Twitter in the Classroom: Backchanneling a Film Screening
Twitter is the current hot social network and, for once, I think it is justified. As others have pointed out, what makes Twitter useful is its adherence to simplicity in design and features and the ability to be followed but not follow, or, its asymmetry.
Academics have been especially intrigued by its functionality in the classroom and many have been employing it in novel ways. Dave Parry does a good job of summarizing these various uses and a colleague of Dave’s, Monica Malkin, is featured in a video that demonstrates her use of Twitter as a backchannel.
A backchannel is a networked discussion that occurs behind, but in conjunction with, some kind of primary presentation of material. Twitter is an excellent tool to facilitate such a discussion as evidenced by the video above.
This quarter I am a teaching a standardized and regimented composition course at the University of California, Riverside which I have modified as much as possible to focus on technology and have titled “Culture Machines.” For the first time I have decided to run a course Twitter account and have required all students to sign up and complete a very simple assignment. The idea is to just introduce them to the service and allow them to use it as they see fit. I, however, have been using it extensively as a way to extend the classroom and post interesting links, provocative questions, and announcements.
Students, as expected, had no experience with the service (I believe only one, when surveyed, had tried it) and they were very slow to use it. Twitter tends to have this puzzling effect on new users who find it to be inferior to Facebook or too abstract. Having went through this phase myself, I recognized that what really got me hooked on the service was finding some likeminded friends and entering into conversations (using @ replies) around a central topic – for me it was the 2008 election.
Therefore, to recreate this situation I decided to initiate a backchannel discussion during our week long screening of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
I had every student follow everyone else in the class in order to receive all of the backchannel content. To do this I recommended they look on the course Twitter account before class and follow everyone I (the course twitter adminastrator) was following.
I recommended anyone with a laptop bring that to class and use it. For those with iPhones or G1 phones, I recommended they download an application. For others, I instructed them, if they had a good texting plan, to set up their phones for text use with Twitter. This is very easy and the Twitter website provides guides for this sort of thing. It’s important that they have a good texting plan otherwise it could be expensive.
Most students had access to one of the two and set themselves up without any issues. I was suprised by how smoothly that went.
- Students seemed to take to this concept instantly and enthusiastically. As you can see if you check our feed, many students were participating, responding with each other, and making insightful observations as well as answering each other’s questions. Regular class discussion tended to be dominated by five students but via the backchannel students who had never participated before were very active.
- The backchannel, in a 10 week/50 min./3 days a week class, allowed me to contextualize and provide a commentary for the film during valuable classtime that otherwise would be without any critical discussion or instructor guidance. I loved the ability to, as the film was being screened, point out key moments or potential readings. I am certain this enhanced the students’ understanding of the film, their investment in it as a critical object, and allowed me to shape their thinking of it, in real-time, in order to match the focus of the assignment (which was a gender analysis of the film)
- The backchannel not only allowed quieter students a more comfortable environment in which to interact and contribute, but also leveled out the divide between myself and my students.
- Clicking and typing noises were a little bit distracting in our relatively small classroom (set up for 30-40). Although I did tell everyone to silence their phones, there is really nothing that can be done about the clicking. A good sound system that can overpower this background noise is key.
- Some students, although I had not heard any complaints, might feel a bit alienated by not participating in the feed. To alleviate this I would encourage those students to check the feed after class and contribute. There’s no reason the backchannel cannot be extended to after class.
- The final screening’s backchannel was disrupted almost completely by Twitter’s scheduled maintenance. Unfortunately, Twitter is subject to frequent outages.
- Some of our classrooms have two projectors and two screens. This would be the optimal set up for a backchannel. The instructor could screen the film on one screen and have the course Twitter feed on the other. This would also help those students who cannot contribute to the feed still feel like part of the activity.