Yesterday I was lucky enough to get on the phone to interview Monica Rankin, a professor at UT Dallas. I discovered Monica earlier in the week after seeing a post on ReadWriteWeb about how she used Twitter in one of her classes. Enjoy!

HackCollege Interview with Monica Rankin [MP3 Audio]

Can you take us through exactly how you came up with this idea and what the successes have been so far?

I was preparing to teach the spring semester course, it was a basic survey of US history that nearly every Texas college student has to take, and I was assigned one TA for the course. I knew that conducting the types of in depth discussions that I think are necessary for history courses was not going to be possible.

I had heard of Twitter but I had personally never used it. But I had seen a few news stories and heard a few bits here and there about Twitter. One of the reasons I was really interested in it is because my understanding was that it was a Web-based social network that also could be used via text messaging. This was interesting to me because a lot of students do bring computers to class, but not every student has a laptop. On the other hand, nearly every student has a cell phone.

To me, this was a really interesting way to try to change the dynamic of class discussions or to introduce class discussions in a class of 90 students, potentially involving a lot more people by giving them an ability to use their computer or cell phone to participate in a virtual discussion. So I paired up with one of our graduate students who knows a lot more about these technical things than I do and she gave me a lot of good information about how it worked, helped me do a lot of research into the best way to set up what we were trying to do and she’s the one put together a few videos on our experiment in the classroom.

What has the reception been like at UT Dallas specifically?

The reception’s been pretty good. I had a good conversation with the dean of the School of Arts and Humanities before I embarked on this project to clear things administratively with (1) using Twitter in the classroom and (2) doing the video project around it. The administration was completely on board with it. UT Dallas really prides itself in its interdisciplinary approach in education and really trying to integrate all parts of the campus in new and innovative ways. So taking something that’s very technological and infusing it into a humanities-based history class is something that the university really found exciting. The administration was very supportive of what we were doing.

When I introduced this to the students, most of them had actually never heard of Twitter. I was kind of surprised at that; my understanding had been that this was something that the upcoming generations were starting to embrace. They were very open-minded about it. It took us a couple of weeks to work out the kinks of how the system was going to work. The students were fantastic. They were a big reason why we experienced the successes that we did. They were open to throwing aside the traditional ways of doing history discussions and trying something new.

Are any other professors at UT Dallas catching on or trying to do the same thing next semester?

We have a very good program at UT Dallas in arts and technology, our ATEC program, and we also have one in emerging communications (EMAC). There are some professors in those programs who have been using Twitter and other kinds of technology like this for their courses. One of them in particular, Dave Perry, has written up and published his work in various formats. A lot of it’s available out there on the Web. He’s experience some very good success with it. He and another professor in the EMACS program, Dean Terry, both gave me a lot of backchannel support. If I had questions I could turn to them as well as Kim Smith (the graduate student who helped with this).

It’s certainly getting a lot of attention now that the video is out. There’s been some news stories and attention generated based on what we did last semester. It may be something that really catches on in the future. I, personally, am planning to incorporate it again in the future.

I will be team-teaching a graduate course in the fall. My colleague and I are talking about how we can use Twitter in that class, in a slightly different way. It will be a smaller setting with graduate students with a lot of expertise in the material we’re covering. Maybe Twitter will be a way that we can really tie those students into a broader audience that share similar interests.

The way the video was edited made it look like almost all students reacted very positively to this experiment. Were any students that were resisting this system and how did you accommodate those that didn’t want this Twitter discussion tool?

There were a number of comments made by students, particularly at the very beginning. A lot of that had to do with the fact that most of these students had never heard or used Twitter. They were all getting used to how the system itself operated. A lot of those concerns abated pretty quickly as people got used to the system. This is a generation that’s very comfortable with technology and very comfortable with figuring out these resources on the Web.

There still were some concerns among students as the semester went along. The most common concerns were that 140 characters was not nearly enough for them to be able to express the ideas they want to express in our discussions. I completely agree with them; there were a lot of things that would have benefited from elaboration. But in those cases, I encouraged them to post multiple tweets. That’s not the ideal situation but that was one way to get around it.

There were other students that either did not have access to technology or others who were a little uncomfortable with the public forum that Twitter is. Anything that they put up on their Twitter page is out there for the entire world to see. For those students, we said take the comments, your reactions to what you see on the Twitter discussion, your own comments about the readings for the week and just write them on a piece of paper. Then the TA posted those after class was over so that the author of those comments remained anonymous. That was again not ideal, but given what we had to work with that was the best way to get around that situation.

The last limitation or problem was that Twitter is difficult and awkward to streamline comments so that you can potentially have several different topics of discussion going on at once. Twitter does allow the use of hashtags and that’s how we organized our discussions by week. We could potentially have subdivided those comments into categories by week, but it was still a little bit cumbersome from time to time. A comment would go up and by the someone was able to respond to it, another half dozen comments had already been posted. Maybe the stream of thought had changed and the consistency wasn’t really there.

I’m not sure of the best way to get around that, but it’s something I definitely would like to investigate in the future.

What other opportunities in other disciplines do you see?

I would think that any kind of subject where there’s interaction among students in the class, that there is a potential to incorporate Twitter or other types of networking into that setting. I would imagine there’s all kinds of opportunities for other disciplines as well, depending on the kind of outcome those professors are trying to achieve. In the fall, we want our students to reach out beyond the classroom and start making contact with people across the United States and the world to get broader input. I think that that’s always useful, regardless of the discipline.