A couple of months ago I was asked to make a short presentation at Newcastle University about how my use of blogging and twitter have contributed to my teaching. In some respects this was a difficult assignment. While blogging and twitter offer possibilities for communication, distribution of materials, and even assessment,I have not used either platform directly for learning and teaching. My initial objectives for these platforms had been in terms of promoting my research and my own research profile. Yet, the more I thought about, the more I realised that this distinction between my online research activities and teaching and learning was not sustainable. As is the case in the physical lecture theatre, there was considerable cross-over taking place. Here were some of the points I raised in my presentation:
- Blogging and tweeting have been invaluable in terms of being able to find material that illustrates compelling contemporary examples across media formats for lectures and the seminar room. In particular, one of the benefits of crowd sourcing is the potential to gain access to materials--and sources of material--that one might never find otherwise.
- Blogging and tweeting have served as archival systems for material that often gets used at a later date for teaching. Moreover, having an active online presence has made me more conscientious about instituting a research radar that helps to me source, record, archive, and redistribute material. I am by no means the most diligent archivist in the world, but I have come a long way from combing through ambiguous bookmarks across several computers...
- My areas of research interest are highly politicized and contain sensitive material. In this context, critical positions are prone to being mis-characterized. Blogging has helped in terms of being able to think through how I might present contemporary examples while teaching so that the analysis is accessible, thoughtful, and less likely to be misunderstood.
- The use of online platforms has also helps in terms of allowing lecturers to appear more human in the eyes of students. We can inadvertently seem like very imposing figures standing at a lectern in front of a room of 250 students. But blogging and twitter can help to reveal what is behind that persona. It has also been valuable in communicating other aspects of the job including the important role of my research with regards to what I teach.
- I am not a big fan of the word 'community' but I do feel that blogging and twitter can make a contribution to an academic community of lecturers and students in a department. Students who might not otherwise wish to communicate with me have sometimes stopped me in the hall to comment on something that I have blogged or tweeted. In other instances, I have had students email me with things that they thought I might be interest in given a recent blog post or tweet. These lines of informal communication about relevant material that extends beyond the seminar room is a good thing I think.
- While I have no definite data to back this up, I think that blogging and tweeting can only help in terms of recruiting undergraduate and postgraduate students in what has become a very competitive market.
Of course, every silver lining has its own cloud. And while I feel that blogging and tweeting have had a positive impact on teaching and learning in my case, there are some caveats that must be taken into account.
- There is a significant time cost to blogging--though less so with twitter--especially when one is first starting out. Unfortunately, the only thing rarer than money in the current UK higher education environment is time.
- If you are going to blog or tweet, do it for yourself. Moreover, neither expect or rely upon institutional support for these activities. An online presence is primarily about you, not your institution. It is important to maintain total control over what you do, how you do it, and when you do it rather than having these dictated to you by an employer who may have a very different set of objectives than you do.
- If I were going to establish an online presence all over again, I would definitely look to blog as part of a collective with colleagues as opposed to trying to maintain a single-author blog as I do now. It can be very time consuming and is often the last thing on my to do list during a typical 60 hour work week. I would still continue to tweet in a personal capacity though.
- One needs to think very closely about how much one is willing to make public and the barriers that should be maintained with students. For example, I will not follow undergraduates on twitter--as it is often used as a platform to reveal things that are personal-- but I am happy for them to follow me. I am not on facebook for a very similar reason; the line between the personal and professional is very difficult to maintain on that platform for a whole host of reasons.
- If you are going to directly incorporate online platforms into teaching (e.g., a twitter stream to facilitate asking questions during lectures) or as a form of assessment (e.g., blog posts for a module), not all students are as technically adept as we think they are. Moreover, there is a big step from being a user of content to a creator.
Photo credit: joehardy