Professor Encourages Students to Pass Notes During Class — via Twitter

Cole W. Camplese, director of education-technology services at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, prefers to teach in classrooms with two screens — one to project his slides, and another to project a Twitter stream of notes from students. He knows he is inviting distraction — after all, he’s essentially asking students to pass notes during class. But he argues that the additional layer of communication will make for richer class discussions.

Mr. Camplese first tried out his idea in a course he co-taught last spring to about 20 graduate students at Penn State. He couldn’t get two screens, so he had students bring in their laptops and follow the Twitter-powered peanut gallery on their machines during discussions.

Back then, most of his students were unfamiliar with Twitter, the microblogging service that limits messages to 140 characters. And for the first few weeks of course, students were reluctant to tweet, says Mr. Camplese. “It took a few weeks for this to click,” he said. “Before it started to work, there was just nothing on the back channel.”

Once students warmed to the idea that their professors actually wanted them to chat during class, students begin floating ideas or posting links to related materials, the professor says. In some cases, a shy student would type an observation or question on Twitter, and others in the class would respond with notes encouraging the student to raise the topic out loud. Other times, one of the professors would see a link posted by a student and stop class to discuss it.

Still, when Mr. Camplese told me about his experiment soon after he spoke at The Chronicle’s Tech Forum, I couldn’t help thinking that it sounded like a recipe for chaos, and I told him so. He replied that his hope is that the second layer of conversation will disrupt the old classroom model and allow new kinds of teaching in which students play a greater role and information is pulled in from outside the classroom walls. “I’m not a full-time faculty member,” he said. “I use my classrooms as an applied-research lab to decide what to promote as new solutions for our campus.”

He said he planned to try the technique again next time he teaches — hopefully with the second screen installed. “My goal is to only teach in rooms that allow me to project from two different sources,” he said. —Jeffrey R. Young

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