Twitter Meets the Breakfast Club

May 08, 2011

"Be careful," I used to warn my students back in the mid-1990s as I taught them how to make what we then called "home pages." "When you put something on the World Wide Web, you're making it public. And that means future employers may find it."

For the next 15 years, I repeated my warning as I taught students how to build Web sites, craft blogs, use Flickr, and create content on a small but growing site called Facebook.

About three years ago, all of that changed. "Be careful," I said to my students as I taught them how to use Twitter. "Future employers may find your work."

"But Professor Silver," said one of the students as he looked up from his laptop, "I want future employers to find my work."

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This semester I am teaching "Green Media," a media-studies production course devoted to making media about making food. In the course, students learn about the history of television cooking shows, how to make their own food media, and how to share their work via social media like Twitter, Flickr, and blogs. To give us some context, we read Kathleen Collins's Watching What We Eat: The Evolution of Television Cooking Shows (Continuum, 2009); for some contemporary views, we read Novella Carpenter's Farm City: The Education of an Urban Farmer (Penguin Press, 2009).

On the second day of class, I required the 10 students in the course to join Twitter (if they had not already) and to create public Twitter accounts. I further required them to tweet under their real names. And finally, I asked them to follow all their classmates and me on Twitter, and to get into the habit of checking Twitter at least once a day.

While many discussions about Twitter and teaching revolve around the brevity of tweets (140 characters or less), my use of Twitter has more to do with the public nature of its platform.

I have my students begin a Twitter account for a number of reasons.

First, because their Twitter accounts are public, their professor, their classmates, and the larger Twitter community have access to their work. As I learned years ago when my students posted their work on their home pages, the larger the potential readership is, the better they make their work. With Twitter, the stage is bigger and the stakes are higher—and invariably, students' work improves.

Second, because they tweet under their real names, they become, I believe, more responsible for their work. Too often, online anonymity contributes to rude and reckless discourse—witness comments on YouTube and on blogs. By tweeting under their own names, students post with a bit more deliberation and, perhaps, caution—not out of fear of future employers finding their work but rather with hope and expectation that they will.

Third and most practically, for both my students and me, Twitter simplifies course management by replacing at least three classroom technologies. Twitter replaces the class listserv (or course blog, Blackboard, or discussion group) for our outside-the-classroom discussions and resource sharing. Twitter replaces e-mail announcements for new readings, location changes, and relevant happenings around the city. And Twitter replaces the cardboard box I used to bring to class to collect papers and other assignments. Now my students post tweets with links to their work.

In early February, I (or @davidmsilver on Twitter) tweeted the following: "breakfast project for #greenmedia"

Roughly translated, the 54 characters announced a project to students in "Green Media" (signified by the #greenmedia hashtag, a method of categorizing, and thus searching for, tweets) and provided them (and anyone else following me on Twitter) a shortened link to the whole assignment posted on my blog (

The assignment was fairly straightforward. First, students had to cook, bake, or prepare something suitable for breakfast or lunch. Second, they had to document the cooking process with digital photos, upload them to Flickr (an online photo-management and sharing application), and curate them into a set that tells a meaningful story about their dish. Third, somewhere within their Flickr set, they had to provide a recipe (title, ingredients, instructions) for their dish. Fourth, once finished with their breakfast project and before class on February 15, they had to tweet a link to their recipes and include a link to their Flickr sets and the #greenmedia hashtag. Finally, they had to bring their dishes to class and share them with the rest of us.

As the deadline approached, breakfast-project-related student tweets began rolling in.

Stephanie Bruno, @princessbruno, tweeted, "Chocolate Chip Banana Muffins for #greenmedia are all done! Don't you wish this was your homework?"

Chris Williams, @ChrisUSF, tweeted, "Mmmmmm Blueberry Lemon Bread for breakfast. #greenmedia now we feast."

Nicholas Ryan, @nryan89, tweeted, "Rice pudding breakfast project ... cant wait to see everyones #greenmedia ..."

What I find especially interesting is that in many of the students' tweets, there is both an announcement of an individually created dish and an anticipation of a collectively created meal ("#greenmedia now we feast"; "cant wait to see everyones #greenmedia"). Students are tweeting as both individual creators and collaborative sharers, a powerful combination for both learning and working environments. Increasingly, being able to operate within a team is a crucial skill for effective citizenship in the 21st century.

One student, Sophia Miles (@sophiamiles7), mentions other students' work within her own tweet: "My stomach is growling with excitement for class today #greenmedia! Scones, muffins, banana bread, OH MY!"

In all my years of using a cardboard box, I can't recall a student's giving a shout-out to another while turning in a paper.

Each time I saw a breakfast project-related tweet I would "favorite" it—an option which, similar to bookmarking Web sites, easily stores favorite tweets. Because my students used the #greenmedia hashtag, finding and favoriting these tweets was easy. When I arrived in class on February 15, I fired up the classroom laptop, logged in to Twitter, and clicked "favorites." With one click, I had links to all of my students' projects in the order that they completed them, giving us a convenient and ready-to-go order for Demo Day, the day students present their projects to the class.

But before we demonstrated our media, we devoured our dishes.

Through Twitter, Katherine D. Harris, @triproftri, an assistant professor of English literature at San Jose State University, learned about the breakfast project and integrated it into a first-year composition class, "Food and You." As part of an in-class workshop, she had her students create Flickr accounts, visit my students' Flickr sets, and leave comments on their work. Out of the many comments from San Jose students, my favorite was from Dtagaloa90, who commented on Jaime Giacomi's (@jcgiacomi) cinnamon rolls: "The results of this recipe look great. My mouth is watering right now! I appreciate the pictures that are pretty self-explanatory in terms of making the dish. I don't know how to cook anything, but I may try this one soon."

Of course, Twitter didn't invent cross-institutional collaboration, but it sure makes it easier. By tweeting my syllabi and then my assignments, I invite and engage with other professors who follow me on Twitter in hope of encouraging more collaborations like the one with San Jose students. Perhaps with Twitter and social media we will begin to witness new forms of the "networked classroom," which not only connects enrolled students to one another but also allows students from different courses to network together, creating larger, more diverse, and more collaborative learning environments.

Although exciting for professors, such open, public pedagogies are even more exciting, I believe, for our students. Making her recipe for cinnamon rolls public is great for Jaime, whose work now involves a very real readership that goes beyond her professor and home institution. And it is great for Dtagaloa90, who, with Jaime's help, may learn how to cook her first dish.

"Be careful," I used to warn my students. "On the Internet, you never know who will find your work."

"Make it great," I now tell them, "because people will find your work."

David Silver is an associate professor of media studies and environmental studies at the University of San Francisco, and is co-director of its Garden Project, a learning community built around an organic garden on campus.