Before students take Margaret Rubega’s ornithology class, most can’t tell a swallow from a sparrow. When they leave her class, they have a greater understanding of birds’ lives and continue to see birds everywhere they go, largely because of using Twitter for an assignment.
Twitter, an Internet social networking site (also called a micro-blogging site) that fosters communication between members in 140-character messages, lets students post sightings that reinforce what they learned in class.
“I decided to use Twitter for an assignment because birds are literally everywhere. Students can see the bird life around them and connect it to what they’ve learned,” says Rubega, associate professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who is also the Connecticut State Ornithologist.
Rubega first got a Twitter account (@ProfRubega) almost two years ago and decided to use the site in her EEB 4261 Ornithology class in the spring of 2009, asking students to record bird sightings and post them, or “tweet” about their findings. She used the same assignment in spring 2010.
Rubega instructed students initially to post five tweets per semester and then increased that number to 10. Every tweet needed to include the hashtag “#BirdClass.” (A hashtag – a word preceded by a pound sign – helps by adding context to Twitter posts and aggregating them for people who search on a topic.) Additionally, Rubega instructed students to post where they were, what bird they were seeing, and to connect the bird life around them to the course content.
“I wanted students to notice birds more. The assignment succeeded beyond my wildest dreams,” she says.
“In a lecture class it’s easy to lecture at students without making what you’re lecturing apply to the outside world,” Rubega adds. The Twitter assignment forced students to observe for themselves.
And they didn’t limit their observations to campus. They posted about birds beyond the Storrs locale – they tweeted on Spring Break and during weekend trips. Students who gave Rubega the impression that they were not all that interested in birds ended up correcting others on Twitter who were confused about bird species. They wrote about birds on Twitter long after the assignment had ended.
“The class was a great experience. I learned so much about birds in general and especially bird identification,” said one student. “Spending time in the field waiting to see and listen for birds was actually a lot of fun for me,” said Carrie Potts, CLAS ’11.
“I had hoped that that they would be enthusiastic about it,” says Rubega. “Some of what students shared was, dare I say, inspiring.”
One student posted tweets about birds that were in a rap song format. Another post Rubega calls “all the evidence you need of a liberal arts education in fewer than 140 characters.” Referencing the protagonist of Catcher in the Rye, it read: “Holden Caulfield once asked where the ducks go in the winter and never really got his answer. He should walk by Mirror Lake at UConn today.”
Rubega’s creative and practical use of Twitter for instruction purposes is something she’s been happy to share with others. She recently led a workshop about using Twitter at a meeting of the American Ornithologists’ Union.
She was amazed both this year and in 2009 at the low number of students who used Twitter before they took her class. In January 2009, she asked students in a 100-person class to raise their hands if they had a Twitter account. Not one hand went up.
“You have a misconception about who’s sitting there in a lecture hall,” she says. “There’s a mythology about how this current generation of students is fully wired and that they know everything about any electronic device and about all of the social networking tools. It’s not true.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, Twitter had nearly 96 million unique visitors in August 2010. And now, more than a few of those in Storrs are tweeting about birds.