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Labs

Twitter in Education

Lately I have been fascinated by two college professors who bravely attempt to apply social media (primarily Twitter) as a way to provide better service to their students. One is Dr Monica Rankin, a history professor at the University of Texas at Dallas, who used Twitter to facilitate discussion in a large class. The other is Dr Rey Junco, a researcher at Lock Haven University, who used Twitter to generously extend consultation hours and improved students’ grades as a result.

From the experiences of these two teachers, it became clear that a number of features are missing from a “generic” Twitter client.  These features are the ones that will benefit mostly to educators, but perhaps not so much to the general public. In summary, these are the features that I feel will help educators to use Twitter.

  • Overhead projection
  • Archive of hashtags
  • Group messaging  / reminders
  • Blog tweet
  • Group tweet aggregator
Let me go through these features one by one.

Cartoon #6295 - For those of you not following me online, heres what I did on my summer vacation.

Overhead Projection
Having class discussion with a large number of students can be difficult. A lot of questions and opinions can get unaddressed and students may resort to passing notes around or talking among themselves. One workable solution is to use Twitter bring the backchannel forward for everyone to see and contribute. That is have the class’ to tweet with a certain hashtag and display their tweets in a live overhead projection display.
Simple display mirroring of the Twitter client may work but may be suboptimal. The font size in the display may be too small since it was not designed to be shown in a projector. Typical classroom LCD projectors usually has less pixels than most computer monitors. Furthermore the acceptable minimum font size is usually about 14-point to be legible at the back of the classroom.
From these factors, the Twitter client need to have a projection “mode” that displays only the hashtag search result and not much else. The “controls” such as tweet input, toolbars, and other widgets should only live on the operator’s screen and is hidden from the main projection display. Furthermore there should be a way to “feature” a tweet — that is prominently show a set of tweets (selected manually by the operator) in a special section and not have them scrolled off during refresh.
Archive of hashtags
After the class discussion session have completed, the instructor may want to save the session for further reference. He or she may even want to export it and use the tweets as a source for a post-discussion commentary blog post. This is where archiving the hashtag search may be useful. Moreover, the Twitter client should facilitate search and annotation of the archive.
Group messaging  / reminders
Instructors may need to explicitly send direct messages (or @-mentions) to a group of students to notify class schedule changes, remind of assignment dues, or notify an exam. Unlike regular tweets that may be scrolled off, @-mentions should bring the message into their immediate attention. This may sound like spam, but it’s actually an evolution of the SMS reminder service.
Group tweet aggregator
An instructor may want to get a quick glance of the hot topics being exchanged between students of the class. This is so that the instructor may readily “jump in” to the important conversations to offer a clarifying answer or stimulate further discussions. Word clouds (like the one used in Wordle) may be useful for this purpose — the “hot topics” easily bubble up and made in the cloud whereas minutiae are de-emphasized to help mitigate information overload. 
Since an instructor may teach more than one class or even further subdivide the class into groups, the Twitter client may explicitly support collecting student’s twitter accounts into groups. This is pretty similar to Twitter’s lists feature with one big difference: speed. If you have used other Twitter clients, you’ll notice that it’s quite slow to add people into Twitter lists or check list membership of an account. Groups should be vastly faster than lists since group definitions are stored locally in the machine. 
The group feature works hand-in-hand with the tweet aggregator (word cloud) and the group messaging. Groups may be imported from or exported to lists (or even synchronized), but the primary data will be stored within the application itself. An instructor may populate a group definition based on a list of twitter handles or even e-mail addresses and have the application query Twitter to map the address with the correct Twitter handle.
Blog tweet
Twitter is good for short reminders and messages but aren’t much useful to express more complex ideas. That’s why the instructor also need to a blog for the regular announcements, assignments, and exam details. Most of blogging software / service (like WordPress for example) automatically provides an RSS feed for the blog. Yes,  some services like Twitterfeed allows automatic RSS-to-Twitter publishing but this may be a bit difficult to setup for non-techies and perhaps the instructor would like to phrase the tweet differently than the title of the blog post or to tweet the post more than once.
Twitter for community leaders?
Around this time I was pondering to make a Twitter client for community leaders called Resonate. It is targeted for thought leaders the likes of Florian Müller (FOSSPatents), Andrew Warner (Mixergy), or even Jason Cohen (ASmartBear). Then I realized, that teachers are the most ubiquitous community leaders. They lead their classes that they taught. They shape other people’s thinking. They aim to inspire people to grow and be better than themselves (well, at least the good teachers are). So education is a better “first vertical” to start with.
Questions are:
  • Which one of these features that you feel will be most useful for educators?
  • Are you a teacher? What would you like to see in a Twitter client?
Please provide your answers in the comments section below.


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