College and University Blog

Students Speaking Up Silently: Classroom Discussions Going Digital

Passing notes at school used to be a no-no, but these days more and more students are communicating silently in class with their instructors’ approval. Instead of banning the internet during class, professors and teachers are incorporating it to keep students engaged

College Faculty Incorporating Social Media into Teaching

The University of Southern California Daily Trojan reports that a recent study by the Babson Survey Research Group and Pearson titled Teaching, Learning, and Sharing: How Today’s Higher Education Faculty Use Social Media found that more than 80% of college faculty incorporate some form of social media in their teaching. More than 40% of professors surveyed have students view or read information with social media as part of the classroom assignments while 20% of teachers require students to interact on social media sites.

According to The New York Times, Twitter and other microblogging platforms are being used by teachers in elementary schools through college to set up what is known as a backchannel—an online conversation about the topic being discussed.

“Silent” Class Discussions

Many instructors feel that instead of acting as a distraction, the online communication is enticing students who wouldn’t otherwise participate. The real-time digital stream of information gives students the ability to comment and post questions without fear of vocally voicing their opinions.

“When we have class discussions, I don’t really feel the need to speak up or anything,” 17-year-old Justin Lansink, a student in one of teacher Erin Olson’s Sioux Rapids, Iowa English classes, told The Times. “When you type something down, it’s a lot easier to say what I feel.”

The practice can also help keep minds from wandering. Robert Hernandez, an assistant professor of professional practice in USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, told the Daily Trojan that a backchannel is “A perfect place for a learning environment because people are constantly sharing knowledge. It’s a different way of thinking that everyone in the room has different experiences and we can all learn from each other.”

College Students are in the Hot Seat

The New York Times reports that Purdue University developed its own backchannel system known as Hotseat for $84,000 just two years ago. The Purdue Hotseat website describes the platform as “a social networking-powered mobile Web application” that “creates a collaborative classroom, allowing students to provide near real-time feedback during class and enabling professors to adjust the course content and improve the learning experience.” Students can post messages directly on the Hotseat site, post messages with their Facebook or Twitter accounts, or post messages via text message.

“Hotseat is really sort of subversive in a delightful way, taking technologies more often used for things like dating or spontaneous get-togethers, and applying them to learning,” Gerry McCartney, chief information officer and vice president for Purdue University information technology, said in a statement released on November 2, 2009. “Just like CNN or ESPN offer additional information at the bottom or sides of the telecast to engage the viewer, we’re using Hotseat to inform and engage the students.”

Before Hotseat, Purdue personal finance professor Sugato Chakravarty could not get people to speak up in class. “It’s clear to me that without this kind of social media interaction, there are things students think about that normally they’d never say. Everybody’s intimidated,” he offered as an explanation for his once-silent students.

Critics of Online Communication During Class

Online communication is not without its fair share of critics, even at Purdue. Sandra Sydnor-Bousso, a professor of hospitality and tourism management, feels that Hotseat does not mesh well with her style of walking around class to encourage a dialogue. “The last thing I want to do is to give them yet another way to distract themselves,” she said.

It’s easy to understand Sydnor-Bousso’s point of view. After all, The Boston Globe reports that many professors complain about students using the internet during class. Activities such as trading stocks online, shopping, and showing one another YouTube videos is causing some MIT faculty to ask for lecture halls to become “unwired.”

“Students are totally shameless about how they use their computers in class,” David Jones, an MIT professor, told The Globe. “I fantasize about having a Wi-Fi jammer in my lecture halls to block access to distractions.”

Harvard Law School professor Jonathan Zittrain, who is—ironically—an Internet law specialist that co-founded the Berkman Center for Internet & Society, has banned laptops and mobile devices from one of his classes since 2004. “If you sit in the back of the room and see what’s going on, it’s so demoralizing. It’s not just poker or Minesweeper, they’re shopping for shoes as we’re talking about some fascinating Supreme Court case,” Zittrain said.

Twitter in the Classroom: Good or Bad?

Obviously, the instructors who are singing the praises of online communication during class aren’t allowing computers so their students can shop or play games, but many people probably empathize with Gizmodo’s Sam Biddle.

“Has it really come to the point that we’re so alienated from one another that we can’t even ask a question in class without the aid of a laptop?” Biddle wrote in a May 13, 2011 blog titled Oh God, No: Twitter Now an Acceptable Replacement for Raising Your Hand in Class. His opinion piece was accompanied by a photo with the caption “I’m Terrified of Genuine Human Contact!”

Twitter certainly hasn’t gained the popularity of Facebook, but it can be an advantage in the classroom when used properly. The Chronicle of Higher Education mentioned Reynol Junco, who studies social media as an associate professor of academic development and counseling at Lock Haven University, in October 2010. Junco found that the microblogging platform can improve student engagement—they’re more likely to continue discussions outside the classroom “because they can log on to Twitter from their dorm rooms.”


Melissa Rhone+

Melissa Rhone earned her Bachelor of Music in Education from the University of Tampa. She resides in the Tampa Bay area and enjoys writing about college, pop culture, and epilepsy awareness.