Here’s an interesting idea: confine your participation in a college classroom to 140 characters via Twitter. It’s a rather difficult concept to wrap your brain around, when you consider that most college classes are structured to spark actual discussion. But this concept recently became a reality for a group of students at George Mason University.
Stephen Groening, an assistant professor of film and media studies at GMU, is one of the many academics who have started to focus on the impact of mobile technologies, especially cell phones, on contemporary society and culture. In his class, which is designed to get students thinking and talking about the impact of mobile technology on contemporary culture, Groening challenges students to treat their phones as tools integral to their coursework. He has handed out assignments that include using mobile technology to organize flash mobs and create photo essays. His students have enjoyed the challenges in what he terms “experiential learning,” but the Twitter-based discussion was something else.
“I am completely overwhelmed by this concept,” said one GMU senior, as she watched her professor setup projection facilities to beam the Twitter stream.
And she wasn’t alone. Groening also shared her apprehension.
“I was super-nervous because to me, teaching means a lot of talking—giving a lecture or giving a discussion,” he said later. “I was more scared for this class than I’ve been in years because the kinds of tasks that I associate with teaching I wasn’t able to do. I was worried that it would get out of control and either be very much off-topic or nobody would have anything to say.”
As class began, students began working their mobile phones, and Twitter streams started to fill the screens Groening had positioned around the room. And rather than veer off-topic, the students showed ferocious concentration as they worked their keyboards, tweeting their responses to assigned readings. But the experience was not without frustrating moments, especially when it came to confining individual comments to a mere 140 characters.
“Cell phone class, IM DYING! I need to talk so badly, help me!” tweeted one student.
At the end of the class, Groening asked students for their evaluation of the experience and the responses ran the gamut. In addition to the 140 character restriction, for students who were not fluent with the technology, just trying to keep track of the hashtags proved to be a challenge. However, those students who regularly use mobile technologies like Twitter, the experience was well within their comfort zone, and some felt the informal nature facilitated discussion.
“I felt very independent in my voice throughout the Twitter feed,” said one student, “and I thought it was a fun and creative way to get our class engaged.”
After the class, Groening pondered the pluses and minuses of using tools like Twitter in a classroom environment.
“There’s all this emphasis on having your own blog, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook, but what about the skill it takes to read and listen to those things?” Groening observes. “For all the technophilic love given to networked communication and peer-to-peer learning, it’s not the best educational mode—there’s something about linearity and dialogue that works better than the chaos you saw today.”