Bill Power and the Power of Twitter

Bill Power and the Power of Twitter

Bill Power

Bill Power in Waterloo's Peter Russell Rock Garden

Written by Bailey Jacobs, Special Projects (Teaching Stories), CTE. 

If you asked University of Waterloo educators how they would relay an urgent message to their class, email would likely be suggested. That's certainly what Dr. Bill Power used in 2009 when he came down with the H1N1 virus the evening before an 8:30 a.m. class. He used Waterloo's learning management system to send a mass email to all students regarding his absence the following morning. But over one third of his emails bounced back. Even in 2009, many students were not using their Waterloo email accounts. This experience sparked Power’s quest to find a network to which his students are connected and use it to communicate with them effectively. Enter Twitter.
“The integration of social media into the course shows that Dr. Power is adapting to meet the needs of his students, as he is making himself more accessible than through traditional communication means alone.”
In 2014, Twitter is everywhere, whether you are tweeting on a smart phone, “following” the famous, or even watching a talk show that has a live twitter feed bar. Back in 2009, however, Power, a University of Waterloo instructor with twenty-one years of teaching experience, assumed a pioneering role by introducing Twitter into his courses. “Teaching has changed a lot,” states Power, while pointing at a box of overhead transparency notes that are -- still! -- sitting in his office. He elaborates, “It used to be that we as teachers were the arbiters of the information, but now there is so much information available at your fingertips, it is about helping students become critical analysers of the information.” With improvements in social technology Power explains that, “students have become more demanding because they know the tools are available for professors to be more responsive and provide more feedback.” It is this evolution in teaching, technology, and student demand that makes Twitter an academic asset in Power’s courses.

Power’s hunt for “something better” has paid off. Beyond being “dynamic” and “scalable,” Twitter has the additional perk of being platform independent, which Power believes is a crucial component to technological communication. Understanding the busy schedule of his students, Power uses Twitter as a “direct pipeline” of information to them, wherever they may be. He states, “students shouldn’t have to pull in information—it should be pushed to them.” The automatic delivery feature of Twitter’s “push notifications” allows students to be informed without having to login and check the course page for updates. “Personally,” states Phyllis Ho, a student of Power's, “I check Twitter almost twice as often as I check LEARN, and would be more likely to read a course announcement through Twitter than LEARN.” For those students who choose to forego using Twitter for the course, the live Twitter feed is embedded directly in the course LEARN web page. Further, Power asks for his students’ Twitter usernames at the beginning of the term. Doing so allows him to monitor the Twitter group for the course and block anyone who is not one of his students, creating a safe space for his class to interact.

As many educators well know, if one student in a class of one hundred has a question there are likely numerous students with the same query. When a question is “tweeted,” Power, along with student users, can comment on the tweet “discussion board” style, with all updates being automatically delivered to the interested students. Student Phyllis Ho confides, “Emailing a professor can be a scary ordeal… with Twitter, you're confined to 140 characters so it lets you get right to the point and ask your question.” The image feature, where Twitter provides the option to attach a photograph to a tweet, is often utilized by Power in the equation-heavy Chemistry course of Thermodynamics. Students struggling with an equation can take a picture of their work, attach it to their tweet, and receive guidance from Power, allowing for a highly communicative teaching experience.

Power understands that nowadays, as technology is constantly advancing, almost every university student is “connected” in some way.  One of the main technological devices that students use to stay connected is cell phones. “They have such an intelligent tool in the palm of their hands,” states Power, and it is undeniable that cell phones are present and active in the classroom. “Educators,” he says, “have to embrace technology rather than ignore it. We might as well get our students to use it for ‘good.’”

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CTE has developed more than 100 Teaching Tips. Each one is a succinct document that conveys useful ideas and practical methods for effective teaching. Some of the Teaching Tips that are relevant to the strategies mentioned in this Teaching Story include the following: