The university professor can take advantage of a variety of (mostly) free software tools to better engage her students. I like to think of a classroom as a natural social network, a mini-ecosystem inside the larger university, where students can better learn by working with each other. Twitter and Google form the foundation of the online communication tools that can better connect students to one another, their teaching assistants, and the professor. This post was inspired by a brainstorm with Wendy Suzuki at NYU about how to use social media tools in the classroom.
Shared chatroom for a class
An ongoing Twitter Chatroom (tweetchat.com) or ad hoc chat TinyChat.com provides the backdrop for all digital conversation that occurs in class. A classroom display can be used or each student can keep the browser open on their individual computers. All other links can be shared through the chatroom. A unique classroom hashtag or URL is used to keep everyone together.
Polls – for realtime feedback on what students understand
Polls (polls.tw) can be used to instantaneously gauge the students’ understanding of facts and problems. The professor is no longer restricted to calling on one student in class per question (which likely means the rest of the students aren’t working as hard to answer the question). Now every student is forced to engage with the material directly in class.
Online problem sets for realtime visibility
Homework problem sets can be done using Google Forms to gain real-time access into student performance and participation. The professor can know if students are doing their work and how well they understood the material.
A blog ties the whole class together
A blog (wordpress.com) can be used for a variety of purposes that complement the “short-form” nature of Twitter. A pre-class blog post can address what is coming up in the next class, allowing students to review the material they will be responsible for in class. A post-class blog post can discuss what the students should have gotten out of the class and discuss the digital conversation and polls that were taken during class. In addition, the professor can share additional readings and links that are relevant to the students if they want to explore a given topic in greater depth.
The blog can also be used during class for the students to provide longer answers to poll questions. The professor can post the question to the blog (instead of to polls.tw) and students can respond with “comments” on the original post.
A blog/RSS reader (like Google Reader) can be used by the students to follow the class blog. The professor can also prepare a “subscription”, a group of other blogs, for students to follow.
Smaller students groups can work together
Students can collaborate in smaller groups than the entire class (for example, in lab sections). For short conversations a new hashtag and TweetChat will do the trick. For more robust conversations, Google Chat and Hangout will work well and easily allow sharing of links and other web material. A Google Circle for a semester long in-class group is an easy way to get started.
Using video for homework
Every computer and smartphone these days has a built-in video camera and YouTube allows for the easy sharing of short videos. A homework assignment can be to record a classmate (pair people off or make very small groups) performing an experiment, for example, testing out echolocation on everyday household items. These recorded experiments can be uploaded to YouTube and tagged with a unique class tag. A fun next step could be for the teaching assistants to make a “video mashup” of the uploaded experiments and post the mashup to YouTube and the class blog. I like Screenflow for dead simple editing (plus the bonus of screencasting – a digital recording of computer screen output).
Games in the classroom
Knowledge games that students are already familiar with (such as Jeopardy) make for a fun and interactive class and study tool. The professor can load custom questions and answers into the online tool.
Flexible Office Hours
Direct student and professor interaction in office hours is a very valuable tool to engage students. However, set office hour times and one physical on-campus location might not be convenient for all students. Professors can easily meet with students via Skype (or other video services like Google Chat or Hangout) at any time. Google calendar can be used to set appointments.
Keeping it simple
In order for students to have success using these tools, the total number of tools used must be limited and each tool must be used often. For example, if TweetChat is used every day in class and becomes part of the fabric of a class, the students will feel comfortable making use of the tool. The same goes for responding to Twitter polls and uploading videos to YouTube. The more students use each tool on a daily basis, the easier it will be to move beyond the tool and reap the rewards of increased class engagement.