Academic work is rarely described by undergraduates as “exciting, engaging and addictive”, and even less often labelled “fun”.
But those terms exactly capture the reactions of a class of third-year undergraduates to an assignment set by Rosie Miles, reader in English literature and pedagogy at the University of Wolverhampton.
Dr Miles used Twitter, she said, as a kind of “ludic learning” tool, allowing students to connect with Victorian literature in a very 21st-century way.
Students adopted Twitter personas based on fictional characters: Dr Jekyll became @Doubleface1886, while Dracula’s enemy Van Helsing could be found at @Istakevamps, and Dorian Gray at @Consciencefree1.
The role play allowed students to connect with their characters and become more digitally literate, according to Dr Miles, who spoke about the experiment at Bett 2015, an annual education technology conference held last week in London.
Many of her students had not used Twitter before, and saw it as merely a professional alternative to Facebook. But Dr Miles said that the “Twitter bubble” she created allowed students to make the literary world came alive.
Keeping the Twitter accounts private, she added, meant that “we could do all [that] Twitter can do but we just all followed each other and not anyone else. Making the accounts their own made it very engaging for them,” she said.
Although Dr Miles suggested that her advocacy of social media makes her a bit “unusual” as an English lecturer, she found that the benefits stretch beyond career progression.
“My university now knows I do e‑learning, and it has now promoted me to be a reader. But I didn’t do the e‑learning stuff to get a promotion. Teaching well is very important, and it can be a vital part of academic identity,” she said.
Some academics have also found that social media provide new ways to heighten their profile.
Peter Tinson, executive director of the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association, noted at the conference that “emerging academics are promoting themselves far more widely using the range of tools available to them”.
Journal publication has long been the traditional medium for scholars to publish in, but younger academics, Mr Tinson said, are now turning to blogs, Twitter and other forms of social media.
However, this technological leapfrogging is not without risk. Dr Miles warned that Twitter can make academics nervous.
Santanu Vasant, educational technologist at City University London, said that this might be because they are mixing discussion about their research with general chat, such as what they had for breakfast.
“As a teacher or academic, you need to think about where your personal and private life ends,” he added.
He did, nevertheless, support academics using Twitter, and said that “universities are not thinking about social media early enough”.
Crucially, Twitter needs to be used by senior figures to enable a “trickle-down effect”, so the whole institution can benefit from the online world, he said.
Above all, students increasingly expect social media to be integrated into their learning, so lecturers will have to do more to keep them engaged, the session heard.
Academics who fail to recognise this risk getting left behind. “Social media is here to stay,” Dr Miles warned. “We ignore it at our peril.”
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