Tweeting for conservation and biodiversity

A year ago I would have told you that Twitter was for folks with time to waste. My perception of the social media platform was that it was useful if you felt the need to share what you had for breakfast with the world. Or perhaps to share pictures of your pets while wittily anthropomorphizing in 140-characters or less. And the fact that the most-followed tweeter in the world was Justin Bieber didn’t exactly sell me on using it for science communication and outreach. And besides, one-hundred forty characters sure seemed arbitrary. And all the hashtags….#ugh.

Perspectives change though. With a nudge from my brother and a couple of colleagues, I gave it a try and was pleasantly surprised.  Not only have I enjoyed connecting with people that I would have previously only seen at conferences once a year, but it has led me to papers, articles, and blog posts that I would have certainly otherwise missed. Yes, twitter has been an enriching experience. And I have yet to learn about anyone’s breakfast.

Admittedly, at first I found Twitter a bit overwhelming; in fact, in some ways I still do. However, after using it for about six months I began thinking about how it might augment a course, as a potential way to stimulate discussion outside of class. I cheerfully imagined a group of engaged and passionate students busily tweeting information, ideas, and links to each other. However, I also imagined various scenarios where a classroom Twitter experiment would end in disaster.  I read quite a few articles on the use of Twitter in college-level courses, both inside and outside the classroom (e.g., here, here), but precisely how well this would work in the context of my introductory environmental science course was unclear.  The first day of class did little to ease my mind, as when I told the students that we were going to use Twitter their expressions ranged from disbelief to horror. However, it was not a disaster. In fact, the students took to it much more than I had anticipated.  As the semester comes to a close, I am absolutely convinced that it enhanced the learning experience.

The course structure

Conservation and Biodiversity (EES-28) is an introductory conservation biology course aimed at non-majors and potential majors (see here for example syllabus from 2011).  The course consists of lectures, activities, case studies, and discussions.  Instead of a traditional textbook, the students read David Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, a 1997 book that provides them with knowledge of the scientific process, a personal view on what natural scientists do, background in some fundamental ecology, and a historical perspective on the development of some important scientific ideas. The lectures then provide up-to-date summaries of conservation biology and basic ecology.  In addition, the students listen to several conservation-related podcasts culled from various news sources (mostly NPR) each week, highlighting the relevance of the course material to current events. They keep a journal of their thoughts on the podcasts and book, as well as any other thoughts related to the topic of the course. My primary objective with Twitter was for the students to share notes, links, and thoughts related to the readings and the podcasts. However, there were also a number of unanticipated benefits. I detail below what I see as the major ways that Twitter benefited the course (in reverse order of significance).

Benefit #6: Class updates and communication

Twitter was a much easier and more efficient tool than email to communicate with the class about assignments, due dates, and other logistical issues.  When students asked me questions through twitter, their questions and my answers would be seen by the entire class. Since I generally had to only  answer questions once, this decreased my course-related email volume tremendously by eliminating redundancy.

Benefit #5: I learned a lot!

The students collectively shared links to course-related information that they stumbled upon. Many of these enhanced my own education! And some were just plain fun…

Benefit #4: Sharing summaries of in-class, small-group discussions with other groups.

Small-group discussion in Conservation & Biodiversity (EES-28) on a beautiful spring day at Lehigh University.

Small-group discussion in Conservation & Biodiversity (EES-28) on a beautiful spring day at Lehigh University.

Throughout the course we devoted some classes to the discussion of Quammen’s Song of the Dodo, and given that there were over 40 students we broke into smaller groups for these book discussions.  I sincerely believe that face-to-face conversations are an important part of the educational experience, but twitter served as a useful way for the small groups to share some of their thoughts with the rest of the class.

Benefit #3: Students shared information on campus events outside of class.

Students shared thoughts, pictures, and announcements of things that were happening locally and regionally.  These included simple ecological observations on campus (e.g., here), announcements of regional events and happenings (e.g., here), and events in their lives that were related to the course topics (e.g.,here, here). In particular, I was pleasantly surprised when students started live-tweeting a public talk by Bill McKibben! The students’ tweets about personal and campus events contributed to a fun class atmosphere and promoted a sense of community engagement.  Here are some tweets from students about the McKibben lecture:

Benefit #2: Note sharing and studying

The students shared notes on the podcasts and readings with each other, and used the course twitter feed to study for exams. When possible, I also incorporated the student’s tweets into lectures, which helped to keep students engaged. All course tweets used the hashtag #ees028, so that students could examine the entire twitter feed by searching this tag.  Several students remarked on this benefit in their journals.

“I absolutely loved the use of twitter for this course. It was great to be able to read my classmates’ thoughts about the podcasts and compare their tweets to mine. There was always a little feeling of satisfaction and pride when I saw my personal tweets during class lectures.”

“I think the most beneficial part of this class (outside of lecture) was the twitter feed. It kept me engaged and curious the entire semester. It was also extremely helpful to scroll through the twitter feed during exam time because it helped to jog my memory about what each podcast was about.”

“Twitter  allowed me to become more engaged in what was being taught in lecture or heard in the podcasts, and encouraged me to do my own research on the latest news.”  “I thought it was a fun way to educate the rest of the class by tweeting information, videos and news articles.”

“The idea of tweeting about podcasts and various other readings is something I think most teachers should implement. Not only is it a great way to “note-take,” but being able to read tweets from our peers and communicate with the instructor as well as some of the more famous ecologists on twitter was something I found extremely cool!”

“I had never used Twitter in a class before, but I think that it is a really good idea.” “Not only could we follow people in the class to see their thoughts on the material, we could also follow the people that we were hearing speak in our podcasts… which was really cool. Twitter has been a great resource through out the class and especially to review for tests.”

Benefit #1: The students were able to directly engage people outside of the class

On several occasions, the students were able to directly open up a dialogue with the scientists and authors featured in the podcasts, readings, and lectures.  A nice example is an exchange that they had with Jacquelyn Gill, a paleoecologist that studies the causes and consequences of Late Pleistocene megafaunal extinctions (see here for the correspondence that she had with the class). However, the students were really excited when they realized that they could directly ask David Quammen questions about Song of the Dodo. In fact, the first student to do this was so excited that she captured an image of her phone!

Here are few more selections:

A less tangible benefit? Engaging and educating the world.

During the duration of the course, a total of over 4,500 tweets on topics related to the biodiversity crisis and the science of conservation were sent out to the twitter-sphere. Maybe through the twitter-sphere we made a few more people aware of the profound impact that humans are having on the biosphere. Maybe if other environmental science courses started using twitter we could reach more. And think of the impact we might have if we started tagging Justin Bieber in our science-related tweets.

-rkb- (@StatelyTrees)

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Posted on May 1, 2013, in Conservation & Biodiversity (EES-28), Original Posts, Teaching and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 10 Comments.

  1. This post has me thinking about using twitter for the first time ever. Thanks for the thoughtful reflections about benefits. Any drawbacks or pitfalls that you want to share?

    • Hi Drew. Thanks for the comment. I really don’t think they were any major drawbacks, although there were a few challenges early on:

      1) Biggest problem that I encountered during the first week was when I realized that not all tweets marked with the course hashtag were showing up when the hashtag was searched. It turns out that Twitter applies spam filters, and particularly for new accounts (most of the students), the tweets that included hyperlinks were blocked from the list generated with a hashtag search. So, I had to make sure that everyone followed the course account, and everyone also followed everyone else in the class. We still used hashtags…with the understanding that some tweets were likely missed when these were searched. I wish that Twitter would resolve this issue.

      2) Related to #1, I originally thought that students already active on twitter would be able to use their current accounts, and other students would not have to follow them but instead just watch their course-related tweets through the hashtag. But because everyone had to follow everyone else in the class, I felt it was best for students to create a new twitter account for use just with the course. I really didn’t want personal and unrelated information in the course twitter feed. And early on there were a few inappropriate tweets.

      I did not require the students to tweet, as all tweets are public and some students may not be comfortable with this. They were required to create a twitter account though, so that they could follow the comments of their peers and myself. In the end, all students ended up participating, although as you might imagine the level of Twitter activity was highly varied. Participation in lectures and discussions contributes to the course grade, and twitter was an easy way for students to demonstrate engagement.

      You should do it!

      -Bob

  2. What were the drawbacks?

    BTW, I had #yogurt with #pecans, #walnuts, #MapleSyrup, #strawberries, and #banana for breakfast. #Yummy as always.

  3. Bob, thanks so much for your thoughtful post. I’ve been thinking about taking the plunge and using twitter, and this might have pushed me over the edge for my next class.

  4. Reblogged this on Science on the Land and commented:
    argylesock says… I’m reblogging this because I like Bob Booth’s story of getting turned onto Twitter. A few people have told me that I should tweet something from my WordPress posts – the title, I suppose, because tweets are forced to be stupidly short. I’m stubborn, not one to follow trends for no good reason. But this summer (I’m in the Northern Hemisphere), when I’ll be less busy because the students will be out of town, I plan to give Twitter a try. Over there I’m Dr Sam Mason, or maybe DrSamMason or is it #DrSamMason. Do you detect my lack of enthusiasm? Well, never say never. If you want to follow me on Twitter, then after the students’ exams are over, I’ll try to give you something worth following.

    • I think that tweets being short is a benefit, not a hindrance. It forces focus.

      Personally, I think that Twitter is pretty much an ideal asynchronous communication mechanism. If you want a ‘proper’ conversation with someone, you phone them up or visit (assuming that you have the other party’s phone number, or address). With Twitter you can say almost anything to anyone: just don’t hold your breath waiting for the reply that may never come.

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