Can silent discussion help students speak their minds? (By Martin Dee/Associated Press)

A Thursday New York Times article highlighted a trend in some classrooms — using social media in class discussion. The piece profiled many teachers, including Erin Olson, an English teacher in Sioux Rapids, Ia., who has her students contribute to a digital discussion feed with Twitter-like updates that she she incorporates into her traditional lessons.

Some of Olson’s students, such as 17-year old Justin Lansink, said that the silent discussion helps the overall discussion flow more easily. And professors in some colleges have found that having laptops and the discussion feed in their classrooms are actually engaging students, rather than distracting them. The feeds are also often moderated for bullying, bad language and gossip.

Learning to speak up in class and engage in debate is an invaluable skill, and one that many a shy student is better for having overcome. Students today have been plugged in since birth, and being able to fall back on the crutch of a familiar keyboard could keep them from learning the vital skill of public speaking.

But, as with many things, this new idea seems to work if you strike the right balance.

In many cases, the teachers in the article said, students are more willing to bring up questions in text that they’d never raise their hands to ask. And those questions, such as simple requests for definitions or explanations of basic terms, often help others in the class.

It’s a bad idea to replace class discussion — even one rife with awkward pauses — with dozens of clacking keyboards, but this tool may work to draw shy students out of their shells.

What do you think? Is this a good idea or a bad idea?

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