Professors use Twitter to enhance class discussion

Kore Chan/Staff

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Move over, Justin Bieber. Twitter is not just a tool for following celebrities or sharing pictures anymore.

The social media site that delivers short, 140-characters-or-fewer messages to the world is being used by UC Berkeley professors to initiate discussion in large lectures and continue dialogue outside the classroom about what is taught.

Ananya Roy, the education director of the Blum Center for Developing Economies and a professor of city and regional planning, uses Twitter to facilitate a virtual conversation in her global poverty class: Challenges and Hopes in the New Millennium.

Students use the #globalpov hashtag — a short identifier of a topic — to tweet responses to the lecture material live throughout the full hour-and-a-half class. Those responses are projected in real time in front of the class during the lecture.

“The tables have turned,” said Tara Graham, director of Digital Media Projects at the Blum Center and a lecturer in the campus international and area studies department. “We’re no longer in a world where the ideas are conveyed in a one-to-many platform, but actually now we have a many-to-many mode of communication.”

Graham first used Twitter in her International and Area Studies 120 class taught in fall 2011, and Roy said she began using Twitter after learning about how Graham utilized the social media site.

By projecting tweets pertaining to the class on a screen, professors are able to use teaching methods that allow large groups of students to interact with one another and the professor during class.

“What this does is that there are so many kids that are speaking up, and because we run it live, they then engage in conversation with each other in a way that’s impossible in almost any classroom,” Roy said. “This is not anymore about my simply lecturing to them; I’m curating the conversation.”

Some students have embraced the open use of Twitter and are replying to each others’ tweets live during the lecture.

Paolo Villacarlos, a student in the course, responded to her tweet.

Still, other students found the constant streaming of Twitter activity distracting at first.

“I think in the beginning when she used it, she had it up the whole time, and it was really distracting,” said Debbie Kim, a junior public health major and global poverty and practice minor. “I had to take notes, listen to her and look at the Twitter opinions.”

Since then, however, Kim says Roy has limited the Twitter use to shorter periods of class and only on selected lecture days.

“I think it’s most effective when she uses it for 10 to 15 minutes when we have a discussion so that everyone can focus on the discussion,” Kim said. “I think it’s fun to look at what other people say. It wakes me up.”

Graham does not see Twitter as a distraction that is necessarily bad.

“It’s distracting because it’s distracting you from your distractions,” Graham said. “In the past I’ve called it a constructive distraction.”

In addition to helping students interact with other students, the Twitter feed has attracted the attention of class alumni and professionals working in the topics being tweeted about. After visiting the campus last week, Rajiv Shah, the administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, has been conversing over Twitter with students and alumni using the #globalpov hashtag, Roy said.

Contact Mitchell Handler at [email protected].