Putting Twitter to the test

Heads are bent over screens, thumbs tapping out messages. It might look like a class lost to digital distraction, but if Sean Flannery, Ph.D., is in the room, those students are hard at work.

“I use Twitter in almost all of my classes now, especially the film-based courses,” said Flannery, associate professor in the English/Communication Department. “There was some resistance initially from students who were wary about an ‘authority figure’ infiltrating that world, so to speak. Some weren’t sure they wanted me following them, but I assure them I’m only looking at the tweets in which they’re mentioning me, or the classwork. They realize this is about learning and I’m not out to ‘cramp their style.’ I’m a big advocate of incorporating Twitter in the classroom.”

A few years ago, Flannery was inspired, as he puts it, “to leverage technology to keep the conversation going.” While students are watching film clips, for example, they’re also responding to a series of questions about the material, live tweeting about the subject while it’s up on the screen. “I carry on a dialogue with them through direct messaging and, if it’s a large class, I’m typing the entire time.

“There’s something about occupying their minds on a secondary level that is very appealing to many students. Live tweeting engages them, provides a level of personal responsibility, and it clearly improves their willingness to take the initiative, something that’s lacking for many Millennials.”

In his media literacy classes, Flannery incorporates popular music, asking students to give dramatic readings of song lyrics. “It’s about giving them a voice. Three years ago, when I first started using Twitter, I invited students to complain about me on Twitter and then I read those complaints on a short video. It’s a way of giving them agency.”

Flannery has written and presented numerous papers on a wide range of digital and social media topics, and is an expert on everything LinkedIn—in fact, he was honored by LinkedIn for being in the top 10 percent of profiles viewed in 2013. Not surprisingly, he walks all of his students through the process of developing and maintaining a first-rate professional profile. “There are many functional elements of social media that students are unaware of. They haven’t been formally introduced to all the tools at their disposal. I lay it all out for them. Lydia Szyjka from University Communications comes and takes professional photos of them, and I teach them how to send a formal message to a potential contact explaining why they would be a viable connection for that person, instead of just clicking ‘add connections.’ College students have to know how to connect with people professionally.”

Flannery also explores broader issues of ownership, authorship and originality, as well as what’s available to give his students a cutting-edge advantage. “In Mashup Media, for instance, we discuss what’s fair game in today’s culture, such as musicians stealing beats from other artists. In another class, we tested a variety of educational apps for effectiveness and ease of use, and three of the students who took the class credited that particular experience with helping them find employment after graduation.”

While Flannery admits that employing social media as a learning tool can seem daunting to those who prefer more traditional methods, he believes the time has come to embrace it. “It’s our responsibility as educators to grow and to adapt to the times in the delivery of material. As more and more educational offerings are either hybrid courses or entirely online, the need to engage social media is clear.”

Michele Monaco, D.Sc., a professor in IU’s Athletic Training program, also uses Twitter as an educational tool, and claims her inspiration came from a scene in the show Grey’s Anatomy, where an intern was tweeting about a surgery. “I saw that and I thought, ‘Why can’t my students do that?’ Now I ask my students to tweet during their clinicals, because even the smallest thing can be interesting.”

Students in the Athletic Training program, which focuses on the prevention, evaluation, treatment and rehabilitation of sports injuries, must complete clinical rotations with at least 1,500 hours working side-by-side with a certified athletic trainer (AT). They are required to work with athletes in contact and non-contact sports, and must have experience with collision sports such as football and ice hockey. “My students go to several places around the area to work with preceptors, the certified ATs at each site whom I have trained to give our students the best clinical experience. Both the preceptors and the students are using Twitter in the clinical context.”

Monaco noted that students are deliberately exposed to a wide variety of clinical situations, and sharing those experiences via Twitter fosters collaboration in a field where building professional relationships is key. “Our profession is all about people, and it’s a small world. Using Twitter is quick, efficient, and my students are learning, sharing, asking and answering questions, all while building relationships they may never have otherwise.”

Twitter also allows her students to relay the unexpected with an immediacy and impact unmatched by an after-the-fact report. “One of my students was waiting for cross-country runners to come in, and that can be kind of boring. Then, suddenly, one of her runners came in, shot in the calf with a BB gun, 
and the student had to treat a puncture wound! It’s very exciting for an AT 
to see that.”

The students, who must maintain HIPAA standards, do not use clients’ names, but they can photograph an injury and share information about it, asking questions and seeking suggestions. “‘BB gun shot to the calf. What would you do?’ This kind of interactivity means others can now share in that clinical experience, which is so important.”

One of Monaco’s goals is preparing her students to sit for the national boards, and a big part of that involves review questions. “There are intense times in athletic training, and there are down times. During those 15 minutes before the game, I tell my students to check their phones and answer the question I’ve posted. If you’re going to be on your phone, be productive. Using Twitter this way can be very engaging, and it forces the students to pay attention.”

This year, Monaco is expanding her students’ horizons by inviting a university in Florida to join their Twitter account. “People in south Florida have very different injuries from what we see here, and this kind of connection sparks both camaraderie and competition. If I put review questions out there, I want to see IU students answering them!”

Monaco is so convinced of Twitter’s educational value, she now lists it on her syllabus—just as Flannery does. When she did a national presentation earlier in the year about integrating technology into athletic training, she experienced first-hand the benefits of Twitter for the professional. “My co-presenter threw her back out at the last minute and couldn’t attend, but since we had planned to have a live Twitter feed to take questions, she was able to stay back in Indiana and handle the live feed. It worked out perfectly.”

Also like Flannery, Monaco encounters occasional push back from students reluctant to have a professor following them on Twitter, as well as some resistance from preceptors who protest they are too old to use it. “Teaching them can be challenging, but every year it gets better. One of my orthopedic surgeons, who is in his 60s, is using it now with his medical students. And the students who understand the value of what we’re doing—the ones who ‘get it’—are getting a lot out of it. I view it as a lifeline of learning, and it can also be fun. I have students who have graduated still on my Twitter feed.”

Author: aduncan

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