For KU physical therapy professor Kendra Gagnon, tweeting = teaching

February 14, 2012

By Chris Deffenbaugh

Professors at the University of Kansas Medical Center know that Twitter isn't only for disgruntled athletes, attention-starved celebrities and straying politicians. In addition to its wider-known uses, the forum is quickly becoming a popular teaching tool on college campuses. Though Twitter's 140-character limit can inhibit opportunities for expression, results from KUMC classrooms are a prime example of how quality can trump quantity.

After acknowledging that they were losing their students to "death by PowerPoint," several professors in KUMC's Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Science began to look for ways to re-capture their students' attention. For Kendra Gagnon, PT, PhD, clinical assistant professor and the department's associate director of clinical education, the solution was to use a communication forum already popular with her students.

"My primary use of Twitter was for outside-of-class discussion," says Gagnon. "I used it to help me 'flip' the classroom. I was able to get an idea of where my students were [with classwork] before class and that led to richer class discussions that were, I think, more meaningful to the students."

Starting in the fall 2011 semester, Gagnon made Twitter participation mandatory in her pediatric physical therapy course, also known as PTRS 833. Through their Twitter accounts, Gagnon's students received course-related questions to which they could respond and start an online conversation. Over the course of the semester, PTRS 833 students logged more than 1,147 tweets — an average of 23 messages per student and well beyond the 11 tweets required before the end of the semester.

"While some were late-adopters and less likely to use these technologies in any format, quite a few of our students got very excited and took ownership of contributing content on a consistent basis," says Gagnon. "We're now seeing them seek out information that goes beyond the material presented in class."

The new teaching method has also shown a marked benefit for those students who are less-than-thrilled about participating in class discussions. For third-year Doctor of Physical Therapy student Ellie Van Swearingen, using Twitter has been an unexpectedly positive experience.

"I was reluctant to use Twitter at first because I thought it was just another bit of technology that I had to figure out how to use," Van Swearingen says. "However, now that I'm more familiar with it, I really enjoy it.  For me personally, it's easier to participate in the classroom because I don't have to compete with others to ask or answer questions."

The uptick in participation hasn't been limited to students; Gagnon has found that the social medium has reinvigorated her enthusiasm for teaching.

"I think I was getting to the point that I disliked discussion boards almost as much as my students," she says. "Using tweet chats instead of discussion boards made collaborating, interacting and sharing with my students much more fun."

Beyond increasing student engagement, Twitter has provided Gagnon with an additional outlet through which she can model professional behavior.

"Social networking sites tend to get demonized in the media and the knee-jerk reaction of many professional health care organizations is to recommend that providers never 'friend' their patients," Gagnon notes. "I think that's the wrong approach. Social media is the way people are communicating now and I believe the next generation of health care providers will be expected to use Facebook and Twitter — as well as blogs — to communicate with their patients."

Many of the questions Gagnon poses to her students through Twitter pertain to how they can best relate to their patients. By creating an ongoing forum for discussion, she hopes that students will become accustomed to producing high-quality content that their future patients can use to their benefit.

"There are already health care providers using social media very effectively and professionally to connect with their patients and the public," says Gagnon. "I want my students to think about how social media can actually enhance their practice and professional identity."

And while the contents of her social media class discussions are unlikely to wind up on a celebrity blog, Gagnon is certain that the subject matter of her Twitter experiment is of great importance.

"I think I definitely achieved my goal of helping students get over their fear of using social media for more than just posting status updates to Facebook."

Last modified: Mar 15, 2012