By: James Zhao
November 8, 2013 – Dr. Ananya Roy’s animated voice resonates throughout Wheeler Auditorium as the projector displays a constant stream of tweets from students. A hand is raised on the left side of the lecture hall, then another on the right. Roy hastily walks around, making sure voices are heard. These are the sights and sounds of Roy’s class of 700 students on “Global Poverty: Challenges and Hopes in the New Millennium,” a core course in the Global Poverty and Practice Minor.
These are not the typical lectures your parents remember from their college days. On select days, students in GPP 115 are invited to react to readings, videos, and provocative questions over Twitter, labeling their comments with #GlobalPOV. “Tweeting allows students to participate in the public dialogue around poverty issues—something that classroom discussions don’t usually allow them to do,” said Roy, a Professor of City and Regional Planning, Distinguished Chair in Global Poverty and Practice, and the Education Director for the Blum Center of Developing Economies. As a matter of fact, earlier this fall, class tweets caught the attention of economist Jeffrey Sachs, who sent back words of encouragement to Roy’s students.
Twitter also allows students to express honest and controversial opinions with some degree of anonymity in a class that deals directly with poverty, race, and gender. “Personally, I’m terrified of talking up in a class. 700 is a lot of people,” said Alex Berryhill, a student in Roy’s class. “Through Twitter, students who are not as comfortable with speaking out in class can simply tweet what they would have said anyways.”
Roy strategically schedules tweeting sessions on days when she believes a particular topic will generate a lot of debate. As the tweets come pouring in, it’s clear that students find real freedom of expression in this space. “If the point is gender empowerment why are all the chairmen and CEOs of the Grameen Bank MEN?” demands @madisongordon24. “Why is it that Starbucks is thriving yet the part of Ethiopia where they get their beans from is in famine?” asks @ivn_lo.
With the help of artist Abby Vanmuijen, one of Roy’s former students who had filled her class notebook with drawings of the discussion topics, Roy has launched the #GlobalPOV Project and brought her lectures to life in thought-provoking live-action sketch videos that are posted on YouTube. Each of the videos begins with a question focused on a social or political issue. Will hope end poverty? Who profits from poverty? Can we shop to end poverty?
Roy is now screening these videos in class as a way to connect class readings with real-world controversies and to engage the Millennial Generation, who are used to consuming information this way. The #GlobalPOV Project videos are more than just supplementary material to the class, however; available online for anyone to view, they engage viewers around the world on real, pressing, and controversial issues. The videos invite viewers to join the conversation and help democratize discussions of poverty and inequality. As Matt Wade, one of Roy’s Graduate Student Instructors, puts it, “[#GlobalPOV provides] a moment to speak directly to power, an opportunity of becoming-public, not heretofore available to students and people outside of the circles of development expertise.”
The use of social media does not come without nuisances and problems, however. Students are barraged with words and visuals, which makes it more challenging for some to process information. In addition, although Roy spends plenty of time curating content, anonymous tweeting can add irrelevancy. In spite of occasional smart comments about her choice of clothing or shoes, Roy and her teaching assistants are pleased with the freedom of speech students exercise. “One can absolutely use Twitter to ridicule incompetent public officials, bad ideas, injustice, moments of inhumanity, with all due vitriol,” said Wade. Students’ candid and provocative comments outweigh the nuisances.
Despite the availability of YouTube and Twitter to engage a large auditorium full of students, Roy is dissatisfied with existing in-classroom technology. The iClicker, used in many large lecture settings to ask students multiple choice questions, is extremely irrelevant for a class like “Global Poverty” that dives into complex and controversial issues. Twitter allows students to express opinions, but restricts them to 140 characters. The videos may capture the attention of the students, but they don’t make it possible for everyone in an auditorium to have a thoughtful discussion.
Roy hopes that in the future, new technology will allow more reflective interaction with a large group of students. For now, she will continue pioneering the use of social media in traditional classroom settings to explore how far she can take it.