One of the aspects of techno-social life that I’ll be looking at closely in my forthcoming book Superconnected: The Internet, Digital Media and Techno-Social Life is the reality of the online experience. To explore this issue in the classroom, I invited Nathan Jurgenson of the cyborgology blog to tweet “live” with my “Mediated Communication in Society” class, billing him as a special guest speaker tweeter! Here I describe what I did, why I did it, how I did it — and what happened, much of it unexpected, as a result.
I’m a big believer in using social media in the classroom, especially Twitter, as appropriate. Students generally seem to spark to it, entering willingly, even eagerly, into conversations and collaborations that often continue well after class is over. We discuss relevant topics in the timeliest of ways, posting to our class hashtag links to articles and info that we think will interest one another as soon as we come across them, day or night. Outsiders, including authors of course texts, sometimes jump into these convos, allowing us to get to know them and their ideas personally and more expansively. At some point, the time/space/personnel boundaries of the classroom fall away. The “classroom” is always open and class (i.e. learning) can take place at anyone’s desire, whim, or convenience.
My Mediated Communication class (Rutgers University, Fall 2012) has taken this premise even further. Anticipating that my students might be intrigued by his work exploring online and offline “reality” (see, for example, Digital Dualism and Augmentented Reality, The Facebook Eye, and The IRL Fetish), I asked Nathan Jurgenson if he would join our class on Twitter sometime during the semester. I had considered other modes of bringing him to class — in-person guest lecture, via Skype, etc. But, for me, the opportunity to examine the content AND form of a socially mediated reality, simultaneously, in a class predicated on the study of mediated communication, was too rich to pass up.
I proposed that we spend an hour or so live-tweeting with him. The class would be gathered physically in the classroom and he would join in from his own remote location. Afterward, the students and I would review and reflect on the experience fairly thoroughly – our engagement with Nathan and his ideas, our engagement with one another, what we learned, what we didn’t, and why. My goal was to wring as much as possible, intellectually and socially, from the exercise.
With Nathan on board, I planned and structured the event. I scheduled it for the seventh week of the semester; just past midterms — a good time to focus closely on a set of issues already identified as important. In the week prior to the live-tweet session, the students read the articles of Nathan’s linked to above, plus a selection of critiques of “The IRL Fetish” (Nicholas Carr’s The Line Between Online and Offline, Jenna Wortham’s The End of the Online World As We Know It?, L.M. Sacasas’ In Search of the Real, and Alan Jacobs’ What It Means To See The World With An Eye Toward a Facebook Update). Students wrote responses to these articles on our internal course blog and discussion forum. We talked about them in the classroom. Finally, I asked students to narrow their concerns to a single question that they would ask Nathan during the live-tweet session and to a comment or two that they could post to the class hashtag to get the discussion started in the days immediately preceding Nathan’s appearance.
I looked over the students’ questions, making a few suggestions to improve clarity and avoid redundancy, but generally allowing them to ask him whatever they wanted, including about other topics beyond digital dualism and reality. I described how I envisioned the session proceeding: each student (there are 25) would get to ask at least one question of Nathan, which could be the one they’d pre-planned or one that arose organically during the chat. Follow-up questions would be encouraged and students could “jump in” on one another’s conversations with Nathan in traditional Twitter cross-talk fashion.
The weekend before Nathan’s online visit, conversation began to heat up on the hashtag:
With conversation still humming on the hashtag, the date for the live-tweet arrived. In the classroom, we got ourselves organized. I divided the class into quadrants of six or so students, each of which could take “center stage” with Nathan for about fifteen minutes of the hour. Within each group, students were to ask Nathan questions more or less one at a time, though it didn’t always work out that neatly (and when it didn’t, Nathan handled the barrage with calm fluidity). Students were permitted and encouraged to join whatever active Twitter conversations Nathan was attending to as they wished, but not to carry on separate side convos, which surely would have turned the exercise into a 25-ring circus. All were to stay engaged with Nathan’s current convos and to be prepared to ask him a question when it was their turn.
When Nathan arrived online, the energy in the classroom elevated considerably. Several questions provoked immediate interest, and we were off:
We discussed the augmentation of reality…
…the online self…
…even how to be a more effective student.
I allowed these Twitter convos to unfold without my participation, figuring that students get more than enough of me during every other class. Instead, I acted mostly as traffic cop, keeping things moving, giving equal time to each quadrant, calling on people when necessary to make sure they got their turn and calling for a halt to new questions when too many were already in the queue. However, about twenty minutes in, something unexpected began to happen.
As the online conversations became deeper, more thought-provoking, and occasionally quite funny, I saw students begin to laugh and talk among themselves about Nathan’s ideas AND about the experience they were taking part in. These were not disruptive conversations, but respectful little sidebars that began to operate as a kind of face-to-face backchannel to the main online event. I had not predicted that something like this would happen — in fact, I had told students that they could bring ear buds to class and listen to music during what I assumed would be the quietest of all class sessions. Yet before long few if any students had their ear buds in. They seemed to want to exchange glances, gestures, and eventually words and laughter, and as they did, so did I. We were communicating both online and face-to-face, with each mode adding something to the other. I couldn’t wait to contact Nathan later to tell him that all this had been going on.
Online community, networks, and participatory culture are major concepts in this course. In this single class session we took a leap toward absorbing and internalizing these ideas and even creating such a culture ourselves. Later, I asked students to reflect on the experience. One or two students shared that they had felt a bit overloaded by the constant rush of information during the session (as I daresay many live guest-tweeters would be), though they persevered impressively and maintained that they were glad that they had taken part in it nonetheless. Nearly all students described a heightened sense of engagement with the material, with one another, and with Nathan, personally, as well. As I usually do, I had the students detail their reflections on the course blog and on the course Twitter hashtag:
One student who couldn’t attend class that day joined in from home, and discovered that
And another of our course’s authors, Evan Selinger, peeked in on the proceedings, tweeted about them, and returned to our hashtag to interact with students later in the semester:
Though the class’s sense of engagement, of learning, was palpable, I should note some important caveats. Even if I had sufficient guest-tweeters to call upon, I would not do this often during any given semester. It requires substantial course time and resources to set up, plan, run, and debrief, and I think the exercise would lose its punch and power if done too often. I also do not think this session would have worked as well with a less dextrous and personable guest-tweeter, with less provocative ideas being exchanged, and with a class that was not “into” Twitter.
I always survey each of my classes at the start to determine the level of interest and willingness of the students to use social media for class-related activities. I offer students an opportunity to opt out of social media use, to use pseudonyms online, and I require those that wish to use it to abide by a strict set of social media use policies which we discuss at great length (and which I am happy to share). I also teach all my students, ad infinitum, ad nauseum I’m sure, to use social media responsibly and professionally. In this particular class, every single student indicated from the start a willingness to use social media in the classroom, including Twitter, in new and creative ways, and to learn unfamiliar social media platforms, such as Storify, for class projects. This freed me up to imagine how to best and most productively use these media without having to worry about leaving a student behind. I’m not sure I would have proceeded with this exercise had I not had such an interested and proficient group – and, of course, such an interesting and proficient special guest-tweeter, for whom doing this had to be a challenge, but who was 100% “game”:
I think we all experienced a little “vertigo” during and after our live-tweet class session with Nathan Jurgenson, but I like to think it was well worth it. The students got all kinds of insights into critical course themes and concepts, formed connections with one another and with an early-career professional who was giving them real insight into the ways that they live, and gained a truly “hands on” perspective on mediated communication.They understood that they were participating in and helping to develop a brand new way of learning, too, and to a person they seemed to think that that was pretty cool:
But my favorite outcome was the way the face-to-face “backchannel,” and the class as a community, began, during this event, to coalesce. I can even pinpoint the moment it happened: It was when Nathan responded to a query about how he was handling the barrage of questions:
We laughed loudly in the classroom then, in collective acknowledgement both of Nathan’s wit and the ambitiousness of the learning event that we were engaged in, and creating, together.