Tweet up by Toni Barros on Flickr
I spent a good half an hour today when I should have been working reading an article on CNN about a US middle school teacher using Twitter in the classroom which Jeff Thomas linked to on his Tech the Plunge blog (or there’s a direct link to CNN here). In attempting to answer Jeff’s question of whether I would be comfortable using Twitter in the classroom, I had a look at the article in terms of classroom discourse.
The video clip in the article showed the teacher asking a question and the students tweeting their answers to an interactive whiteboard, and then showing a video which the students could tweet their responses to. The great thing about this is that, as mentioned on the video, it genuinely does give students more of a voice. Firstly, students can self-nominate themselves to answer the question, which means that they are answering because they want to, not because they have to. Leo van Lier suggests that in order to learn, a person must be active. Tweeting allows the student to be involved in the lesson, and this engagement should lead to greater learning . Compare this to a teacher-nominated student, who answers because he or she has to. I would imagine that this student, while answering the question, is not nearly as ‘active’ as the tweeters, and is in fact trying to provide the minimum amount of information possible to satisfy the teacher and finish his turn.
Another aspect of this method of teaching is the bulk of answers that the teacher appears to be receiving for his questions. In a traditional classroom, once a teacher’s question has been answered, there is little scope for students to answer it again, or repeat a point that another student made. The question is closed as soon as one person has spoken. This is what Coulthard and Sinclair defined as an IRF (initiation, response, feedback) sequence. In a Twitter based classroom, everyone has the chance to answer the question, and their answers have equal value – more of an IRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRF (to be pronounced like the sound I make when I stretch in the mornings) sequence. This should be motivating for students who need a little time to think before they answer, as their answers can be added to the discourse as long as the enquiry remains open. It may also be beneficial for those who express themselves well, and who take their time to craft their tweets. Indeed the teacher in the video points out how much he likes one of the student’s phrasings.
So far, so positive. Twitter would seem to give students motivation to contribute to classroom discourse, engage them more and make the classroom more of an equal place to air their thoughts. However, what kind of discourse are they contributing to? While many students can answer, the video doesn’t show what happens to the tweets. My concern is that the “IRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRF” sequence, while allowing more responses, is still a three turn act in an exchange between teacher and student, and doesn’t exactly encourage a more dialogic approach which would suit a nuanced subject like history. For one, the time taken to construct such a dialogue, even for fast typists is far longer than doing the equivalent in speech. However, this is not to say that the tweets couldn’t be used as a springboard for further class discussion.
My other concern is the 140 character limit. While I concede that it often leads to increasing creativity in language use as people try to squeeze their thoughts into a tweetable chunk, there really is only so much that can be said in a single tweet. I find that through my own Twitter use, I have a tendency to get overly “soundbitey”, and be forced into removing a lot of the subtleties of what I want to say. Once again, I wonder whether this kind of approach is really suitable for a subject like history.
So with this in mind, would I be comfortable using Twitter in the classroom? As an EFL teacher, I welcome anything which gets my students contributing, especially those who need a little help to overcome shyness and find their voices. However, I’d want to limit its use to very specific instances, as one of my students’ best sources of speaking practice is answering questions in class. Unlike a regular school classroom, a language classroom is one where the language is both the content and the vehicle for teaching, and audio input is extremely important. In no way would I want it to replace spoken communication in the classroom. That said, for things like reactions to video or musical input, brainstorming ideas or gathering responses to questions Twitter seems to be a great tool to start discussions which could then be continued in oral work.
So, I guess my answer to Jeff’s question is a cautious “yes”, but with the reservations noted above. I’ll turn this over to you now. Do you use Twitter in the classroom? What do you use it for? If you don’t, would you be willing to give it a try? I’m interested to hear your thoughts.
– Sinclair, J. and Coulthard, R.M. (1975) Towards an Analysis of Discourse. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
– van Lier, L. (1996) Interaction in the Language Curriculum: Awareness, Autonomy and Authenticity. London: Longman.