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The Social Classroom

Trying out interactive learning, 140 characters at a time. 

A paper-free classroom had been Enrique G. Legaspi's goal for several months. When the self-described "nontraditional" eighth-grade teacher first heard talk about using Twitter in the classroom at the annual Macworld conference last February, it tied in perfectly with his vision.

"I thought, Wow, this could be one of my tools to go paperless," recalls Legaspi, who teaches U.S. history at Hollenbeck Middle School in Los Angeles. "I was using Google Docs, but a lot of what I was using wasn't cool to the students. I came back and said, ‘Let's try using Twitter.' By the end of the week I had them all signed up."

Twitter is an online social networking service that lets users post messages of up to 140 characters, otherwise known as tweets. By some accounts, it has upwards of 200 million users worldwide, who generate more than 200 million tweets a day, making it the eighth-most popular website in the U.S., according to the Web analytics site Alexa.

In the education realm, a survey distributed at the 2010 Consortium for School Networking conference found that 54 percent of respondent districts never tweet, while 26 percent reported doing so weekly and 8 percent daily. Among schools that have adopted Twitter, a majority use it mainly as a vehicle to communicate with large groups of parents and students in real time. Yet in some instances, Twitter is joining a growing number of technologies that are finding a niche in classrooms. Teachers and administrators say it is also a useful tool for networking with one another and sharing education-related information.

Tweeting to Teach

When Legaspi's classes first started using Twitter, many of his 126 students didn't know about its character limitations or understand the concept of hashtags, a convention using the hash symbol to index tweets according to their content so that it's easier to find relevant information. If a student wants to research, say, events in Egypt, she might search on terms such as #Egypt or #Tahrir, generating thousands of recent tweets whose authors marked them with these hashtags.

For a unit Legaspi is doing on the Middle Colonies, he asked students to use Twitter to build a repository of information on religion and commerce. "The hashtags pool everyone's tweets on the Middle Colonies so they can go back and reference something or dig deeper into a topic,'' he explains. The students also used Twitter and other resources to create a "profile timeline," a digital portfolio of good information they have found and want to bookmark. When Legaspi asks students to respond to a main idea or a review question that he tweets to the class, even if they find the information in a textbook, they use Twitter both at home and in class to interact with him and their classmates.

"It's really helpful to see what people are talking about," says Ruby Villarreal, one of Legaspi's students. A classmate, Raymond Urena, enthusiastically mentions some of the facts he has learned using Twitter, including how the English colonies used and grew cash crops. Both students say Twitter gives a faster response than Google and also returns more specific information.

Legaspi says he will sometimes reiterate something he has taught in class based on what his students are tweeting. "I like to see what their language is like and I want to know for myself if they are mastering the content,'' he says. "Kids like to see a list of their information on my wall and that they're organically producing something we can all use." He doesn't give grades based on his students' tweets, which represent just one part of the information-gathering process. "Once we've researched and bookmarked information, we then write an essay or prepare for an exam." Since some of his students use formal quotes on Twitter, he is teaching them how to cite and write a standard bibliography.

He acknowledges that Twitter can be a distraction and has opted to use it in limited doses for any given activity. In some instances, Legaspi has also had to change some of his students' user names on Twitter because they were inappropriate. He also says he will "focus this year more on the language. When I first started using it, I wasn't policing the grammar as much as I would have liked to." His goal by the end of the school year is for students to have a "timeline of grammatically correct tweets."

Communicating, Collaborating
One of the ways Keith Devereaux, a biology teacher at New Milford High School in New Jersey, has used Twitter is to connect and collaborate with a teacher in Iowa on a joint student "Jurassic Park" project. Working in groups, students designed parks that existed in different geologic time periods, he says. They used Google Docs and Skype to collaborate and meet virtually.

"Right now I have my AP biology students designing a lesson tailored for my freshmen students on mitosis and meiosis, and I'm going to tweet the site where the project ideas are going and ask people to vote on which project they like best,'' Devereaux says. "They have to design a lesson with worksheets and instructions to teachers. I'll post it and teachers will vote on their favorite one."

Devereaux says he was concerned about students trying to communicate with their friends on Twitter during class, but it hasn't been a problem. "Just like the Internet in general, there are things that would be inappropriate for them to access, but as long as you're monitoring it, you can utilize it in a positive way."

Twitter has other uses, Devereaux says. If he forgets to tell students something in class, he'll just send out a tweet. He has also found Twitter helpful for gathering ideas on lessons and for exchanging information with colleagues. "Every teacher has a subject they have trouble with, and for me it's ecology. So I asked for help with teaching food chains, and within 10 minutes I had three or four ideas!'' he says.

Eric Rauch, an AP biology teacher at Westfield High School in Indiana, has also adopted Twitter. He uses it mainly to communicate with his classes. "It used to be that e-mail was the way to communicate, but now kids are using Twitter and you sort of go where they're at,'' he says. Rauch adds that "Twitter is limited, in my mind, in what it's capable of doing." He has used it to repost links to articles he thinks might be helpful to students for research purposes. "It's a quick way to get them information,'' he notes. Or to motivate his students. "We just covered cellular respiration, and it's a difficult concept. I just tweeted a word of encouragement after class to tell my students to keep up the good work."

Principal Buy-In
New Milford High Principal Eric Sheninger is a big proponent of using Twitter in education-he already has more than 16,000 followers (his Twitter handle is @NMHS_Principal). "It's helped me immensely,'' he says. Ironically, Sheninger, who coauthored the book Communicating and Connecting With Social Media, had initially "sworn off anything related to social media" because he felt it was a distraction to the learning process and had no place in education. He changed his mind a few years ago after reading an article about Twitter, and started tweeting to send out basic information such as schedule changes, school closings, and meetings. He now also tweets student and staff achievements.

"We live in a real-time society,'' says Sheninger, and social media services like Twitter and Facebook allow for the dissemination of information 24/7, wherever someone is. "As I started getting involved with Twitter, I learned about this niche of educators out there, and that's how I evolved into this Twittering principal. Learning what people were doing in other schools was the catalyst to transforming our teaching and learning culture here."

Sheninger says his school has gone through "a radical learning shift" and now embraces social media, as opposed to banning it. "Every site is unlocked-Twitter, Skype, and Web 2.0 resources that are often blocked in other schools are open here." He also lifted a ban on cell phones, which he says fall in the category of "mobile learning devices." Students can bring them to school and use them on the district's secure wireless network.

Part of the reason he allows all of this social media is that New Milford is not a one-to-one school, although it does have computer labs. The changes have caused no negative issues at the high school, he says. "Because we have such a profound social media presence, students are constantly seeing us modeling professional and responsible use" of social media. "In our opinion, that has resulted in a decrease in irresponsible use-especially outside school.

"Using Twitter to showcase what his school is doing has helped his district gain international attention as well, Sheninger says, which will only improve the quality of education in his district. "In the past we operated in a vacuum," he says, but now, "you have major organizations and some of the best researchers in the field on Twitter, and that starts more conversations about improving professional practice. Without Twitter we wouldn't have gotten attention from those stakeholders."

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