an interview with bryan penfound (@pencentre): twitter in the classroom.

Though he has never, to my recollection, asked how I found him, my cousin Dean is in a math class with an interesting twist.  It has a hashtag, thus making tweeting through class permissible.

I may not really know my multiplication tables, or remember anything about trigonometry, or be able to correctly execute the order of operations reliably. But I know that in-class tweeting is something that I quite dig, as evidenced by my own Twitter feed.

Bryan Penfound is the instructor who brought math and Twitter together at my university (and the other night posted about what it would look like if a person fell into a volcano).  I may not like math, but in the last week or so engaging with Bryan on Twitter has been super fun.  He agreed to share some thoughts on using Twitter in higher education here today, and with that, I will let him introduce himself!


Bryan ziplining.
Hi Bryan! How are you?
I am excellent. Just played a decent round of DDR so I’m focused and ready to go! What about your day so far?
Fantastic! I’m doing well, thanks! Care to tell us a bit about yourself?
Aside from being an avid gamer, I enjoy teaching mathematics now and then. I currently teach for the math department at the University of Winnipeg, and for the International College of Manitoba. When it comes to my background in mathematics, I received my B.Sc. from Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario, and my M.Sc. from the University of Manitoba. I have been teaching at the instructor level for about 4 years.Aside from my first and second true loves (Yes, I am taken – sorry readers! Although I will let you decide if mathematics comes first or second! :P), I have an interest in insects, yoga, chocolate-covered anything, puppies and Starbucks. I dislike drivers who don’t know how to merge properly, that feeling of sand drying to your skin after swimming, mosquito bites, people who don’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re” and waiting in line.
Okay, the Starbucks and the differentiation between you’re/your have it sealed why we click! Back to the beginning, what got you engaged in Twitter, and what were your first thoughts?
Well, I never really used Twitter that much at first. I just used it to follow my idols, like Justin Bieber. But then getting all of their updates was a little annoying, and I felt that I could never have as many fan-girls as them on Twitter, so I stopped using for a quite some time. Then when I bought my smartphone last fall, the Twitter app got me back in business.
It seems like many people have a first aversion to Twitter following sign up–I know I had one!  I’m happy you got back on board.  What sparked your choice to integrate Twitter into your classes?
I have been searching for the right social media to use for class updates for some time. A couple of years ago I used a Facebook page to keep my students updated, but it wasn’t quite what I was looking for. If I had been teaching multiple courses this would have meant multiple pages for multiple courses.As I was designing my course website over the winter break, I realized there was a Twitter widget to display tweets, and I was sold. It snowballed from there to include a live twitter feed projected during class time as well.
Very cool! How do you feel it works?
By far, Twitter is the best social media I have ever used for keeping my class updated with course announcements. Many students either had Twitter, or signed up for Twitter once they realized they were able to tweet during class. Having a running hashtag #math2106 and #math1102 (check ’em out) is both easy and effective. Perhaps I should take a few lines to explain the premise of Twitter for those who don’t know. Users, once registered, will have access to a main page. In this main page you can view all the tweets from anybody you are following. So if my students follow me, their class updates come to their main page and are easily viewed. Another neat aspect of Twitter is that conversations can also include “hashtags” (#) which effectively sew a bunch of tweets together that contain the same hashtag. By clicking a hashtag, one can view all the previous tweets containing that hashtag. For instance, if you search the #math2106 hashtag, you will see tweets from my Intermediate Calculus class.One of the best parts of the whole set-up is that students don’t need a Twitter account to keep updated in my course. Students can click the hashtag related to their course and they are sent to that page with all of the tweets containing the hashtag – and this page includes all of my updates! So students can choose to check out the updates at any time they wish.
I feel like the constant real-time aspect of Twitter really helps with engagement, but also in the fact that you can go back over certain information at a later point–I would love tweeted reminders about things, since I have the tendency to throw reminders amongst my notes . . . possibly never to be seen again!
What kind of reactions have you had from your students about having to use Twitter for math class? :]
I knew it was going to be an interesting semester when the first tweet I got on the projector was “Should we get #math1102 trending?” Thank you to Ian G. for that one. My upper-year students were even more excited than the first-years – believe it or not! I did have some skeptical faces at the beginning of the semester, but with me portraying a positive attitude and with some help from a handful of tweeters in my classes, it has become a success. It has really opened the door for much more collaboration and discussion in math class, which is a subject that is usually not viewed in this way.
Proof to the power of positivity . . . in everything! I wondered the same thing myself when I heard your classes were on Twitter–how it would spark discussion/collaboration in a math class, as opposed to something arts-related which is typically fairly opinion-driven. So, to me, that’s totally an unexpected bonus of Twitter integration.
What is the most unexpected thing you’ve found when integrating social media and education?
Honestly, everything so far has been unexpected! I never expected to have an experience like the one I am having this term. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of using Twitter is the classroom display. Being able to tweet during class might make teachers believe that Twitter is a distraction. Let me be the first to say that it is an excellent distraction! Disclaimer: once you get your students started, they will not be afraid to speak their mind! They will let you know if the last example you gave was too difficult, or if it needs some more explanation. Too many tweets might mean the material is too easy, or way over their heads. Whatever the case, you, as a teacher, now have invaluable insight into the minds of your students.Of course, a live Twitter feed during class can lead to distracting comments. The odd student will find a great opportunity to make an hilarious comment. But it is never often enough to distract from the overall pace of the lecture. Personally, since I have long lectures, I tend to point out the witty comments so that the whole class can laugh and take a short mental break. Having one or two of these per lecture is nice and keeps everyone more focused. Also, I find it helps me build a stronger relationship with my class – if they see me engaging their tweets and being easy-going about it, they are more likely to feel comfortable approaching me if they are having any concerns in the course.
I think the hilarious comment avenue is just typical for discussion in any forum–I cannot tell you, especially in kinesiology, how many of these happen in my classes! I feel like a kin class with a hashtag would be pure madness, but I’d still love to see it happen.  Any advice to instructors looking to get started integrating social media, like Twitter, into their classes?
Start slowly. It is very easy to get excited about trying new methods of instruction, and jumping in head-first will wear you out quickly! Find one new item that you would like to try in a future class, and do some research. It took me several weeks to get used to the various symbols and ways to tweet. After that, it took me about a month to think about the best way to implement the social media. It is not enough just to use the media, there must be an underlying purpose too!
Do you engage in any higher education Twitter chats/hashtags or have any resources to recommend?
I don’t regularly get involved in higher education hashtags, although I do follow some of the educational Youtubers – Destin from Smarter Everyday, James Grime from Numberphile, Michael from Vsauce and ViHart to name a few. One of my twitter highlights this term was getting a retweet from Destin about his “decoy” spider from the Amazon (really cool if you like bugs – I own a tarantula, her name is Charlotte).
One resource that I am trying out this term is called TopHat Monocle. It is an alternative to the iClicker system, where students use their smartphone, tablet or laptop in class to submit answers to questions the instructor poses. I use the feedback I get from my students to spark classroom discussion about certain topics. It also lets the students see how they compare with the rest of the class. It definitely comes highly recommended from me.
I love that you have a tarantula named Charlotte! Can she come for coffee with us? (Would Starbucks think that is weird?). Also the name TopHat Monocle cracks me up every time I see it on your feed (I cannot recall if he wears a monocle, but it reminds me of the Monopoly man for some reason).
On the topic of random, since we seem to have veered over here unexpectedly thanks to that spider-segway . . . Thoughts on that random girl who always engages on your class’s hashtag? 😉 [“She doesn’t even go here!”]
I think it is awesome that you “tweet-bomb” my class! Sometimes all it takes is one person to get the Twitter feed going, and you definitely have a knack for that! Sadly, it also lead to the most embarrassing moment of the term so far when I had to admit that I forgot the Mean Girls quote “She doesn’t even go here!” and my students had to explain it to me…
It is amazing how many Mean Girls references happen in University classes [we had one in my Physical Activity Promotion and Adherence class last year!]. Truly an epic movie :). Off topic . . . but completely on the topic of Twitter, what’s your favourite Motion City Soundtrack song?
Definitely “Happy Anniversary” from their newest album Go. It’s pretty dark and peppy – exactly what I love in a song. It is about a couple, and from the point of view of one member of that couple who is dying and trying to say all the things he/she wants to say before going. It is also a bit ironic, since it probably isn’t a happy anniversary for the other person who has to deal with the death of their loved one… Definitely get the tissues.
Will have to check it out–I’m sure I’ll cry all over it :].  Dark and peppy is how I roll too.
Any final thoughts?
Just wanted to say thank you again for a cool opportunity to discuss social media and education! Anyone who is interested in more information from me, or who is interested in giving me some feedback/pointers can find me on Twitter: @pencentre I’m always ready to tweet.


Thanks, Bryan!  Have I ever told you how rad your username is? I had a ton of fun with this . . . and look forward to continued Twitter-shenannigans with you in the near-future!

2 thoughts on “an interview with bryan penfound (@pencentre): twitter in the classroom.

  1. Interesting concept! This past fall I read an article about controversial Twitter Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services in some select Reform synagogues in the US. A big screen was set up in the front of the sanctuary throughout the services and people were requested to tweet their feelings about God and forgiveness and hopes for the coming year, etc – Rosh Hashana/Yom Kippur type sentiments.

    1. Like synagogue-tweeting, I’ve read about church-tweeting, too! Can’t say I’ve ever tweeted IN church, but I’d like to go to a live-tweeting service. I think it’d be really cool. What are your thoughts on it?

      Medicine-X was my only real live-tweeting experience in a group [i.e. not just live-tweeting my life] and it was fascinating [and intense!].

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