The pedagogical value of Twitter: enhancing the collective identity of independent learners

Last year I taught on a newly designed module in my School and was struck by the value of Twitter as a learning resource and teaching tool. ‘Current Issues in Society’ is a first year undergraduate module that has deviated quite considerably from the conventional teaching format. Usually, a module is made up of a one hour lecture and a one hour seminar each week over the course of an academic term. Albeit a tried and tested formula, this roster can, at times, stifle the pedagogical process. Particularly for those just beginning their degree, this teaching timetable can sometimes feel disjointed, with students only starting to grasp the content and rationale of a module in the latter weeks of term. Independent research and reading are a crucial means by which to ‘bridge the gap’ but this often leaves students navigating an unfamiliar academic terrain alone. At the beginning of their degree, students are not only faced with the challenge of familiarising themselves with their lecturers and peers, they must also grapple with a step change in their educational development. Namely, they have to negotiate the transition from passive to active independent learner.

‘Current Issues in Society’ broke the mould in a number of important respects to respond to some of these challenges. The module ran as a mini-conference over one afternoon each week, with an opening plenary, two hour workshop and closing plenary. This format facilitated intensive and collaborative working between staff and students. Many positive outcomes of the course can be ascribed to this format, but I’d like to focus here on an important adjunct to this shakeup – the introduction and use of Twitter. The module in question lent itself particularly well to this innovation with the primary focus of the course being on the uses (and abuses) of evidence, arguments and theory in current affairs. Before, during and after each mini-conference, students were encouraged to tweet their reflections and any content relevant to the topic of that week.

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Online dialogue between students and staff extended teaching beyond the classroom

As a result, students availed themselves of the opportunity to engage with the news in a way that many never would have done before. Not only were students accessing and consuming academic knowledge in a novel format but they were also able to generate, map and track their own knowledge in a concise and compelling new way.

Twitter as a heuristic in that process allowed students to engage with the content of the course in their everyday lives – not for just a few hours a week. Students were able to interact with their peers and the content of the module well beyond the classroom. This proved immersive so that students more seamlessly developed new ways of interpreting and using the news in their wider academic work, whilst thinking sociologically in their day to day lives. Crucially it enabled students to integrate this way of looking at the social world and themselves within it through a medium that is often (falsely) considered separate from more formalised pedagogic methods.

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Students recognised the value of the module and use of Twitter

Thinking and working alone are key features of independent learning. However, due to the open forum of Twitter, students could see each other engaging with material and continuing the sociological discussion (with themselves and others) beyond the classroom. This sort of symbolic feedback cultivated a collective identity amongst students, such that they were able to situate themselves and their own work within the School. Using Twitter opened up new avenues for students to explore, develop and play with the material of the course. Perhaps most importantly though it offered students the reassurance of being ‘alone together’ in their transition to active independent learners.

After the course last year, there was a clear realisation amongst the students that engaging with current affairs and thinking sociologically outside of their lectures and seminars can greatly enhance their understanding and experience of the academic programme. Without the use of these more innovative teaching methods, I doubt students would have come to the same realisation so easily.

The module will be running again this semester. Follow @SSP_Cissues to see how we get on!

Daniel Edmiston is a PhD student in the School of Sociology and Social Policy at the University of Leeds.

Categories: Digital Sociology

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