By Dr. Robert J Williamson

For several years now, I have experimented with ways of using social media to improve student learning. While many social networking sites (Facebook, Blogger, Instagram, Vine, etc.) have potential for classroom use, I have worked particularly with Twitter, which allows students to communicate via short, 140-character messages called “tweets.” The use of hashtags—the symbol “#” followed by a unique identifier (such as #eduhacker)—allows tweets to be collected together to form an online conversation among students. I have found that Twitter opens up a number of pedagogical possibilities both inside and outside the classroom.

I began by using Twitter to teach reader-oriented biblical interpretation (see my recent article in Teaching Theology and Religion). More recently, I’ve started using Twitter as a regular part of my assignment structure in some of my smaller courses, particularly to encourage careful, critical reading of assigned texts. For instance, in my course on Ecclesiastes and Job, students complete a daily assignment that involves a Twitter component. For instance, here is an example of a recent assignment on Ecclesiastes 7. Students begin with a careful reading of the text as well as the standard commentaries. They then tweet at least two comments on the text, one an observation from their own interpretation and one an insight from a secondary source. Finally, in this assignment I’ve asked them to tweet a “140-Character Paper” in which they complete the prompt “In Qohelet’s view, God is…”

The first thing this assignment structure does is create dialogue among students outside of class. As students begin making observations about the text or staking claims on what Qohelet’s God is like, other students can respond to those claims, building upon or challenging them (see our conversation at #skepscrip for an example). This interaction effectively extends class discussion beyond both the physical and temporal confines of the classroom and increases student contact time with the material.

Second, this assignment allows me to use student insights as a way of organizing class discussions rather than putting my own interests at the center. It also allows me to incorporate the ideas of quieter students into class, as I am able to call on them to expand on an idea they presented on Twitter. For this particular assignment, I created a Storify of the 140-character papers on Qohelet’s view of God. During class, I had students work in groups to identify the key texts supporting their view of Qohelet’s God and held led a discussion in which groups presented their particular arguments.

Students generally respond positively to my Twitter assignments, noting that they encourage closer reading, provide a framework for classroom discussion, and allow quieter students to participate more easily in class. For more on student outcomes, see my discussion in this webinar and look for more posts here.

For those interested in learning more, there are lots of great resources for getting started teaching with Twitter. What are you doing in the classroom with Twitter and other social media?

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