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AmCiv class atwitter with online discussion

Academics may be known — even mocked — for being long-winded, but some are now communicating in 140 characters or fewer.

Twitter, a rapidly growing social networking Web site, has made its mark in one American Civilization seminar. Students in AMCV 2650: "Introduction to Public Humanities," now "tweet" about their assigned readings, engaging in a conversation beyond the classroom.

"The problem with class is that it's two hours once a week with no follow up," said Professor Steven Lubar, who incorporated Twitter into the course structure to mitigate this barrier.

Lubar is asking the three undergraduate and 15 graduate students in his seminar to post reactions to the assigned readings on Twitter, which asks users, "What are you doing?" Using Twitter allows students to share their viewpoints, raise questions and even post links to related articles before coming into class, he said.

Twitter is different from other forms of online communication, Lubar said, noting that e-mail, for example, is "one-way" — it's either the professor talking to the student or vice-versa. However, "Twitter is really two-way; that works a lot in a class," he said.

The tweets — or posts, for those not in the Twitter know — also help Lubar focus his lesson plan on what the students find most interesting in the week's assigned reading, he said.

But these benefits did not come without some initial hesitation.

First, Lubar said, it posed a problem for students who already had personal Twitter accounts and did not want their professor and fellow classmates following their updates about their private lives.

Some who did not already have Twitter accounts were also skeptical at first. Hollis Mickey '10, who activated an account for the class, was unsure about using Twitter as an effective forum for class discussion.

"I was pretty reluctant at first to the prospect of getting a Twitter account, but it is useful in allowing the conversation to extend beyond the two hours that we have in our seminar," she said. "I think it's positive in that respect."

Despite the initial wariness, Twitter is working well for students in Lubar's class. Students who post must include what is called a "hashtag"— a code that makes it possible for others to search tweets related to the class. Using the hashtag allows students to easily communicate with one another, Lubar said.

"People are more ready for discussion because they've already started to have discussion outside of class," Lubar said.

Mickey said it allows students who did not have a chance to speak in class or who thought of something later to contribute to the discussion as well.

Because Twitter has a 140-character limit, Mickey added, unlike other forms of Internet communication, students have to make their thoughts concise. While the class also has a blog, as do many other classes at Brown, Mickey said Twitter fosters fast-paced conversation — sometimes overwhelming due to the sheer number of posts — among students. 

Micah Salkind GS, a public humanities student, agreed that Twitter is beneficial in adding to the class experience. "It's another use of technology that keeps conversation going outside of the classroom," he said.

The tweets are so frequent that people outside of Brown are becoming involved. Specifically, Lubar said, the New Bedford Whaling Museum has been "tweeting" with the students.

Pleased with the results, Lubar said he plans to use Twitter for his other seminars in the future.

When Lubar attended THATCamp, a conference held at the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University, attendees' tweets were broadcast live onto a screen at the front of the room. Lubar said it was a way to make a lecture more like a personal conversation because the speaker can see how people react to his comments and tailor the lecture accordingly.

Lubar also said he follows other professors on Twitter, allowing for "academic chit-chat."
"This is all early days of technology, we'll see where it goes," he said.


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