Twitter and chat in class are signs of bigger problems

Last month I attended a “Technology in Education” panel in which one of the student panelists described a class she took while studying abroad. She praised the professor’s idea of creating a Twitter hashtag for the class. He would project the twitterstream containing the tag onto the screen during class, so the students could see what the others were tweeting, share links, and ask questions.

On Reddit two days ago, an education professor bemoaned his university’s chatroom system. His class is conducted in a computer lab, where all the students have access to a shared chatroom (which the professor cannot disable). The professor does not watch the chatroom while he lectures, but he can see afterward that a bunch of students use the chat to post about how bored they are.

Plenty of sites claim that Twitter and other chat services are great tools that improve in-class student engagement. I disagree; I think these tools are half measures that imply there are bigger problems in the class.

Have so many students that it’s impractical for them to ask questions? An in-class twitterstream will help, but having a smaller class would help more and won’t be a distraction. Students need to chat with each other in class? A chatroom will give them something to do, but it would be better to improve the pace and the content of the lecture so students wouldn’t be bored in the first place.

My issue with both implementations above is that while they appear to add value to the class, they actually distract from the lecture. An in-class twitterstream might add more questions and relevant info, but students have to divide their attention between reading and contributing to the stream and listening to the lecture. An in-class chat has the same problem, with the added bonus of an easy way to insult the professor behind his back.

I realize there are other benefits to in-class social media (like creating a record of the questions and answers from the lecture and allowing shy students to talk more), and I know that even if there is no official chat for the class, students will distract themselves anyway. I don’t mean that professors should never use chat in class. Instead, I want them to realize that if they do use it, they are adding more distractions when there might be better ways to address the problem of unfocused students.

  • Sonia

    Reducing class size, while a great idea, is not always possible for cost reasons. One of my main reasons for choosing Vassar was small class sizes, and that’s also one of the reasons it’s so expensive a school.

  • Jon Akers

    I agree with your position on this. The idea that an on-line chat session during class would be beneficial is foreign to me. You are going to class in order to learn from someone who knows more than you do about a subject. This sort of thing seems to me to only be an item of distraction. You might as well have a construction crew outside the window with jack-hammers.

    That said, there are some forms of electronic communication that I have seen as being beneficial. When I was taking business classes, there was an on-line forum attached to a number of the classes in which you could post questions or answers to other students questions, and the professor and TA’s monitored it. This resource was invaluable for figuring out some of the nuances of what was being taught in class.