Hashtag Librarian

Embedded in a Class Via Twitter and Blogs

Download my poster presentation here.

Inspiration

This collaborative project was hatched in the summer of 2009. I had seen the video detailing Dr. Monica Rankin’s experiment with Twitter in her University of Texas -Dallas history lecture class. I had also read a few other classroom experiments with Twitter in the Chronicle of Higher Education, specifically with Cole Camplese’s educational technology classes, among others. Dr. Rankin’s experiment saw Twitter being used as a way to draw students into discussion; Cole Camplese’s class used Twitter very much like a conference backchannel operates – for notes, sharing resources, answering questions, etc. I could see how a librarian thrown into the mix – providing reference, answering questions, sharing resources, and all the other things librarians do, might provide an interesting spin on the idea of using Twitter in the classroom, as well as the concept of “embedded lbirarianship.” With that in mind, I approached Dr. Gardner Campbell, then Baylor’s director of the Academy for Teaching and Learning, and associate professor of literature and media in the Honor’s College (now currently Director of Professional Development and Innovative Initiatives at Virginia Tech) with the idea. He enthusiastically jumped on board with the idea.


Camplese, C. (2008, May 6). Connections – Cole Camplese. Cole Camplese. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://colecamplese.typepad.com/my_blog/2008/05/connections.html

Rankin, M. (2009). The Twitter Experiment at UT Dallas. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://www.utdallas.edu/~mrankin/usweb/twitterconclusions.htm

Young, J. (2009, April 8). Professor Encourages Students to Pass Notes During Class — via Twitter. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Wired Campus. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://chronicle.com/blogPost/Professor-Encourages-Students/4619/

Setup

The class that I joined via Twitter was called “From Memex to YouTube: Introduction to New Media Studies.” It was a first-year honors seminar. The focus of the class was to understand the field of New Media Studies by exploring the “digital medium” in all of its various technological, historical, cultural and educational expressions. Some of Dr. Campbell’s learning objectives for the class were to understand “the past and future of computers and how they affect how we think and what we do.” Integral to the class learning experience, Dr. Campbell wanted the students to not just examine but use new media technologies and applications. As such, the students were required to blog before every class, comment substantively on another classmate’s blog, contribute to the class wiki, tag links of interest using Delicious.com, and participate in a class discussion using Twitter (using a designated class hashtag).

This framework that Dr. Campbell set out for the class helps his students begin to curate what he calls their “personal cyberinfrastructure”, which he believes is crucial “to shape their own cognition, learning, expression, and reflection in a digital age, in a digital medium.”

All of these digital elements that the students created and curated were then aggregated into what Dr. Campbell called “the motherblog” – the dashboard of the class’ digital participation.

The "motherblog"

Because all of the moving parts to the “motherblog” were powered by RSS feeds, it was easy for me to follow along as students, blogged, tweeted, and linked their way through the class readings, what they were learning, and their related interests and expressions. I followed their blogs via Google Reader and their Tweets via the popular Twitter application Tweetdeck. Unlike the Twitter web interface, TweetDeck allowed me to group the students together to monitor their tweets. I grouped them both by a hashtag search (#nmsf09 #nms_f10 were our class hashtags for each of the semesters I participated) and also by a group created by collecting their Twitter usernames.

Campbell, G. (n.d.). FYS 1399 Memex to YouTube F09. Dr. C.’s WikiCentral. Retrieved April 13, 2010, from http://gardnercampbell.wetpaint.com/page/FYS+1399+Memex+to+YouTube+F09

Campbell, G. (2009). A Personal Cyberinfrastructure. EDUCAUSE Review, 44(5), 58-59.

Tweeting

As the class started and students began to tweet their comments, observations and questions, I would interact with them via twitter, commenting, sending links to resources and answering questions. To remind the students of my virtual presence in the class, Dr. Campbell would instruct the students at the start of the class to take out their laptops, login to Twitter and to “greet our librarian” – alerting me to the imminent discussion and focusing the class’ attention to the task at hand and reminding them of my virtual presence.

My contributions via Twitter during class took a wide variety of forms. I linked to everything from articles in our library’s subscription databases to Wikipedia articles and YouTube videos. Often I explored the author of the reading they were assigned, looking up biographies, other articles or books they had written or other sources which cited or referenced the author. If a student tweeted something that seemed to veer off of the topic at hand, I often tried to link to something along those lines as well, as I wanted to encourage any connections the student might be making between the reading, the class discussion and their own personal knowledge.

Because I was only a virtual participant in the class discussion, I relied upon quality tweets to fuel my own contributions. Often I would not know the direction that the discussion was taking until I saw a post about it. By the time the tweets alerted me to a topic, and I quickly searched for a relevant link and posted it in response, the discussion could have taken a completely different turn. I found myself being stretched professionally; I had to use all the research tools at my disposal and to pull out any and all Google search tricks I knew. I had to be good at multitasking, thinking quickly and typing swiftly.

Reflecting upon the kind of reference I was providing to the students, I began to refer to it as “Librarian Jazz.” The class discussion was the music and the melody was happening in another classroom across campus. Every once in a while, the students would throw out a note or two, or a stray chord, which I would pick up through Twitter. I had to improvise, tossing out my own chords and riffs back into the Twitter stream, hoping that they would add to the music being made.

One example of this type of interaction was during a class discussion of the Clifford D. Simak short science fiction story called “The Immigrant.” I had not been given the handout with the story before the class, so had no idea what the reading was about. The tweets from the students were ambiguous, so I decided to research the author.

First, I found that the University of Minnesota library has a collection of Simak’s papers, so I send a link to the collection finding aid. A few minutes later, after searching a bit more, I come across an interesting collection of the covers of Astounding Science Fiction, where “The Immigrant” was originally published in 1954. Thinking that the original cover art might be of interest to the class, I tweet that link as well. Two minutes later, I get a direct response from a student: “Do you know of anything like that for Rilke?” Confused, and wondering if there was some 50s-era science fiction writer named Rilke that I didn’t know about, I conduct a reference interview via twitter: “What do you mean?” and then a minute later, realizing that the student was referring to my previous tweet, “Oh you mean his archive? Letters and papers and such?” And off I went on my search: a few more minutes and I uncover a couple of libraries who hold collections of Rilke’s papers and send those links back to the student, who responds later with clarification and thanks. While this exchange might not have had much to do with the discussion taking place in the class, it does show the power that improvisational, free-association resource sharing can have in opening up a student’s academic worldview. The student in this case learned about archives in general as well as the location of the archives of a favorite writer.

During another class discussion, the class had watched a clip of the movie Waking Life and began to discuss the concept of “lucid dreaming.” I found the Wikipedia entry on the concept and tweeted it. In the meantime, Dr. Campbell had mentioned the term “oneirology,” or the scientific study of dreams, which struck a chord with one student, who hadn’t known about the field, but immediately declared her intent to be an oneirologist on twitter. While other classmates chimed in with encouragement, I went to the library’s catalog, did a quick search and found a three volume introductory work on the new science of dreams and sent the link to the student. She immediately tweeted back “I want that book!” and I later learned that she had been so excited about it during class that she had almost jumped out of her chair.

More Librarian Jazz conversations:


Blogging

One fantastic benefit from participating in this class was interacting with the students on their class blogs. I subscribed to the motherblog RSS feed and read the students’ blogs faithfully, commenting on the posts when appropriate. As the semester went on, and the students began to blog more about their final research project, I was able to comment with links and resources to assist them. I soon realized that I was interacting with the students much earlier in the research process than I would normally have. Usually, when I assist undergraduate students at the reference desk, the students have usually already chosen their research topic and are in need of help finding a good database to search, or help finding “three more scholarly articles.” However, when I read and commented on Dr. Campbell’s students’ blog posts, they were still exploring interests, mulling over research topics, and doing good preparatory thinking about their final projects. To be able to help guide the research process at this early stage was an unexpected treat.

Comment on a student blog

Response

From a very informal survey conducted after the semester was over, it was clear that the students had an overwhelmingly positive experience both using Twitter in class and interacting with a librarian through Twitter and their blogs. They related that they often clicked on the links that I sent via Twitter to help them better understand the topic of discussion. One student stated, “The librarian’s participation was, I think, a critical part of the class because the librarian was able to provide outside resources and spend time looking for those resources that proved relevant to the class, a task which students would be unlikely to do at all, much less during a class.” All the students who took the survey indicated that they felt more knowledgeable about library resources after this class experience, including resources such as “chat, online resources and the librarians themselves.” (Emphasis mine).

The students booked appointments with me for further help with projects for the class, for other classes and sought me out on Twitter, Facebook and over email with questions. The students called me “our librarian” and sometimes even “Guardian Librarian” as I truly became THE go-to person for any kind of research help. Through this experience, I felt that I was embedded more naturally and richly in the students’ class and even their lives.

Best Practices

From our experience with this class, Dr. Campbell and I have discussed a few best practices for other teachers and librarians who might want to undertake a similar project.

  • Use a Hashtag. It helps collect the conversation into one place, and focuses the students’ tweets around a class identity.
  • Archive your Tweets. Twitter’s search capability only reaches back a few weeks. Make sure to archive the twitter discussion using either one of the many third-party Twitter applications, such as TwapperKeeper (which archives based on a search or hashtag), or grab screenshots of the Twitter stream. (Note: Twapperkeeper has faced some challenges recently in dealing with the Twitter API. Currently I don’t know of a similiar reliable online service that will archive tweets. If I learn of one, I will update this page with that information.)
  • Use a URL Shortener which Provides Statistics. You will be able to track the number of click-throughs on the links that are sent to the students in order to better assess their usefulness.

A number of educators who have written in more detail about the best practices for using Twitter in the classroom in general; however, I would like to briefly mention one. Using Twitter as an educational tool in the classroom works best where there is an atmosphere of trust between the teacher and the students. There are several examples of what is being called “tweckling” or ganging up on a conference presenter via a Twitter backchannel, and the fear of disruption as well as the fear of student distraction has some educators seeing the use of Twitter in the classroom only for the educational “daredevils.” I am not convinced that Twitter in the classroom should just be left to the technologically or pedagogically adventurous, but instead, what is important is an understanding that the professor and the students can use new technologies to work and learn together.

boyd, D. (2009, November 24). spectacle at Web2.0 Expo… from my perspective. apophenia. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/11/24/spectacle_at_we.html

Parry, M. (2009, November 17). Conference Humiliation: They’re Tweeting Behind Your Back. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Technology. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://chronicle.com/article/Conference-Humiliation-/49185/

Rankin, M. (2009). The Twitter Experiment at UT Dallas. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://www.utdallas.edu/~mrankin/usweb/twitterconclusions.htm

Winiski, M. (2009, December 8). Reflections on Using Twitter in the Classroom. Learner-Shaped Technology. Retrieved April 13, 2010, from http://mikewiniski.com/blog/?p=148

Young, J. (2009, November 22). Teaching With Twitter: Not for the Faint of Heart. The Chronicle of Higher Education: Technology. Retrieved April 12, 2010, from http://chronicle.com/article/Teaching-With-Twitter-Not-/49230/