Tweeting Sociological Theory as Situated Learning
by Shelly Steward, Sociology
Recipient of the Teagle Foundation Award for Excellence in Enhancing Student Learning, 2015
Related Teaching Effectiveness Award essay: Integrating Sociology into Students’ Lives through Twitter
In order to make theory a way of understanding the world, students need to be reminded of it outside class. While teaching a section of a course in sociological theory, I created a Twitter account to address this need, a strategy that combines the idea of situated learning with students’ penchant for social media.
Twitter allows users to share short comments with followers. I posted news articles and videos alongside brief questions to encourage critical engagement, and asked students to follow the feed with their own accounts. They then could respond to my posts and post their own contributions by “tagging” the course. Students shared connections they made between theory and their lives. For example, one student linked his experience in a fast-food restaurant to Marx’s ideas about surplus labor, which sparked a series of similar connections from classmates. I embedded the Twitter feed into bCourses, allowing students who did not want a Twitter account to see the posts, and encouraged these students to email contributions. Instead of encountering theory only in lecture and section, students were reminded of its relevance every time they glanced at their Twitter feed or the course website.
I assessed this project’s effectiveness in three ways. First, I tracked students’ contributions. Two-thirds of students followed the feed from personal accounts. By the end of the first term, 90 percent of students posted, commented, or emailed contributions. Second, I observed participation in class: students regularly referenced news stories they had encountered on Twitter, indicating they were reading and remembering posts. Third, on midterm evaluations, when asked if they found the Twitter feed helpful in seeing theoretical connections in their lives, all respondents selected “helpful” or “very helpful.” Based on these assessments, students accessed the Twitter feed, related its posts to course content, and saw it as effective in integrating theory with their lives.
Lave and Wenger (1991) describe situated learning as the collaborative construction of knowledge happening in the same context in which that knowledge can be applied. Creating a Twitter feed allows students to construct their own understandings of theory in the context of the online world in which so many of them are immersed. Three aspects of situated learning — collaboration, peripherality, and legitimacy — apply to this project.
Social interaction is key to situated learning; understanding is built through collaboration (Lave 2011, Metz 2011). Students and teacher come together to collaborate on Twitter; every post is a virtual interaction, widely shared and open for comment.
The nature of this collaboration highlights another component of situated learning, that of peripherality, described by Joyce (2011) as moving away from the idea of a teacher as a master, and toward a focus on students. Using Twitter can disrupt teacher-student power dynamics, allowing students to have a more active role organizing discourse. Although the teacher retains control of the account, students contribute from equivalent accounts, flattening the hierarchy of the discussion space. Combining social interaction with peripherality, Twitter allows the collaborative building of knowledge on the neutral terrain of cyberspace.
In addition to peripherality, Joyce (2011) describes the need for legitimacy — realistic, feasible applications of knowledge. From a first-day-of-class survey, I knew that students spent much of their free time on social media sites like Twitter and Facebook. Using these platforms scales the content and learning tasks of the class within students’ wider lives and fulfills the need for legitimacy.
The sociological theory Twitter feed provided students with the opportunity for collaborative, peripheral, and legitimate learning. The idea can be expanded to maximize these benefits. In 2013–2014, my tweets focused on connecting the content of the course to national and international events. Campus events could serve as excellent applications to bring theory even closer to students’ daily lives. Furthermore, in order to expand the community of learners, this idea can be broadened to an entire course rather than to particular sections. This expansion allows for more interactions, with a greater number of students participating. Toward this end, the professor in charge created a coursewide Twitter feed for this year, encouraging participation from everyone involved — the professor, all the GSIs, and students across all the sections.
Lastly, the assessment of these strategies can be improved. First, to better align with the goal of collaboration, I could better track the diversity and frequency of participation on the feed. Second, I could implement a survey asking students the frequency with which they make theoretical connections outside of academic activities, administered both at the beginning and end of the course, in order to assess change through participation. These two assessments could then be combined in order to test the hypothesis that active participation in the Twitter feed correlates with increased frequency of theoretical applications in students’ everyday lives.
Joyce, Rosemary. 2011. “Remarks on Legitimate Peripheral Participation.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center video, 23:02. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, March 22, 2011. http://gsi.berkeley.edu/programs-services/hsl-project/hsl-speakers/joyce/.
Lave, Jean. 2011. “Learning as a Socially Situated Activity.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center video, 25:00. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, March 22, 2011. http://gsi.berkeley.edu/programs-services/hsl-project/hsl-speakers/lave/.
Lave, Jean and Etienne Wenger. 1991. Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Metz, Kathleen. 2011. “The Interplay of Conceptual Understanding and Engagement in Disciplinary Practices.” GSI Teaching & Resource Center, 25:00. Presentation to the How Students Learn Working Group, UC Berkeley, April 19, 2011. http://gsi.berkeley.edu/programs-services/hsl-project/hsl-speakers/metz/.