Outdoor learning: Introducing the Twalk, Twitter in the wild

Lectures and seminars are the staple of higher education teaching and learning. Seminars are usually the dedicated teaching space for students to engage in discussions and activities that relate to the topics introduced in lectures. In doing so they generate contextual and personal knowledge of the lecture topics.  Tutors cite low student participation in seminar activities as a problem to their learning. Where there is seminar participation it is often by the same confident students. Different theories have been given such as the rise in grade culture, social media use and increased numbers of non-native English speakers in the classroom.

In face of this, new and innovative methods to engage students in seminar discussions are being trialled. Think, pair, share techniques are increasingly considered a necessity to entice shy students to speak in front of the whole class. Technologies such as classroom response systems are being used to make anonymous participation possible. And now alternatives to the classroom space are being explored to elicit more discussion.

Outdoor learning

It has been found that when we walk we are more willing to be open and be expressive even with relative strangers (Bälter, Tobiasson and Toivanen 2018). Consequently, some tutors are moving their sedentary seminars outside where they’ve found that, not only do students talk to each other, they talk on the topics that they have asked them to.

Different formulae have been trialled for the seminar method. The key to its success is to allow students’ to capture what has been discussed. In order to do so, tutors have been using Twitter to engage the students in a tweetchat. This method has been called a ‘twalk’, which in an educational setting is a structured walk with multiple stop-off points where students engage in ‘generative’ discussions and respond to questions that they receive via Twitter. Andrew Middleton from Anglia Ruskin recommends that a twalk should last an hour, with five land-based discussions, with different question prompts every ten minutes.

Twalking at the University of Sussex

At the Pedagogic Revolution event in September colleagues were invited to reflect on our university values and share ideas to inform the development of an Education Manifesto – a set of principles that reflect the distinctive features of a Sussex education and which will shape our curricula in the future. At the event, Dr Wendy Garnham and I led an outdoor learning session. Wendy presented the theory about outdoor learning and how it can benefit student engagement. We then divided the participants into two groups and gave them a topic to discuss as they walked to a designated ‘pause place’, which were areas of natural beauty around the Sussex campus (not hard to find!). Once there, the participants had a moment to tweet their responses to the question, before we tweeted our next question to discuss on their way to the next ‘pause place’. And so it continued until we met back in the seminar room to wrap up the session.

It was clear from the session that walking really did generate discussion and many ideas emerged. Conversation flowed and was all topic-related. Furthermore, it was an enjoyable and stress free experience where all contributed.

Some considerations when using outdoor learning

Using Twitter for outdoor learning seminars has advantages and disadvantages. Twitter is open to the world which allows anyone, anywhere to see tweets and potentially respond.  It opens up the possibility of doing cross-institutional seminars where students at different institutions can share experiences. The use of Twitter by students to engage in their studies has been shown to help them feel part of their discipline. Research by Malik et al led them to claim, ‘Twitter has the potential to enhance students’ learning capabilities as well as improve their motivation and engagement.’ However, Twitter can never be an institutional tool and as such  interactions in Twitter are out of University control. Other mobile friendly tools could be used to ask the same questions such as Poll Everywhere.

Further considerations are the accessibility of walks. Some may not be able to attend if the walk takes them to places they cannot get to. Here we recommend two options. One, the students decide their own routes so they can ensure they can do it. Two, the walk can be optional and some students may choose to stay behind and answer (and pose) questions from the seminar room.

Join us to give it a try

Our next outdoor learning session will be on the 8th November, jointly hosted by Technology Enhanced Learning and the Active Learning Network as part of  Digital Discovery Week. We hope to introduce identification software to the mix so on the walk participants use phone apps to identify plants, insects and birds.

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We are the Technology Enhanced Learning (TEL) team at the University of Sussex. We publish posts each week on using technology to support teaching and learning. Read more about us.

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