Backchanneling with Twitter

In AP Psychology, we have started one of my favorite units — Social Psychology.  I like teaching this unit because students learn about many powerhouse psychologists and the interesting experiments they designed to study how social situations influence behavior.  Learning about the psychological principles behind conformity, aggression, altruism, and attraction typically engages many students as they see these principles at work in their daily lives as teenagers.  We begin this unit by looking at ways social dynamics can change our behavior, and within the first week, we view a documentary on Dr. Philip Zimbardo’s infamous Stanford Prison Experiment.

Conducted in the 1970s, the prison experiment is infamous for a few reasons.  Zimbardo turned the basement of the Stanford University psychology building into a fake prison.  Zimbardo’s subjects were psychologically tested and were all mentally healthy before starting the study.  He assigned them randomly to play the role of either prisoner or prison guard.   Then he sat back and watched what happened.  The study was meant to last two weeks.  Zimbardo had to end it after five days.  Within 24 hours, guards became sadistic and prisoners lost their identity and dignity.  The roles quickly took over and became their identities.  You can learn more about his study at the Stanford Prison Experiment website.

While students are generally interested in Zimbardo’s experiment, the video we watch is an ACTUAL video.  On VHS.  From the 1990s.  Some students, upon seeing the early 90s hair and clothing, check out right away believing that the information is unlikely to relate to them, even after being prepped for what social principles to look for while viewing.  This year, to mix it up and encourage engagement, I decided to try creating a Twitter backchannel as we watched.  I already use Twitter regularly to communicate with students, link to content-related articles, and of course to create an excellent PLN (there are so many valid reasons to use Twitter, teachers!).   Twitter backchanneling allows a group to communicate in real time by using a specific hashtag on Twitter.  We used a hashtag to indicate my classroom — #jhs204.  I reminded students about digital citizenship rules and expectations, pushed play on the video, and projected my Twitter feed on the screen in the front of my room.  I was a little worried that the backchanneling would distract students from paying close attention to what was happening in Zimbardo’s experiment, but just the opposite happened as Twitter was overtaken by #jhs204.

As students watched the video, the Twitter backchannel gave them a quick way to post responses, thoughts, and questions.  They became more engaged in what was happening in the experiment as they looked for ways to use their voice on Twitter.  Some began relating the prison environment to a high school environment or WWII Nazi camps.  Some expressed surprise at how quickly tensions escalated in the experiment.  Students considered how the experiment would be different today and wondered why Zimbardo only used middle-class white college-aged men in the study.  Not every tweet expressed a lot of thoughtfulness, and not every student tweeted, though a couple of students who don’t use Twitter added a stream of comments to the whiteboard near the screen.  But altogether, backchanneling added a level of discussion I don’t think we would have had otherwise.

But for me, the best part of backchanneling during class had to be when students from other classes noticed what we were doing and started asking questions about it.  As their friends in my class started filling up Twitter with #jhs204 tweets, several outside students began wondering what we were up to and jumping into our conversation here and there.  Students who have AP Psych later in the day jumped into the early conversation to ask if we would be doing the same thing during other hours.  They were excited about coming to class.  And a student who was absent at the dentist during our first hour was able to see and ask about what his classmates were discussing.  Even previous students who already graduated and had viewed the video in psychology left comments.  Not all comments from outside students were positive — some expressed annoyance that their Twitter feeds were taken over by #jhs204.  I can certainly live with that, but for students who don’t want to risk annoying their friends, I’d recommend creating a separate professional/educational Twitter account to use for classroom purposes.  Below are some of the tweets students posted during our class:

Backchanneling during class is something I’m eager to try again.  With a few modifications, I think it could be an even more successful classroom event.  Have you used Twitter in the classroom?  How would you use backchanneling with your students?  I would love to hear your ideas!  And students, you can follow Dr. Zimbardo on Twitter – @philzimbardo.