Twitter in the Classroom: Early African History

This week Gradhacker hosts #digped week. Their “Seven Things I Learned from Teaching with Twitter” post forced me to reflect on my experience teaching with Twitter in the fall semester. As I plan for next year, is it something I will try again?

I used Twitter in a course on African History to 1880. For many students here, this is their first introduction to African history. When I made the decision to use Twitter, I had two goals. The first was to use social media to get students to think beyond stereotypes of the continent and the second was to encourage alternate forms of class participation. I introduced the assignment during the course’s first discussion session, for which they read Binyavanga Wainaina’s “How to Write About Africa” in preparation. As we covered the prevalent images of the continent seen so often in the press and popular imagination, we also talked about the role of social media in countering some of those stereotypes.

As part of the assignment, students were responsible for tweeting an article, photo, poster, event on campus, etc. that perpetuated these common images or fought back against them. I tried to be wise about the assignment. I gave them concrete goals. Tweet once a week and respond to at least one of your classmates’ tweets. I gave them a class hash tag #HIST2391. And I planned to use Martin Hawksey (EdTech Explorer)’s Twitter Archiving Google Doc Spreadsheet to keep track of it all. (That lasted only a couple of weeks…. I think more on account of my lack of diligence than anything else.) I also laid out these expectations in a handout on participation, making it clear this assignment would be graded as part of their participation score.

We opened The plan was to open every class with the Twitter exercise. I would browse their tweets before class. We could view the tweets via #HIST2391 on the classroom screen and our own devices and talk about what we had posted. Some days these discussions were just about current events. In other classes, we had posts that directly applied to course material, such as this one on the use of satellite technology to understand earliest African histories.

How did it go? What did I learn? I came to a lot of conclusions similar to those Natascha Chtena describes in the Gradhacker post, but these are worth noting:

  • Not all of my students had Twitter accounts. Many of them refused to get Twitter accounts on principle, even though I offered the incentive made it part of their grade. Those who jumped on board did not all understand the mechanics: how to post, how to add your own comments, how to correctly use the proper hash tag. The learning curve was steeper than I expected and made for more work than I had planned. Chtena’s suggestion for integrating an in-class tutorial will be key if I repeat the assignment.
  • Another issue centered around privacy. I manage my Twitter account for public consumption and did not want to see all of my students’ tweets, knowing they might not. With the course hash tag, I did not have to follow students with public accounts and could view only their course-related material. But students with private accounts, that was a different story. Some students created new accounts for the project, so their private lives would not overlap. But this meant that they were missing out on some of the benefits of our twitter assignment, only logging in often enough to meet the course requirement and not catching the regular streams of posts. I am not sure there is a way to get around this.
  • Allow me to repeat Chtena. Participation is one thing, engagement is another. Several students would post the first Africa-related article they found on the NYT Africa page. They needed encouragement to read the article, comment on the article, and to interact with their peers’ posts. They especially needed prodding to leave their comfort zones. Even though I had introduced them to great African-content blogs and Twitter accounts, NYT was quick and easy.
  • I had to be committed if I expected them to be committed. We needed to do the assignment every class, or they would slack in their postings. In theory, this seems easy. But when you are pairing the assignment along more traditional lectures with a certain amount of material to cover in between essays, exams, and unplanned bad weather days (this is Texas, after all, who plans for bad weather days?) it grew difficult for me to strike the right balance between my course goals, of which the Twitter assignment was only one.
  • This could be rewarding for me too.  I thought about what I wanted them to get out of it. But I had not thought about what I might get out of it. While some students were not digital natives and were not eager participants, others did really take to the assignment. A few made it their mission to seek out really different stories to compete with the prevalent images. They posted about Nollywood celebrity marriages, South African literary prizes, or this crazy Vine (I did not know of this “Vine” technology before this) about how your “normal African” wakes in the morning. Others posted about African-related events on campus and across Dallas. In some of their tweets, I recognized that they were applying course lessons to their everyday interactions around campus and the city. Those kind of tweets were the best course evaluations for which a teacher can hope.

Published by jillekelly

Assistant Professor of African/South African History at Southern Methodist University, Graduate of Michigan State University, Lover of all things Pittsburgh & Detroit

4 thoughts on “Twitter in the Classroom: Early African History

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