I want to write a bit about the experience I had using Twitter this semester with my upper level class. David Silver just wrote a nice piece about his experience with Twitter this semester, and while I was nodding my head a lot as I read his piece, I also had some different expectations and outcomes with my students. Interestingly, what may have become the greatest lesson for my students actually came after the end of the semester.
Why I used twitter in my class
I always incorporate some sort of ‘new media’ technology into my classes. Like David, I want my students to feel accountable for what they are doing to a larger audience than just myself. Additionally, I want them to realize that their opinions matter, and there is a world beyond the classroom that might be interested in the research they are doing.
This semester, I had my upper level Indigenous Cultures students create Twitter accounts. Each student was responsible for monitoring contemporary indigenous issues in a different region of the world. They were expected to retweet relevant articles, and be prepared to discuss these issues in class as well. My goal was to have students recognize that Indigenous peoples are actively dealing with a variety of issues around the world, and they are not archaic groups we only study in books. While I believe students did learn this, the project was not the idyllic educational experience I had envisioned.
Like David, I had each student create a Twitter account using his or her own name, and I asked them to follow each other and myself. While I used the hashtag #soa311 occasionally, and created a Twapper Keeper for it, no one else ended up using it. None of the students had any experience with Twitter, and in general were reserved about trying to explore this new technology.
At the beginning of the semester we used the college’s laptop cart in class to get everyone on Twitter at once, and start looking around the website to see how it worked. This took nearly a whole class period, yet it still didn’t seem to be enough time – I expected students to do more poking around on their own outside of class, but most did not. Perhaps the fact that I only made this a small % of their grade is the reason, but it really wasn’t meant to be the primary focus of the course, so I couldn’t justify making it worth too much. Whatever the reason, students, generally, did not engage with the larger Twitter-verse.
As they set up their Twitter accounts we also went over the dos and don’ts of Twitter and talked about how to tweet as a professional. I showed students some examples of the information I could find about other young people on twitter, related to drinking, sex and other issues, to discuss why this is inappropriate and make them realize that anything they said on Twitter was 100% public. I showed them my own tweets, which are a mixture of anthropological tweets and personal comments, but nothing I would be embarrassed to say face-to-face to any of them, as an example.
I created a Twitter list for all the students to follow which included large indigenous media feeds like @indiancountry , some prominent Anthropology blogs like @savageminds and local feeds like @almacollege and @jessenramirez. I had hoped this list would help students find new tweeps to follow that focused on their particular research regions and interests, while keeping connected to the local community as well. I also showed them how to search for keywords using #hashtags which might help them locate people with similar interests. One of the greatest obstacles to starting a Twitter feed is finding a community, so I wanted to give them a starter set.
The challenges to this project were multiple.
The first was that I did not keep on top of it in class. I would retweet to students, and ask other tweeps to give my students suggestions for who to follow, but once we got into the classroom I would neglect to bring up the topics students were finding on twitter, because I was focused on the lecture material I had prepped for the day. Towards the end of the semester I got better about this, but it was the main reason this project never really got off the ground.
Most people tweeting about indigenous issues in Asia are not tweeting in English. This was something I hadn’t considered carefully enough. And while there were some people tweeting about these issues in English, most students seemed to give up rather than really challenge themselves to find this information. Again, had I been talking about it more in class, it would have helped to encourage them.
Non-hackers. I had hoped that as students saw the way Twitter worked and interacted with one another and others on it, they would engage more with the program and take it and make it their own. However this was not the case. Although some students found it interesting, even they felt that they were too busy with other obligations to spend time exploring twitter.
The positive outcomes
There were some good sides to the Twitter project, and I think these could be improved upon more in the future.
Networking I knew about my students’ interests in the class, and also about their career goals and other interests. Via twitter I was able to introduce students to some experts in their areas of interest, experts that live hundreds of miles away but like to talk to others about their passions. I also showed them how to use Twitter to find out more about research topics. For example, I had a sociology major who was talking to me about the relationship between space and poverty issues, but had never heard of G.I.S.. I sent out a tweet asking for examples of Sociology projects using G.I.S.; within an hour we had a reply with a great example from Toronto. Students became aware of the professional side of twitter and how to access this network of interested and friendly scholars.
Evaluating Media: As we talked about articles students found, we also discussed the sources of these articles and the potential for bias in these materials. We also had great examples of the power of words, and choosing your words thoughtfully. The best example of this came in a Survival International announcement about ‘uncontacted tribes‘ in the Amazon, and a few weeks later a great analysis by Greg Downey, who blogs at Neuroanthropology with @daniel_lende . This was a wonderful teaching moment because we problematized the original Survival International announcement in class, and a few weeks later Greg Downey basically came out in agreement with the students and gave them much more context to understand the history of calling people ‘uncontacted’ and the power of these words on peoples perceptions of these communities. This helped the students to see the relevance of what we were studying, and affirmed their analysis skills for them. It brought the material out of the books and into their world.
Incorporating Indigenous Perspectives: Much of mainstream media excludes or misrepresents Indigenous issues. Twitter gave students access to alternative media streams and the voices of individual people who could offer their personal opinions on a topic. When a student in Alma Michigan is able to follow the tweets of a Maori language teacher in New Zealand or an Ojibwe elder on a reserve in Ontario, it opens their eyes to different perspectives and a way to see how the people in a community feel about a situation, rather than just a mainstream media assessment of the issue. Additionally, twitter offers up the opportunity for students to dialogue with these folks. What a great opportunity for an anthropology class!
Creating a professional internet identity
I mentioned at the beginning of this post that my students and I discussed the dos and don’ts of tweeting, and the internet more generally, at the beginning of the term. I am one of those instructors that believes I should teach some professionalism skills in class, not just pure anthropology, so I try to cover these types of issues.
About two weeks after finals, Matt Tuttle and I had an experience with some undergraduate students (not our own) on Twitter that led me to e-mail my students with a post-term lesson about your public face on the internet. Matt has already done a good job of describing the incident on his blog, but I will give a quick summary here as well, and discuss the follow up that I did with my own students.
As Matt describes, a student used the keyword #anthropology on Twitter to search for someone to write his papers for him (he explicitly said this). Another student replied to this, and a discussion of the quantity of work, the potential payment amount, and the deadlines ensued. Ultimately the student said she could not do it, because it was too much work in a short amount of time. This entire discussion was on their public Twitter feeds. The student who had considered writing the papers had a link to her blog, and a photo of herself as her avatar, and it was very easy to figure out who she was and what school she went to. Her self-summary said she was an ‘aspiring anthropologist’.
After publicly calling out this student on considering if she should write papers for payment, I wasn’t sure what to do. She hadn’t cheated, she had only considered it. Perhaps it had been a momentary fantasy about the $400 the other student had offered. So while I considered e-mailing her professor about it, to give her a heads up, I held back. I felt like a snitch, and I didn’t know what had gone through the student’s head. What is the ethical response to this scenario? I hadn’t seen this issue before – a public discussion of whether to cheat, now saved as screen shots on my computer. So I paused and pondered what my role should be.
But then I noticed something. She replied to a general query I had made about ‘What anthropologist do you wish was on twitter?’ but she made no other comment to me about what had transpired. And then she changed her Twitter handle. Twitter doesn’t change your handle instantly, so I was able to keep up with her as she switched her handle, though if you look up the old handle now it says ‘That user doesn’t exist!’. She deleted all of the tweets related to the cheating incident. She removed the link to her blog and she changed her photo. She still said she was an ‘aspiring anthropologist’.
And that’s when I got angry. Any doubts I’d had about her intentions went up in smoke when, rather than acknowledging a mistake in judgment she went into hiding. At this point, I looked upon her as someone who wants to someday be my colleague. So I e-mailed her professor to tell her what the student was doing. This was not to punish her (because she hadn’t broken anything but norms at this point), but so that her instructor could possibly talk to her about the importance of academic integrity. If this person wants to be my colleague, I want her to be stellar. Perhaps an inspirational professor could help her understand why academics do not support cheating. If one of my students had been considering cheating and someone else knew about it, I would want them to tell me so I could talk to the student about it before they crossed that line.
I then sent an e-mail to my students, relaying the story to them. I gave them the following list of ‘morals of the story’:
- Don’t plagiarize.
- Don’t do stupid things in public if you don’t want to get caught. Most of the internet is public.
- The internet is like tattoos – you just need to be thoughtful about what you put there because it is a pain to get rid of it later if you change your mind. Don’t post a comment or blog if you wouldn’t be able to stand in front of someone and say the same thing.
- Google yourself every now and then to see what from your past is showing up. And for pete’s sake check the google images too – you never know when a friend’s facebook pic of you doing something inappropriate is visible through their account instead of your own.
- There are tech savvy professors out there. Don’t assume the internet is the realm of college students alone. Even if you have a non-techy professor, s/he has helpful colleagues.
- Own up to your mistakes.
- Deleting things on the internet doesn’t make them all go away, and even if they disappear it may take a while. There are lots of programs that archive old websites. Your internet past does not go away.
I think this was a good lesson for the students; I have heard from some of them that they have gone out and Googled themselves to be sure that nothing untoward shows up when they do so. Had my students not used Twitter themselves, that story might not have had so much impact on them. However, since they had tried it themselves, they had a context to place those lessons into, and I hope they have developed some internet savvy. There really isn’t an appropriate place to incorporate that into a college education, but it is an integral skill for students to have as they move out into the workforce, and is a basic part of learning how to be a professional.
I have only seen one of my students post anything on Twitter since the semester ended, so this project was not as successful as I’d hoped for. However I do believe that students got a lot our of the experience, and if I do teach with Twitter again, I will be sure to leave more time in the class schedule to have classroom discussion about the materials they are finding online.