Textbook Tweets – Integrating Twitter into a Telecommunications Design Class

Dr. Carrie Heeter, a professor of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University has been integrating Twitter into her graduate Design Research class this spring in two very different ways. She is moderating a class Twitter ID (@tc841) set to follow experts in the field. Heeter retweets particularly important content to students and to the vibrant professional community of design researchers on Twitter.

Heeter is using Twitter in an unusual way to enhance live class discussions of assigned readings. She calls it “Textbook Tweet Time.”

As a graded part of live class participation, Heeter’s students are assigned to come prepared to tweet interesting insights they gleaned from the week’s readings from the Twitter ID they created for class participation (this can be their personal Twitter ID or one created exclusively for class). Using the PowerPoint Twitter tool from SAP, Heeter configures and projects a PowerPoint slide to search for the hash tag #tc841read. The search is continuously updated so new tweets show up within 10-20 seconds.

Dr. Carrie Heeter

Students must include that hash tag in the tweet in order for it to show up on the slide (and in order to receive credit for participation). The PowerPoint Twitter Tool can be toggled between two alternate formats – one shows the 9 most recent tweets in dialog boxes, along with the twitterer’s ID and photo. The alternate photo shows the most recent 18 tweets. The examples below are from Textbook Tweet Time about Will Wright’s chapter, “Sim Smarts,” in Design Research by Brenda Laurel.

As tweets appear in class, Heeter calls on the tweeters to describe their post. The class discusses each post, then moves on to another tweet. The class tweets about and discusses one chapter at a time, to limit number of tweets and to focus the discussion.

Heeter finds that “the tweets give each student a platform, almost like handing them a microphone. The students explain and expand upon their tweet, and discussion ensues.” The tweets focus class discussion and ensure 100% participation (in this small graduate class). There is a permanent record of the tweets, which facilitates grading of live class participation and motivates attention to the readings before class.

Learners can also view the search results for #tc841read on Twitter search (located at http://search.twitter.com). This view does not limit the number of tweets that are returned unlike the PowerPoint tool (shown above). Heeter subscribes to the RSS feed for that Twitter search, creating a permanent record of the class tweets on her desktop. Heeter says, “Because I can search and archive the tweets, grading classroom discussion becomes more systematic, thorough, and objective. I gain a sense of what matters from the readings, and some feel for how deeply different students are delving in to the readings. The tweets motivate preparation for class and then serve to reinforce the important points; and they give each student a turn.”

Twitter is a public space, leading to the potential for privacy concerns. In Heeter’s design, the students can use their personal Twitter account for class or they can create a unique twitter ID just for TC841. She says, “They control their anonymity in their choice of twitter ID.” For example, one student’s Twitter ID is six letters, all consonants and unpronounceable. Another student is a deceased movie star. Still others use their real names.

Some students post a picture of themselves as their Twitter icon while others post a graphic or picture of something other than themselves. Still others are simply a variation on the default Twitter icon – a white bird silhouette with a color background. “I have one orange student, one purple, and one light blue,” says Heeter. “I know the Twitter ID that each student is using for class so I call on them by their real name (or for fun, sometimes by their silly Twitter name). Their tweets are public, but depending on the set up choices they have made, they are more or less anonymous.”

By navigating to http://search.twitter.com and searching for #tc841read, Heeter can click on the feed for the #tc841 query button to have a folder in her default RSS reader collect and save all textbook tweets.

Heeter feels that using tweets for classroom discussion and collaboration is working well, though she notes that “for larger classes I would need more control.” As it stands, with the number enrolled, she finds “this particular interface happens to be perfect as is right now in this class.”

Heeter lives in San Francisco and teaches in East Lansing. The design research class is a hybrid class with between one hour and 90 minutes of live class and the rest online. Heeter participates via Skype and Breeze connect. Students can either come to the classroom or Skype and Breeze from any remote location. Of course, the instructor need not be remote for Textbook Tweet Time to be an effective component of synchronous class discussion.

Online Hybrid as Asynchronous, Co-present, and Remote

heeter80By Carrie Heeter
Editor, Games Development

[Editor’s note: The following article was submitted as a reply to a comment by Steve Eskow, which appeared in “The Campus: The Old Imperialism?” Eskow asked, “I wonder how Carrie Heeter feels about hybrid learning.”]

“It depends” is a cop out but also usually true. A major factor in deciding whether or not to be together in the same room is how motivated students are not to have to come to campus every week to be in class. I have found that full-time students who are enrolled in an on-campus program are most resistant to fully online classes. They are used to and enjoy the presence of fellow students, and they have organized their lives to be able to go to classes. The familiarity of in-person togetherness overshadows potential benefits of fully online learning. Those exact same individuals welcome a fully online summer section, enabling them to go home (or anywhere else) for the summer but still complete requirements toward their degree.

Students who live a long distance from campus, those with full-time jobs, and parents of young children are much more likely to welcome a class that they can attend from home. Here, too, the convenience of fully online outweighs perceived and actual limitations of technology.

I would like to add a distinction regarding online class sessions. They take three different forms: asynchronous, synchronous-physically present (co-present), and synchronous-but-online (remote). Each has different teaching affordances. Physically present requires a building.

As a teacher, quality of teaching and learning is another critical factor. I live in San Francisco and teach at Michigan State University. So it is a given that my students are going to have a distant professor. I get to decide whether to teach fully online, to require them all to go to an on-campus classroom almost like a “normal” in-person class, or to do something hybrid (asynchronous, co-present, or remote).

For eight years I exclusively taught fully online. Then I started adding an hour of optional “in-person” time huddled around a conference phone in a conference room. I didn’t know exactly what to do with that hour, but it seemed to add something the students had been missing. Then I had some students who didn’t want to go to campus so about a third attended via free conference.com audio and Breeze for PowerPoint, and two-thirds were physically together in the conference room, also linked by Breeze and an audio conference call. This mixed mode is a bit bizarre but meets both the co-present and remote students’ needs.

This fall I taught an in-person class that met in a classroom, live, three hours every Wednesday night. The only reason this happened is that I stepped in to teach this already scheduled class at the last minute. But I learned a huge amount trying to figure out how to make three hours of live class vitally interesting with a Skyped in virtual professor. It helped me better understand what to do with my live student time.

My current best practice thinking is a hybrid solution. When I am providing linear information, I can offer a much better learning experience if I write documents, craft PowerPoint presentations, and record audio. I do that for mini-lectures, content modules, and introducing assignments. I also package guest interviews with industry professionals. If I want every student to participate, we do it asynchronously (via blogs or uploading project reports).

I use synchronous time for:

  • Any questions? (clarifying assignments and concepts works better when everyone is live)
  • Breakout small group discussion or activity during class period, followed by synthesis and full class discussion
  • Quick review (Q&A – with me doing the Q)
  • Thought provoking questions (students volunteer answers, and I sometimes call on random people)
  • Student presentations to the class

Because my class this semester turns out to be entirely comprised of on-campus students, everyone  – except for me  – is in the classroom. Technologically, everything I am doing right now could immediately accommodate remote students. But I don’t have any who want that. At the beginning of a semester, I start with a student survey, to help me decide how to offer the class.

Adventures in Hybrid Teaching: The First Day Is the Hardest

heeter_upside80By Carrie Heeter
Guest Author

Monday was the first day of the semester, and Monday night, 6:30 to 7:20, is the live component of hybrid TC841, my graduate design research class. Hybrid means a third of class time happens in person, and two-thirds online at the students’ convenience.

This is the first year my department (Department of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University) actually scheduled a class meeting time (yay!), meaning I did not have to begin by finding a time when every enrolled student was available to come to class. In prior years after I found a day and time every student could attend, we would squeeze into the GEL (Games for Entertainment and Learning) Lab conference room.

In spring 2009, we had an actual scheduled time AND place. Room 161 Comm Arts. The room has a projector. What luxury.

My department very generously lets me telecommute, but they do not consider it their responsibility to support my lack of physical presence in Michigan. So, as of Monday morning, I did not yet know how I was going to get to class from my office in San Francisco.

I saw that two students enrolled in TC841 had been my students in a class I taught in fall. Both had been gone over break so I waited to contact them until they returned. At 12:32 Sunday night, I emailed them to ask, “Do either of you have a laptop you would be willing to bring to class tomorrow night, to Skype me in?”

heeter01There was no answer when I got to the office at 8am California time. By 9am, I received a “sure!” email from YoungKim. I proposed we start trying to connect at 6, before the 6:30 class.

At 6:08pm Michigan time, I received an incoming Skype call. (Yay!) With some fumbling, my audio worked. He figured out how to connect to the classroom projector, and logged in to and opened Breeze, the TC841 blog, and ANGEL in separate browser windows. I got video of the class via YoungKim’s Skype.

My tablet PC was running Breeze for video (not audio). My desktop PC was running Skype for audio but no video (using a handheld mic) and a second Breeze connection as well as the blog and ANGEL.

Five minutes before class started, Breeze failed on the tablet PC, meaning they lost my video. Reconnecting never worked. My only connected camera was the laptop. But the Skype connection was to my desktop. Video of me was not going to happen.

I had forgotten that the last time I used Skype was showing it to Sheldon on his new laptop, and that while playing around I had turned my image upside down. So most of the class only saw me as a small upside down still image in the Skype window. I’m afraid to go check what I might have been wearing.

Students were still arriving, so some never saw me on video at all. I joked that I hadn’t had time to brush my hair but would be ready for video next week. It is unusual to be able to see the class when they can’t see me. Much better than not seeing them, that’s for sure. When one student walked into the classroom 10 minutes late, he entered a room with 13 students sitting at tables, looking at a projection screen. A disembodied voice (me) said, “Welcome to TC841! The students here are pretending there is a professor.”

Half an hour into class, one of my cats pried the office door open (which I had closed to keep them out). After meowing disruptively for a bit, she jumped onto my keyboard, switching the Breeze window to a mode I’ve never seen before, one where I could not control Breeze or change to any other windows on my computer. (Why would there be a “switch to larger than full screen and freeze all controls” special keystroke command? Just to give cats disruptive power, I think.) At that same moment a student who had logged in to Breeze (as I had proposed they do) took over Breeze and was playing around, resizing his video window, eliminating the class’ and my view of the PowerPoint.

After fumbling for a minute, I quit Breeze (command Q), went to the blog, and opened the PDF handout I had posted of the PowerPoint so I could know what else to talk about. Class moved into a lively discussion about “sampling” methods used in research about media design, and ended on time.

A good time was had by all.