University of Calgary

Intellectual networking

UToday HomeSeptember 17, 2012

By Carly Moran

Assistant Professor Michael Ullyot tapped into the power of social networking to engage students in conversation about three Shakespeare plays. Photo by Riley BrandtAssistant Professor Michael Ullyot tapped into the power of social networking to engage students in conversation about three Shakespeare plays. Photo by Riley BrandtFor Michael Ullyot, assistant professor in the department of English, building a Twitter following isn’t solely a way to stay up to date on the latest social gossip. It’s a way to be more responsive, engaging and attuned to students in his Foundations – Shakespeare class.

Ullyot introduced Twitter in his 90-student class as one way to encourage student conversation and spark interest in his selection of three Shakespeare plays – a tragedy, a comedy and a romance. Although student sentiment was initially mixed on using the popular social network in class, it didn’t take long for Ullyot to notice real growth in the quantity and quality of tweets being sent by his students.

“The humanities are really about empowering critical thinking, since they’re focused on teaching essential skills as much as transmitting material,” says Ullyot. “Using Twitter was about harnessing popular technology to gather students’ questions about the material, because every question is a teachable moment.”

Ullyot was part of Project Engage, a two-year pilot program that provides selected faculty with the support and resources they need to improve the learning experiences of students in first-year arts and sciences courses.

Ullyot started by requiring students to post their questions to him (@ullyot) via Twitter on the weekends before he would introduce new texts in class. Tapping into the resulting dialogue was a way for Ullyot to identify student preconceptions about the Shakespeare plays, and plan how best to deliver the course’s content during class time.

“Coverage of a topic is just as important as exemplifying critical practices, and teaching to the students who are in the room,” says Ullyot. “Twitter is known for its limitations — to 140 characters — but this limited tool can expand minds. It encourages ways of thinking and talking about the texts that’s more flexible and responsive to student needs.”

Not only did Ullyot notice a substantial increase in the number of student tweets over time, he also witnessed growth in expert thinking, intellectual discourse and dialogue among students.

“Students are already using Twitter in their daily lives,” says Ullyot. “This project was about taking student habits that were already established and repurposing them for intellectual use. After all, the medium isn’t the message – the message is the message.”