Faculty to Faculty: Twitter
Introduction: What is Twitter?
It is virtually impossible not to have heard of “tweeting” over the last few years. But what, exactly is Twitter? Twitter is a social networking and microblogging service that enables its users to send and read messages known as tweets. Tweets are text-based posts (but that can link to photos, videos, websites, etc.) of up to 140 characters displayed on the author’s profile page and delivered to the author’s subscribers, or followers, via web, SMS, or other services. In their own words, Twitter is: “A service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?”
Does Twitter have a place in education?
The big question when dealing with so-called “disruptive” technologies such as Twitter is what role, if any, these tools can or should have in our classrooms or academic space. I will be the first to admit that when I learned about Twitter during its development in spring 2006, I rolled my eyes and thought, “Yeah, right, like that will ever take off.” OK, so I was wrong. I was an early adopter of the service for my own personal use, and quickly came to see the benefits of Twitter for connecting to other professors and educators, as well as news outlets, etc. However, it took me until a year or so ago to embrace Twitter as a tool that could be used with an educational purpose with my students. So I understand your skepticism, I was there too…
A number of articles tout Twitter’s potential as an educational tool (see the references section below). These pieces talk about why educators might benefit from the tool, suggesting idyllic scenarios in which Twitter can enhance our classrooms. But I wanted proof, I wanted to see what other instructors had done, and how it had worked. Not surprisingly, there weren’t many empirical studies documenting such processes. (Admittedly, this is often the case with emerging technologies. We see opinion pieces, then surveys of student attitudes towards their use, and then finally empirical research on their use and outcomes begins.) But the few studies I did find indicated that Twitter could be an ideal tool for enhancing social presence and building a sense of community among learners. This kind of social engagement has been repeatedly shown to support learning in the classroom.
In my own experience using Twitter with language learners and language teachers, I have found these claims to be true (empirically and statistically, as well as based on student and teacher observation). I have been fortunate enough to investigate a variety of project ideas based around Twitter, some of which I share below in the hopes that they will spark some interest for your own class goals.
Creating community outside of class
I have used Twitter with my students to have them engage, outside of class time, with each other and with other tweeters. For example, in a language class, students have to tweet three times a week in the target language, and also have to respond to a classmate’s tweet. These tweets end up running the gamut from “Did I leave my book in the classroom today?” to “Can you explain [topic x] a little more? It was really interesting!” This kind of connection with students and between students and instructor helps to create a stronger connection both within and beyond the class, and helps build relationships during the semester. Another plus is that native speakers of the target language can also join the conversation – from anywhere – and make the tweet interactions more realistic and more meaningful for the learners.
I have also used a similar project model in graduate classes where the language itself was not the focus of instruction. In a class for new language TAs, for example, I connected our UF instructors to over 100 other new language instructors around the US and Canada, all of whom tweeted weekly about their experiences in the classroom. These tweeters were able to share experiences, reflect on their development as teachers, and engage in professional interactions with not only their local peers but with people they would otherwise never have had the chance to meet or speak with, had it not been for a tool such as Twitter. (The funny part about that project is that I still don’t even know who all the participants were! I sent emails and project descriptions out and asked all participants to use a common hashtag so we could search all the related tweets, and I ended up discovering tagged tweets from usernames in places I’ve never heard of, both K-12 and higher education… We truly created a community for that semester that would never have existed without the Twittersphere.)
Reinforcing class content
Another option is to make use of Twitter during class time. (Yes, this is ‘disruptive’ technology at its best!) Rather than have students turn off their electronics or pretend that they don’t have them turned on, why don’t we use them to our advantage? Here are some ideas for using a live Twitter feed (or “back channel”) that you can project on your screen during class time:
- Introductions – rather than go around the room round-robin, have students tweet their introductions and short information about themselves. It takes less time and can be less intimidating. And you have a record of what everyone said.
- Encourage questions on your lecture through Twitter. This is a less obtrusive method than traditional Q&A, and even the more timid students may feel comfortable asking questions.
- Have students tweet what they understand to be the main point of your lecture or presentation – conveniently under 140 characters – throughout the class. This is a good way to assess their understanding and comprehension, and it can help keep the rest of the class on track as well.
- Encourage the class to add their own thoughts and opinions, reactions, etc. to what you are discussing, as you are discussing it. While this might sound distracting, it actually has the effect of increasing interest and involving a larger portion of your audience.
- Get input and feedback from students on any aspect of the class, the lecture, etc. It’s quick and efficient to poll that class, and you have a written record of it.
There are, of course, many other microblogging sites that have popped up in recent years. These include Tumblr (http://www.tumblr.com), Plurk (http://www.plurk.com), Emote.in (http://www.emote.in), Beeing (http://www.beeing.com), Jaiku (http://www.jaiku.com ) and identi.ca (http://identi.ca), although Twitter is by far the most popular. However, for those who are somewhat leery of opening up their classrooms to something as popular and potentially distracting and disruptive as Twitter, with all its celebrities and infamy, there is another educationally-geared option: EdModo (www.edmodo.com) Edmodo is a free microblogging site that you can set up exclusively for your class, allowing teachers and students to interact and share materials, assignments, reminders, links, etc. I have not used Edmodo in classes, although I have an account and enjoy the neat, clean interface. The educational options, and the added privacy of the site, make it a possibility worth exploring.
Even though Twitter is fairly easy to learn, there are many different features that you’ll want to explore before diving into it with your classes. Mashable offers a wonderful how-to guide for everyone from beginners to advanced users; it can be found online at http://mashable.com/guidebook/twitter/. Some terms and features to look into for your own use with classes include: privacy; hashtag; reply; direct message; list.
In my experience, students have reacted mostly favorably to using Twitter. However, it’s important to keep in mind not only the opportunities but also the limitations of this and any tool when designing your task. The most unfavorable Twitter feedback I received was when I asked students to tweet reactions to readings in a graduate seminar; in retrospect, asking graduate students to summarize their knowledge and show off their intellect in 140 characters was not a fair challenge. For the most part though, learners have enjoyed the interactivity and connectivity that Twitter can provide. It’s quick, it’s relatively easy, and it’s free. When we develop an appropriate pedagogical task to put it to its best use, it’s a win-win situation.
Good luck, and happy tweeting!
(You can follow me on Twitter @ glordward.)
Antenos-Conforti, E. (2009). “Microblogging on Twitter: Social Networking in Intermediate Italian Classes.” In L. Lomicka and G. Lord (Eds.), The Next Generation: Social Networking and Online Collaboration in Foreign Language Learning (pp. 59-90). San Marcos, TX: Computer Assisted Language Instruction Consortium.
Corbett, S., Mace, K. & Regehr, G. (2008). “Twitter in the online classroom: Case study report.” Retrieved from www.kevinmace.net/media/…/ED690_data_analysis_Twitter_Group.pdf.
Dunlap, J., & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009a). “ Instructional uses of Twitter.” In P. R. Lowenthal, D. Thomas, A. Thai, & B. Yuhnke (Eds.), The CU Online handbook. Teach differently: Create and collaborate (pp. 46-52). Raleigh, NC: Lulu Enterprises. Retrieved from http://www.cudenver.edu/Academics/CUOnline/FacultyResources/Handbook/Documents/2009/Chapter_8.pdf
Dunlap, J. C. & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009b). “Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence.” Journal of Information Systems Education 20(2).
Haskvitz, A. “Twitter in the Classroom,” Reach Every Child, http://www.reacheverychild.com/feature/twitter-in-the-classroom.html.
Messner, K. (2009). “Making a Case for Twitter in the Classroom,” School Library Journal, http://www.schoollibraryjournal.com/article/CA6708199.html.
National Education Association, (2009). “Can Tweeting Help Your Teaching?” NEA Today Magazine, (http://www.nea.org/home/32641.htm)
Stevens, V. (2008). “Trial by Twitter: The rise and slide of the year’s most viral microblogging platform.”TESL-EJ 12(1), http://tesl-ej.org/ej45/int.html.
Walker, L. (2009). “Nine Reasons to Twitter in Schools,” Tech & Learning, http://www.techlearning.com/article/17340.
Posted on Wednesday, October 6th, 2010.