Mary Chayko’s digitally well-connected class

One of the aspects of techno-social life that I’ll be looking at closely in my forthcoming book Superconnected: The Internet and Techno-Social Life is the reality of the online experience. To explore this issue in the classroom, I invited Nathan Jurgenson of this blog to tweet “live” with my “Mediated Communication in Society” class, billing him as a special guest speaker tweeter! Here I describe what I did, why I did it, how I did it — and what happened, much of it unexpected, as a result.

I’m a big believer in using social media in the classroom, especially Twitter, as appropriate. Students generally seem to spark to it, entering willingly, even eagerly, into conversations and collaborations that often continue well after class is over. We discuss relevant topics in the timeliest of ways, posting to our class hashtag links to articles and info that we think will interest one another as soon as we come across them, day or night. Outsiders, including authors of course texts, sometimes jump into these convos, allowing us to get to know them and their ideas personally and more expansively. At some point, the time/space/personnel boundaries of the classroom fall away. The “classroom” is always open and class (i.e. learning) can take place at anyone’s desire, whim, or convenience.

My Mediated Communication class (Rutgers University, Fall 2012) has taken this premise even further. Anticipating that my students might be intrigued by his work exploring online and offline “reality” (see, for example, Digital Dualism and Augmentented Reality, The Facebook Eye, and The IRL Fetish), I asked Nathan Jurgenson if he would join our class on Twitter sometime during the semester. I had considered other modes of bringing him to class — in-person guest lecture, via Skype, etc. But, for me, the opportunity to examine the content AND form of a socially mediated reality, simultaneously, in a class predicated on the study of mediated communication, was too rich to pass up.

I proposed that we spend an hour or so live-tweeting with him. The class would be gathered physically in the classroom and he would join in from his own remote location. Afterward, the students and I would review and reflect on the experience fairly thoroughly – our engagement with Nathan and his ideas, our engagement with one another, what we learned, what we didn’t, and why. My goal was to wring as much as possible, intellectually and socially, from the exercise.

With Nathan on board, I planned and structured the event. I scheduled it for the seventh week of the semester; just past midterms — a good time to focus closely on a set of issues already identified as important. In the week prior to the live-tweet session, the students read the articles of Nathan’s linked to above, plus a selection of critiques of “The IRL Fetish” (Nicholas Carr’s The Line Between Online and Offline, Jenna Wortham’s The End of the Online World As We Know It?, L.M. Sacasas’ In Search of the Real, and Alan Jacobs’ What It Means To See The World With An Eye Toward a Facebook Update). Students wrote responses to these articles on our internal course blog and discussion forum. We talked about them in the classroom. Finally, I asked students to narrow their concerns to a single question that they would ask Nathan during the live-tweet session and to a comment or two that they could post to the class hashtag to get the discussion started in the days immediately preceding Nathan’s appearance.

I looked over the students’ questions, making a few suggestions to improve clarity and avoid redundancy, but generally allowing them to ask him whatever they wanted, including about other topics beyond digital dualism and reality. I described how I envisioned the session proceeding: each student (there are 25) would get to ask at least one question of Nathan, which could be the one they’d pre-planned or one that arose organically during the chat. Follow-up questions would be encouraged and students could “jump in” on one another’s conversations with Nathan in traditional Twitter cross-talk fashion.

The weekend before Nathan’s online visit, conversation began to heat up on the hashtag:

@mangoesrthebest it's weird that people need the "liking" aspect of Facebook to feel validated in what they do in real life#com432
@Jay_Bills25 @mangoesrthebest i also agree, i feel like most people take a lot of time thinking of statuses that will get "likes"#com432
@jkim6873 @jay_bills25 it's more common for people to develop the "Facebook eye" to post things to seek approval#com432
@jkim6873 @day_view This is the truth and its kind of sad, uniquness is suffering becasue we want everyone to like something we post#com432
@daverhino But do we only post things we know other people will be intrigued by? Do we filter our posts for certain reactions#com432

With conversation still humming on the hashtag, the date for the live-tweet arrived. In the classroom, we got ourselves organized. I divided the class into quadrants of six or so students, each of which could take “center stage” with Nathan for about fifteen minutes of the hour. Within each group, students were to ask Nathan questions more or less one at a time, though it didn’t always work out that neatly (and when it didn’t, Nathan handled the barrage with calm fluidity). Students were permitted and encouraged to join whatever active Twitter conversations Nathan was attending to as they wished, but not to carry on separate side convos, which surely would have turned the exercise into a 25-ring circus. All were to stay engaged with Nathan’s current convos and to be prepared to ask him a question when it was their turn.

When Nathan arrived online, the energy in the classroom elevated considerably. Several questions provoked immediate interest, and we were off:

@nathanjurgenson how long do you think the terms online and offline will exist?#com432
@RGudovitz are we really "on" line? we don't say "on" a book or "on" a conversation. why use spatial words for digital?#com432
@nathanjurgenson Nathan, while you say some fetishize the offline, don't some also fetishize the online?#com432
@Ryan_J_Jago great q! absolutetly. there is this whole "cyber-utopian" movement that see the web as revolutionary 1/2#com432

 

We discussed the augmentation of reality…

 

@nathanjurgenson#com432 The idea of AR do you think it will create a segregation between those who are constantly online and offline?
@philosophizeit yeah, people are augmented in very different ways right now. social norms have not yet caught on, causing confusion#com432
@nathanjurgenson Do you think there was a specific point in time where this new augmented reality took hold?#com432
@maurerja good q! reality has always been augmented by information. digital is new, but oral or textual is not#com432

 

…the online self…

 

@nathanjurgenson I certainly agree with augmented reality, but can you truly trust the online self that someone presents?#com432
@bucci_nicholas can you truly trust the offline self someone presents?#com432
@nathanjurgenson @bucci_nicholas no matter what, i think people are always presenting a self they want others to see#com432
@mangoesrthebest @nathanjurgenson @bucci_nicholas Private Self vs. Public Self. You choose which one to present to certain people#com432

 

…tech addiction…

 

@nathanjurgenson Do you think that the extended use of tech causes addiction that actually distances us during FTF interactions?#com432
@elizabeth_bar no. research shows that people on soc.media more also interact f-t-f more, too#com432

 

…privacy…

 

@nathanjurgenson Is anything on social media truly private or should we expect everything we post to be seen?#com432
@LaraAnneAdler our content may be immortal, but it lives forever in relative obscurity#com432

 

…online dating…

 

@nathanjurgenson @philosophizeit Are social norms contributing to the stigma of online dating? Thoughts on online dating sites?#com432
@LaurenCorbin @philosophizeit online dating is still stigmatized because we falsely construct the web as virtual and not real#com432

 

…even how to be a more effective student.

 

@nathanjurgenson what networking advise can you give us as students to develop more bridging ties?#com432
@BryanBHansen say smart things! but more important is listen. "lurk"/watch others, learn, & contribute when you can.#com432

 

I allowed these Twitter convos to unfold without my participation, figuring that students get more than enough of me during every other class. Instead, I acted mostly as traffic cop, keeping things moving, giving equal time to each quadrant, calling on people when necessary to make sure they got their turn and calling for a halt to new questions when too many were already in the queue. However, about twenty minutes in, something unexpected began to happen.

As the online conversations became deeper, more thought-provoking, and occasionally quite funny, I saw students begin to laugh and talk among themselves about Nathan’s ideas AND about the experience they were taking part in. These were not disruptive conversations, but respectful little sidebars that began to operate as a kind of face-to-face backchannel to the main online event. I had not predicted that something like this would happen — in fact, I had told students that they could bring ear buds to class and listen to music during what I assumed would be the quietest of all class sessions. Yet before long few if any students had their ear buds in. They seemed to want to exchange glances, gestures, and eventually words and laughter, and as they did, so did I. We were communicating both online and face-to-face, with each mode adding something to the other. I couldn’t wait to contact Nathan later to tell him that all this had been going on.

Online community, networks, and participatory culture are major concepts in this course. In this single class session we took a leap toward absorbing and internalizing these ideas and even creating such a culture ourselves. Later, I asked students to reflect on the experience. One or two students shared that they had felt a bit overloaded by the constant rush of information during the session (as I daresay many live guest-tweeters would be), though they persevered impressively and maintained that they were glad that they had taken part in it nonetheless. Nearly all students described a heightened sense of engagement with the material, with one another, and with Nathan, personally, as well. As I usually do, I had the students detail their reflections on the course blog and on the course Twitter hashtag:

 

Interacting with Jurgenson via live-tweeting was a a quick yet efficient way to pick his brain due to the limited character space#com432
it was way easier for me to concentrate on the live tweeting than if it was a guest lecture. super informative and i learned a lot!#com432
it was crazy how Nathan was able to respond to all of our tweets and generate so many different ways of thinking in that short time#com432
@nathanjurgenson Personally, I felt more engaged in our discussion then I have when special guests join a class in person. Thoughts?#com432
@NoahSimon26 interesting. easier to have a voice on twitter than in person sometimes. face to face you have to wait to talk.#com432
@nathanjurgenson @NoahSimon26 The norms are so different. We couldnt (& wouldnt) have shot zillions of questions at you FTF, for ex.#com432
@MaryChayko @NoahSimon26 that would be kind of fun in person, though...speed-theorizing!

 

One student who couldn’t attend class that day joined in from home, and discovered that

 

Its amazing how connected I felt during the session considering I wasn't in class, I still felt a part of the session#com432
@daverhino I feel like twitter is creating that sort of space for us to be actively engaging in conversations...#com432

 

And another of our course’s authors, Evan Selinger, peeked in on the proceedings, tweeted about them, and returned to our hashtag to interact with us later in the semester:

 

Really interesting live-tweet session on social media featuring @nathanjurgenson in @MaryChayko 's class. See#com432

 

Though the class’s sense of engagement, of learning, was palpable, I should note some important caveats. Even if I had sufficient guest-tweeters to call upon, I would not do this often during any given semester. It requires substantial course time and resources to set up, plan, run, and debrief, and I think the exercise would lose its punch and power if done too often. I also do not think this session would have worked as well with a less dextrous and personable guest-tweeter, with less provocative ideas being exchanged, and with a class that was not “into” Twitter.

I always survey each of my classes at the start to determine the level of interest and willingness of the students to use social media for class-related activities. I offer students an opportunity to opt out of social media use, to use pseudonyms online, and I require those that wish to use it to abide by a strict set of social media use policies which we discuss at great length (and which I am happy to share). I also teach all my students, ad infinitum, ad nauseum I’m sure, to use social media responsibly and professionally. In this particular class, every single student indicated from the start a willingness to use social media in the classroom, including Twitter, in new and creative ways, and to learn unfamiliar social media platforms, such as Storify, for class projects. This freed me up to imagine how to best and most productively use these media without having to worry about leaving a student behind. I’m not sure I would have proceeded with this exercise had I not had such an interested and proficient group – and, of course, such an interesting and proficient special guest-tweeter, for whom doing this had to be a challenge, but who was 100% “game”:

 

just finished a guest tweeting w/ @MaryChayko's#com432 class. in 1hr i got hit w/ ~114 mentions & i tweeted 83 times.#vertigo

 

I think we all experienced a little #vertigo during and after our live-tweet class session with Nathan Jurgenson, but I like to think it was well worth it. The students got all kinds of insights into critical course themes and concepts, formed connections with one another and with an early-career professional who was giving them real insight into the ways that they live, and gained a truly “hands on” perspective on mediated communication.They understood that they were participating in and helping to develop a brand new way of learning, too, and to a person they seemed to think that that was pretty cool:

 

The live tweet session was not only educating and fun but it was a different way to explore learning about media through media!#com432
Live-tweeting was a great way of having a class conversation. I believe it's something we will start seeing more often in education#com432
live tweeting was a great way to interact and learn from nathan jurgenson... maybe this can be the start of a new way of teaching#com432

 

But my favorite outcome was the way the face-to-face “backchannel,” and the class as a community, began, during this event, to coalesce. I can even pinpoint the moment it happened: It was when Nathan responded to a query about how he was handling the barrage of questions:

 

@nathanjurgenson Hey nathan, just wondering: How difficult is it for you to keep up with all these tweets?#com432

 

We laughed loudly in the classroom then, in collective acknowledgement both of Nathan’s wit and the ambitiousness of the learning event that we were engaged in, and creating, together.

Mary Chayko (marychayko.com) is Professor and Chairperson of Sociology at the College of Saint Elizabeth in NJ and a lecturer in Communication for Rutgers University. She is the author of the social science bestseller Portable Communities: The Social Dynamics of Online and Mobile Connectedness and Connecting: How We Form Social Bonds and Communities in the Internet Age, both with SUNY Press, and thinks she’d be able to handle guest live-tweeting almost as well as Nathan Jurgenson. She is on Twitter @MaryChayko and email at mchayko@cse.edu.