This post is part of a panel at the upcoming mid-year conference at Fayetteville State University organized by several faculty members and students who attended the American Democracy Project’s eCitizenship Initiative Meeting in Detroit. The goal of the project is to introduce faculty to social media tools that we can use to help students become more engaged with their classroom experiences and campus communities. My contribution to the panel is a very brief overview of Twitter, blogs, and wikis, three tools that I have used both in the classroom and in my professional and personal life. The panel itself leaves room only for about a 15-20 minute description, so these remarks will be incredibly broad (and I probably won’t be able to cover everything listed below, but want to make it available for faculty after the presentation), but if you have anything you’d like to add in the comments, I’d appreciate it.
Blogs: Although blogs are becoming a fairly visible part of web culture, professors and teachers are still exploring their implications for classroom use. The most common expectations of blogs is that they are frequently updated, with newer entries appearing at the top of the page, making them valuable for course updates and for organizing class discussion. Although Blackboard offers a blog function, I have often used public blogs in order to help students learn to write for a public audience. Some useful links for faculty interested in blogging:
- There are two major free blogging services, Blogger and WordPress (demo setting up a Blogger blog), where you can set up blogs, usually within minutes. Both services offer default templates, but if you have basic web design skills, you can customize your template rather quickly. Both services allow you to insert hyperlinks, video, and images quickly and easily.
- Here are two past courses, both at Georgia Tech, where I required students to create both personal and group blogs, Rhetoric and Democracy and Writing to the Moment.
- Be prepared for readers outside the class to discover your blogs and your students’ work, especially if you create a direct link to someone else’s site. In a few cases, authors have left comments on student blogs responding to what they have to say. For the most part, this seems to validate student perceptions of their writing, suggesting that others found it interesting or engaging.
- Sample class blogs by faculty at other universities include David Silver (University of San Francisco), Bill Wolff (Rowan University), and Kathleen Fitzpatrick (Pomona University).
- For some information about blogging and scholarship, here is a presentation I gave at this year’s MLA conference in Philadelphia, and for another helpful explanation of the value of blogging, you might also read Andrew Sullivan’s “Why I Blog.”
Twitter: Another easy-to-use resource, Twitter is a microblogging service that limits updates to 140 characters. Although it has been much-maligned, it is also an incredibly valuable tool for sharing information and organizing conversation.
- My personal Twitter account
- Possible classroom uses for the @reply/retweet feature: users can direct a response to a specific comment while keeping their tweet public (demonstrate, asking readers to say hi)
- Role of hashtags in organizing conversations: #MLA09 as conference backchannel. You could create a course hashtag and allow students to submit questions via cell phone/text during class or to raise questions outside of class (one problem: older tweets may not be successfully archived after a few days; Twitter is more ephemeral than blogs).
- Posting links: although Twitter is often criticized because it limits discussion to 140-characters, many tweeps use it to link to longer forms of writing, including blog posts. There are several URL shorteners on the web, including bit.ly and tinyurl.com.
- Although students have been more reluctant to pick up Twitter than Facebook, it is being widely used by film, media, and literary scholars (among others). For some discussion of Twitter’s use in the classroom, see Kelli Marshall (who identified some problems with using it) and David Parry, who offers a number of helpful instructions on setting up students with accounts.
- Lists as a convenient way to follow a sub-group of specific Twitter users: Film Studies for Free’s “Essential Reads” and Dan Cohen’s “Digital Humanities” list.
- Two recent articles on Twitter: Inside Higher Ed reports on Twitter’s use at this years MLA Convention, Clive Thompson on Twitter’s “sixth sense,” and my AlterNet article, “Why You Should Be on Twitter.”
Wikis: Most people know wikis only from the collaborative encyclopedia, Wikipedia, the massive online encyclopedia that “anyone” can edit. Although this crowdsourced approach to knowledge organization has been widely criticized, research has shown that it is no less accurate than other major encyclopedias, but most media scholars are interested in the wiki tool as offering a new mode of authorship for the digital age, one that emphasizes collaboration rather than individuality.
- Blackboard offers a wiki function that I haven’t yet tested. PBWiki is a free wiki service that offers basic wiki authoring tools (they make money through ads). Other professors have had success with requiring students to write Wikipedia entries on subjects that haven’t yet been included in the site or to polish entries on subjects familiar to the students. Wikipedia has a very helpful page offering suggestions for instructors thinking about creating assignments around the site.
- There is a relatively slow learning curve with teaching students wiki authoring. I spent several class periods working with students and many of them still struggled. But here is a typical welcome page for a wiki (login may be required).
- A more productive project–one that I found to be very successful, even if students were originally resistant–was an assignment asking students to analyze Wikipedia as a source. Here is my original description of the project (note: this entry offers a number of useful links, including the assigned readings I gave) and an update a few weeks later after I’d read the students’ papers.
- My project in particular asked students to examine how a typical Wikipedia entry is conducted in order to make conclusions about new forms of digital writing and collaboration. I used the entry on Representative Joe Wilson to jumpstart this project, showing students both the discussion and archive pages for his entry (see the tabs at the top of the page on Wilson).
If you have any questions or observations about this project, please feel free to leave a comment or contact me by email at ctryon[at]uncfsu[dot]edu.
Update: Here are a couple of pertinent links that have crossed my radar since I composed this post. First, via David Silver (linked above), an article by Virginia Heffernan of The New York Times about the role of hashtags in reshaping Twitter conversations. Second, Steven Johnson explains “how Twitter will change the way we live.”