwork, but other students have complained that there are too many places where information must be posted and tracked. This is a valid complaint as I am using a class blog in addition to BlackBoard and Twitter. I wanted to open multiple channels of communication this semester and we'll just have to wait until the end of the semester to determine if that was a good choice, but, right now, from where I'm sitting, I'm pretty happy with my choice.