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.