Twitter use in the classroom; OR "You are what you tweet"

In several recent courses, I've asked students to be engaged with the course material through the use of Twitter. In one course last semester their Twitter use factored into their assignment grade. Many courses are utilizing this public conversation platform as a teaching tool and a way to extend engagement beyond the temporal and spatial limits of the classroom, and this interaction tends to be positive and adds to the discourse in the class. As an added bonus, a Twitter account provides a timeline and a repository of past posts. So, what happens when a student uses his own personal account on his own time to make offensive racist comments that others in the class can see in their feed? And what recourse should an instructor or professor take to address the issue in class? 

These questions stem from an incident emerging from a course I taught this past year. In class, I asked that each student sign up for a Twitter account on the first day. Several already used the platform; some had never before tweeted. To facilitate communication, I compiled a public list of students through Twitter's list tool and asked students to subscribe to that list. I was generally pleased with the amount and type of engagement within this class in the first few weeks of the course during the required time for interaction via the platform, and, by midterm, required use of Twitter for assignments had ended. 

As was anticipated, the students continued to use Twitter for their own uses. I did ask students to stay engaged with the platform but in an informal way throughout the course and to check up on the list periodically (maybe once a week). Approximately one month after the last Twitter assignment, I noticed that a student was using the platform to make racist comments about certain racial and ethnic groups.

What did I do? I turned to the "Teaching Media" Facebook group for advice! Some of my colleagues made fantastic suggestions on how to address this problem. The best options were either to confront the student individually during office hours or to address the class in general without naming names or getting into specifics. I opted for the latter. In this anecdotal case, the student tamed his racist language, but I cannot say for certain whether the student stopped because of what I had said to the class. I did make mention that comments on Twitter can be seen by future employers, and in a state as diverse as Texas his Twitter feed may make the difference in employment prospects. He began using Twitter because of my course; maybe the in-class netiquette lesson was what he needed. 

When using social networking sites, we must remember that the balance of power rests on the student and his or her use of the technology. Social media are not classroom tools; they are social tools that blur distinctions between public and private, friends and family, professional lives and jokes among friends. Furthermore, social networking site are a place of students' experimentation with identity and personas. Twitter can "extend the classroom," but the bulk of interaction is in expressing feelings and desires unique to their age demographic (along with the colorful language and lyric-quoting out of context, which can be troubling). Hopefully students can learn to strike the proper balance between professional use of social networking sites and the language and style of discourse best left to conversation between close friends in private and not online.

After all, as I reminded the students, anything posted on Twitter now exists in an archive in the Library of Congress. His racist comments are now on his permanent national record. If I had to go back and do this assignment again, I would start the students off with a primer on the public and private aspects of social networking platforms to make certain that they understand the reach of their message. Their future may depend on it.

To my colleagues, how have you handled situations where the lines between private and public online communication have introduced problems in the classroom?


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Hi William:
Thanks for the insightful warning. I haven't yet experienced this scenario in the classroom but have in another public sector. Working in public affairs for a state agency, we have to be extremely mindful how we conduct ourselves online. Several of my colleagues have had minor scrapes with the press due to off-the-cuff comments made on personal Facebook accounts or even intra-office email. Personally, I was floored when, during a recent meeting with a reporter, she pursued a line of questions that were obviously rooted in my online persona. 

Given the scrutiny that public services are contending with these days, I would add that state employees - especially those employed by public universities - need to be careful when contributing to their online presence. Freedom of Information Act (FoIA) are costly and time consuming endeavors which prompts those requesting them to search for items that make it worth the effort.

Paranoiac rambling aside, would there be any issue with students having the option of creating their own feed specifically for use in the class? While using personal accounts might help demonstrate the difficulty of maintaining the division between personal and private online spaces, I'm not sure this isn't also condoning an increasingly intrusive information gathering system and where it's heading.

Now if you'll excuse me I have to clean my browser cache! :)

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