I once experimented with using Twitter in the classroom. I asked my students to tweet questions to me during a particular class session. (My write-up on that experience is here.) My goal was to increase participation in a large class. I do not think I accomplished that in my one foray, though. Not many students participated via Twitter, perhaps because not many of my students happened to be using Twitter at that time (and I do not sense that it is especially popular with my current students either).
I have been thinking again about how to encourage more and different types of participation in a large class. I previously have used handheld student response systems (aka "clickers") and I like them. I find in general that clickers work well when I have been able to plan in advance the questions that I will ask the students. (The software allows for more on-the-fly polling, but I never got comfortable with it.) But clickers also work best when every student has a clicker or has pre-installed the response system's software on their computers or phones. For a variety of reasons, "clicker culture" never caught on fully at my school, and most students resent being asked to buy them. (The school has one set of "loaner" clickers, but not enough for all students in a large-enrollment class, so I have not been using them lately.)
This week, I tried something different in my 98-person Federal Income Taxation class. I put my cell number on the board and asked students to text me questions during class. The request caused the students to laugh out loud -- they thought I was joking at first -- but many of them were willing to give my provisional, one-session-only experiment a try.
The topic for the day was capital expenditures. The assigned materials were applicable sections of the Internal Revenue Code and Regulations, as well as several cases. Several students sent questions via text. Here are two representative texts (from two separate students):
- Just to clarify the last case...Does the fact that the improvements are in compliance with a regulatory scheme versus something general have any bearing on deductibility?
- What about banker/legal fees if the company is failing or in a hostile take-over not in anticipation of a future benefit like INDOPCO.
I looked at my phone -- not without appearing distracted, to be sure -- several times during class discussion or when a student was reciting the facts of a case. I tried to integrate answers to the texted questions into the class discussion. During the five-minute break halfway through the class, I also looked at the texts and then tried to answer them orally once the full group was reassembled. At several points in the class, I asked students if they thought a particular hypothetical outlay constituted a capital expenditure or a (potentially) deductible expense. I then read aloud the “poll results” as they came in and used the results as a basis for further discussion. Over the course of a 115-minute session, over one-third of the class either texted a question or “weighed in” on a hypothetical or poll-style question.
After class, I asked a few students who remained in the classroom for their quick feedback on the experience. One student said that if she had question, she preferred to raise her hand and ask it. Another student said she had started to text a question during class, but that discussion moved on too quickly for her to complete the text. A third student said that it was "fun" to text during class, but did not elaborate.
I will reflect more when I get some distance from the exercise, but my quick reactions are these:
(a) I had more participation via text -- in terms of sheer numbers of students -- than I have been getting in the traditional class meetings when I both cold-call people and take volunteers and questions.
(b) The quality of the questions I received via text were comparable in quality to the questions I typically receive live during a regular class meeting or afterwards at the podium.
(c) I felt distracted in trying to monitor my phone, and I am sure the students perceived that.
(d) It was challenging to integrate answers to questions into class discussion in a way that felt organic.
(e) Receiving questions via text had a "gimmicky" quality that perhaps could have been minimized and student experience could have been enhanced if I had structured the exercise differently. I could have asked more opinion/feedback questions and then allowed the answers to post to the screen automatically instead of serving as the conduit for the words that appeared on my phone.
I have no present plans to repeat the experiment, but I am glad I tried it. My students were very good sports, and it encouraged a different form of class participation. Let's hope many of them don't pocket-text me in the weeks to come!