Header text

EssayTagger is a web-based tool to help teachers grade essays faster.
But it is not an auto-grader.

This blog will cover EssayTagger's latest feature updates as well as musings on
education, policy, innovation, and preserving teachers' sanity.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Teacher Tech Tip: A legit use for a class Twitter feed

Twitter can actually be a useful class tool, albeit with some privacy considerations.

I really can't stand how the press jump all over any story where a teacher is using new technology--even if the teacher really isn't doing anything all that innovative or new. And jumping into a hyped-up technology ("I must get into Web 2.0!") just for the sake of being hip and trendy with the kids will be a waste of time.

Well Facebook and Twitter are about as overhyped as you can get. I see the value of Facebook. I'm on Facebook. I like it.

But Twitter? 140-character updates on my every waking moment? Not so much. And Twitter in the classroom? Shyeah, right.

That is, until I saw this:

(skip the intro text, scroll down to the slide viewer box)

I think there is educational value here. Twitter can be a useful means of communication to help students outside of the classroom. Email, discussion boards, and class wikis have their purposes too (many of which slightly overlap here) but Twitter offers the combination of:
  • Speed - instantaneous reach to your students. Just as fast as email.
  • Brevity - good for sending out quick reminders, daily summaries, short answers.
  • Broad reach - all followers (students) can see your updates and clarifications. 
  • Public 1-on-1 - if one student has a question, odds are that others have the same question. Answer it once and let everyone else see the response.

Here's how I would use it:

1. Set up a Twitter account using your school email address (it goes without saying--but I'll say it anyway--that you shouldn't intermingle your personal life with your school life in the Twitterverse or in any 'verse). Obvious usernames will be hard to come by (e.g. "MrSmith") so try modifying it with your school's initials ("MrSmithNWHS"). You can be more creative with your username if you like, but you'll want it to be respectable enough to be parent friendly too; "ILovesDaScience" is probably okay but you better have tenure if you use "GetYoScienceFreakOn".

You'll also want to keep your username short. Users "send" you a tweet by referencing your username in the body of their 140-char tweet. Tweeting to "@MrSmithLovesPhysicsAndChemistryAndBiology" doesn't leave much room for the message itself.

@KeithMukai isn't fancy but is reasonably short and clear. Hmm, that's true of the real Keith Mukai too...

2. Decide on a class hashtag. What is a hashtag? It's just a word or phrase (with no spaces) with a "#" in front of it. You don't have to do anything to "create" a hashtag. You can hashtag #AnyDangThingYouWantTo but it'll be more useful if you're consistent about your hashtags. The hashtag is just to help your students sort out which messages apply to them.

Have one hashtag per prep (e.g. "#SeniorEnglish" and "#HumLit"). It's probably not necessary to have one per class section (e.g. "#SeniorEnglish2ndPeriod"). Include the hashtag in each tweet so that the students in one prep don't start freaking out about an assignment that's for a different prep.

Note the #TeacherTechTip hashtag.

3. Have your students create a Twitter account, if necessary (the high school kids I worked with in 2009-2011 weren't big on Twitter yet; they were mostly satisfied to do everything on Facebook). Students have two choices: have a personal Twitter account that is also used for school or create a school-only account (many schools issue students district email addresses now).

There are pluses and minuses to each option.

If they use their personal account, they may be inviting you too far into their "private" life (even though all tweets are public by default). One of my seniors would sometimes tweet in class about how boring my class was ("OMG Mukai is still talking!!"). That's probably not something she would want me to see. Students can and should set their tweets to private so that they control who can see their tweets. On the plus side if they are using their personal account, they are more likely to see your updates instantly.

The risk of a school-only account is that it goes stale and is never checked. The Twitter phone app can connect to multiple Twitter accounts. Since students generally use their phones for everything, this somewhat diminishes this risk. It's also slightly less creepy to have students' school accounts linked to your Twitter feed. It might also ameliorate some of the privacy concerns listed at the end.

4. Have the students "follow" your Twitter feed.

5. Try some test tweets to each of your preps: "Hello, #SeniorEnglish! Don't forget that your first assignment is due tomorrow!" "Hello, #HumanitiesLit! Book XXIV of The Iliad is due by Monday!"

6. Create an assignment where each student has to tweet you a question. "@MrSmithNWHS do you like cats or dogs better?" The questions and your responses should be visible to anyone that follows your user.

The downside: Privacy implications
Unfortunately all of your followers are visible on Twitter. And there isn't any real way to hide them from the public (there are some cosmetic hacks, but the links are still on the page, even if invisible). That means that anyone out on the Web can go through your user to see your students' public Twitter profiles (yet another reason to encourage them to set their tweets to private so that strangers can't read what they're tweeting).

Obviously consider all of this wisely. Privacy policies in the 21st-century classroom are still evolving and inevitably lag far behind the trailblazing teachers.

Have a question? Try out Twitter and send me a tweet @KeithMukai!