Remarks on Social Pedagogy at Mason’s Future of Higher Education Forum

Photograph of a CrowdOn November 2 and 3, George Mason University convened a forum on the Future of Higher Education. Alternating between plenary panels and keynote presentations, the forum brought together observers of higher education as well as faculty and administrators from Mason and beyond. I was invited to appear on a panel about student learning and technology. The majority of the session was dedicated to Q&A moderated by Steve Pearlstein, but I did speak briefly about social pedagogy. Below are my remarks.

This morning I’d to share a few of my experiences with what you could call social pedagogy—a term I’ve borrowed from Randy Bass at the Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship at Georgetown University. Think of social pedagogy as outward facing pedagogy, in which learners connect to each other and to the world, and not just the professor. Social Pedagogy is also a lean-forward pedagogy. At its best a lean-forward pedagogy generates engagement, attention, and anticipation. Students literally lean forward. The opposite of a lean-forward pedagogy is of course a lean-back pedagogy. Just picture a student leaning back in the chair, passive, slack, and even bored.

A lean-forward social pedagogy doesn’t have to involve technology at all, but this morning I want to describe two examples from my own teaching that use Twitter. Last fall I was teaching a science fiction class and we were preparing to watch Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner. Since I wasn’t screening the film in class, students would be watching it in all sorts of contexts: on Netflix in the residence hall, on a reserve DVD upstairs in the JC, rented from iTunes, a BluRay collector’s set at home, and so on. However, I still wanted to create a collective experience out of these disparate viewings. To this end, I asked students to “live tweet” their own viewing, posting to Twitter whatever came to mind as they watched the film.

In this way I turned movie watching—a lean-back activity—into a lean-forward practice. And because the students often directed their tweets as replies to each other, it was social, much more social than viewing the film in class together. Over a 5-day period I had hundreds of tweets coming in, and I used a tool called Storify to track rhetorical and interpretative moves students made during this assignment. In particular, I categorized the incoming tweets, bringing to the surface some underlying themes in my students’ tweets. And then we began the next class period by examining the tweets and the themes they pointed to.

My next example of a social pedagogy assignment comes from later in the semester in the same science fiction class. I had students write a “Twitter essay.” This is an idea I borrowed from Jesse Stommel at Georgia Tech. For this activity, students wrote an “essay” of exactly 140 characters defining the word “alien.” The 140-character constraint makes this essay into a kind of puzzle, one that requires lean-forward style of engagement. And of course, I posed the essay question in a 140-character tweet:


Again I used Storify to capture my students’ essays and cluster them around themes. I was also able to highlight a Twitter debate that broke out among my students about the differences between the words alien and foreign. This was a productive debate that I’m not sure would have occurred if I hadn’t forced the students into being so precise—because they were on Twitter—about their use of language.

And finally, I copied and pasted the text from all the Twitter essays into Wordle, which generated a word cloud—in which every word is sized according to its frequency.


The word cloud gave me an admittedly reductivist snapshot of all the definitions of alien my students came up with. But the image ended up driving our next class discussion, as we debated what made it onto the word cloud and why.

These are two fairly simple, low-stakes activities I did in class. But they highlight this blend of technology and a lean-forward social pedagogy that I have increasingly tried to integrate into my teaching—and to think critically about as a way of fostering inquiry and discovery with my students.

[Crowd photograph courtesy of Flickr user Michael Dornbierer / Creative Commons Licensed]

17 thoughts on “Remarks on Social Pedagogy at Mason’s Future of Higher Education Forum”

  1. I love these ideas, and will share them with my students. This is the first semester I’ve incorporated Twitter into my courses. We tried live tweeting while watching a film in class, but it became confusing to lots of students: unable to pause, “rewind,” or otherwise slow down process if necessary. Some students had already seen the film, so they were able to have more incisive comments. However, that further “alienated” students new to live tweeting (and this particular film). We also adapted/adopted one of Jesse Stommel’s other ideas: a fishbowl convo in class, sometimes with live tweeting outside the bowl. It worked better in one class than the other, but overall was a useful learning experience.

    Jesse’s 14–character essay may be a nice way to have students envision other of their projects, too. Your visual representation is fantastic.

    I especially like that the structure of your assignments facilitates a “lean-forward pedagogy”–love this imagery. Hopefully, my students will benefit from your ideas. Thanks for sharing.

    What feedback did you receive from your students about these low-stakes activities?

  2. Mark, I enjoyed your remarks and Q&A today – leaning forward is a great active metaphor – but felt moved to post the following tweet shortly after you spoke (I think Bryan Jackson was the unlucky speaker at the time):

    [@DavisFlyer] How will intensive mediated interaction chg dramaticmusicalnarrative structure? I’m loving this moment but have tuned out spkr #masonfuture”

    As someone who creates theater and opera (and might someday make a film if I can figure out that newfangled moving picture stuff) and strives for — relies on — and tries to reward — continuous attention, I wonder about the viewer experience in the situation you prescribed. I bet it’s really interesting to the participants (like my semi-compulsive tweeting during the conference was to me!) but I also bet that they didn’t see the film Ridley Scott made. Quite possibly a valid alternate (and shorter) film, but not that film, just as I experienced a very engaged conference, but probably missed an awful lot of great material. So hence my tweet: must/should/will we on the creative end of this continuum start thinking about structure, density, detail, nuance, motif, etc., differently, somewhat as Shakespeare possibly did by putting in attention calls to his allegedly unruly groundlings?

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