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Capturing the Buzz: Global Participation Via Twitter

Huston John Gibson, PhD Assistant Professor, Department of Landscape Architecture/Regional & Community Planning - Kansas State University

I teach a course about how and why cities are important. It introduces students from a variety of disciplines to major urban areas in the world, how and why they developed, what makes them unique, and what it might be like to live there. The course aims to give students a way of thinking about cities in a global context that highlights both their differences and similarities. Traditionally, students explored some of the main opportunities and challenges facing the inhabitants of large cities in today’s world using lectures, texts, and other multimedia formats. Recently I added the use of Twitter as a means to extend student access to relevant information and learning resources. The course has its own handle (@WorldCities415) and hashtag (#WorldCities415). Please see Figure 1.

For most of the topics we teach, there are many people talking about important issues. Twitter can serve as a sort of clearinghouse for many of these conversations, fully equipped with links to relevant articles and projects from around the world. Twitter provides a format for me to scan at leisure (usually over lunch, while waiting in line, or in the evening as a way to unwind), and then easily share relevant content with course followers. Since the enrolled students from the class follow the course on their own Twitter account, they receive my posts instantly on their chosen device. They then have the option to further explore. There are five ways that Twitter enhances my class:

  1. Reinforces ideas talked about in class. It is amazing how many times after a lecture, when later flipping through my Twitter feed, that I find a graph, article, picture, or just a different way of phrasing something that is exactly what we talked about in class that day. I then tweet it to the class as a way to say, “See, someone else is talking about this exact same thing, and this is their spin.” It is not just about retweeting what others have posted though. Online articles and websites have simple ways to copy links into a Twitter post. Most have a one click button that will do it for you! So I share content from a variety of online sources, not just from Twitter, but to Twitter as well.

  2. Continues classroom conversations. I like to bring in guest lectures to share information about a particular expertise or personal experience from their home country/city. Typically, the standard Q&A session runs short of time. Twitter allows the Q&A to continue beyond class time. Unlike individual conversations that could also be extended to the hallway or via email, Twitter allows anyone who is interested to observe or participate in the conversation. The conversation essentially becomes open and ongoing.

  3. Encourages student out-of-class discovery and participation. Twitter is two-way communication. Just as I am finding relevant items on the Internet to share with the class, students are doing the same thing. They too have the opportunity to say, “Oh that’s what we were talking about in class, and I am going to share this with the others.” Then other classmates can click on their fellow student’s tweet and dig deeper. While tweets can be plentiful in nature, the brevity of the 140 character limit makes it easy to decide what you want to further explore, and what you don’t. As the instructor, I can decide what is “recommended” reading to explore further as a class, and what is simply supplementary. In the past I have signified this by retweeting a student’s tweet from the course account – or sending it via email in addition to the tweet -this way everyone knows it is official.

  4. Establishes new connections and expands the conversation beyond the class. In addition to current students following the course on Twitter, students from previous semesters will continue to follow and participate in the dialog, as well as students not even enrolled, but interested. We had one student who actively participated in the class dialog for an entire semester when studying abroad in South Africa.In addition to students, other faculty, professionals, and interested individuals follow our course Twitter account. Sometimes these outside followers are just down the hall, and other times they are on the other side of the globe!As an example, Austin S., a student in the class, tweeted about street car planning in Kansas City, MO (see Figure 2a). A Kansas City light rail support group then saw the tweet, and retweeted the post to their 3,250 followers outside the class (including the mayor of Kansas City and the president of the Kansas Chapter of the American Planning Association) (see Figure 2b). Someone following the Kansas City light rail account then replied to the student in our class (see Figure2c) and a conversation about a shared topical interest was started; a topic we had been talking about in class. The person who replied was not enrolled in the course, nor knew the original student tweeter in any way. While this conversation was between two people (a student and a new connection outside of the class), it was open for all to view.

  5. Captures the buzz – makes class material relevant. Twitter provides a mechanism to capture what is “hot” and helps make the class current, relevant, and about something that happened “last night” in a local public city meeting or in a city far away. It facilitates student connections and application of course material to real world issues.

Figure 2a: Student tweet about a specific topic. Figure 2b: Organizational retweet of a student tweet. Figure 2c: External reply to student tweet.

As another example, at an international conference in the summer of 2013, I met a professor from Italy who teaches a similar course in Milan. I told her about the Twitter idea and she has since set up a comparable Twitter account for her course. We now flip ideas, articles, pictures, and graphs with each other and amongst students, creating a global experience between two universities in different parts of the world. Our network is now growing to include other faculty in other locations.

The use of Twitter has engaged students at a different level, in a different way. The positive reactions shows up too in the official course evaluations and general comments made to me via email or out in the hall. When I see students a year later, they still comment about how much they enjoy it (and they are usually still active on the course Twitter even though they do not have to be!). This is “a” tool for learning. Different people learn different ways, and like different media. Twitter is just another way to augment the course delivery variety; not a replacement for anything. In this sense, it has really expanded the class dialog, not just online, but in the classroom.

Twitter fosters education through global participation and capturing the buzz -from Manhattan (Kansas) to Milan and beyond.

Follow us! (@WorldCities415)

This blog entry is derived from material originally presented at the 2014 SPOTLIGHT K-State event, held the evening of March 31, 2014.

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