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Using Twitter in your teaching

This area introduces ways you could use Twitter in your teaching, considerations you need to think about when using it and links to more information.

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a simple web and mobile computing application which allows a user to write a 280 character ‘post’ or ‘Tweet’ (including punctuation) on a page on the internet. These ‘tweets’ are like short blog posts, a list of which is called a ‘feed’. Twitter users can build a list of other users whose Tweets they ‘follow’. The tweets of all those you have chosen to follow are displayed on your home timeline.

Tweets can simply be short informative messages broadcast to the web or discussions between a group of users or individuals with similar interests. They can also include referencing words or ‘hashtags’ created by yourself or other users. These hashtags (preceded by a ‘#’ symbol) can then be collated and displayed in their own feeds and thus form a bank of knowledge and reference that can be shared and followed. You tweets can be forwarded or ‘retweeted’ to your followers friends and so the information is shared.

Twitter is available as a web or mobile application and Twitter feeds can be embedded  in most web pages or blogs. There are also a number of other desktop and mobile clients that allow you to monitor and post to multiple Twitter feeds simultaneously (e.g. Tweetdeck and Seesmic) or  share images and video (e.g. Twitpic)

Why use Twitter?

Used wisely Twitter can be an effective   learning tool to complement other activities in a blended teaching context (i.e. face-to-face and online). 280 characters is not a lot but the brevity and immediacy of the message can in itself be a rich source of activities and an incentive for more frequent engagement.

A popular approach is to create and publicise a course ‘hashtag’ and use it to post topical information, thoughtful questions or course information. By incorporating the Twitter feed into the VLE you are augmenting other e-learning tools to help extend the classroom and build a learning community. Because of the global reach of the communication you can potentially engage a wide audience of interested colleagues and students in your discussions.

Hashtags can also be employed as a ‘backchannel’ for questions and discussion during lectures or conferences, enabling real-time feedback on comprehension and a form of diagnostic teaching. This can change the shape of presentations if managed appropriately.

Students can also use Twitter to gain access to the latest thinking and resources in their subject area. They can do research by searching through hashtags and personal networks can be built by following key users.

If used smartly you are in effect modelling web 2.0 ‘Social learning’ practice with your students enabling them to potentially set up a personal learning network of their own.

Key benefits

  • Skills development for undergraduates e.g. network creation, collaboration etc.
  • Great for building professional networks and for establishing connections between learners.
  • Plugging your students into what is happening in their area of research or specialism.
  • A strong mobile offering means students can engage with learning on the move which can also increase engagement
  • Twitter feeds can easily be integrated into course VLE pages or blogs ensuring co-ordination of communication
  • Direct tweets are like text messages. i.e. direct & quick
  • Can facilitate the asking of questions that students may not have asked in class
  • Has an immediacy which is particularly useful for feedback
  • Has an ecosystem around it of extra tools which add to the core functionality e.g.  Twitterfall…to monitor words
  • Can be good for brainstorming
  • Can provide educational and emotional support for students when they may feel isolated e.g. writing dissertations.
  • Makes tutors more approachable in the eyes of students and can help to build trust
  • Great for building professional networks and for establishing connections between learners.

Key issues

  • How many communication channels do you need? Dissemination overload!
  • Twitter accounts can be public or private but the real value comes when they are public…some students may feel uncomfortable with this
  • Setting up backchannels is not for everyone e.g. monitoring a large number of Tweets can become unwieldy and your audience may seem preoccupied with their screens
  • 280 characters means brevity is paramount i.e. detail is limited!
  • Eliminates boundaries between academics and students
  • Messages are unthreaded so conversation can be disjointed. More effective if linked with other social tools like facebook or blogs
  • As with all Social Media, guidelines for use need to be established with your students

Is it OK to use at Queen Mary?

There is no reason per se not to take advantage of the technologies that the rest of the world is using for communications.  They move and develop much more quickly than organizationally provided systems typically can, and often do completely different things.  The choice of tool you use to meet you and your students’ learning objectives is your choice. Some practical considerations are outlined below.

Classroom practice

A Law lecturer set up a Twitter account as a quick way to keep their PhD students informed about what was going on in their research field and expose them to newer work.

A geography lecturer incorporates Twitter into their lecture programme to encourage participation before, during and after the lecture. A hashtag is distributed at the beginning of the class ‘#geo202’ and students are encouraged to Tweet questions before or during the lecture. These are then projected on the screen near the end of the lecture and a selection are dealt with on the spot.

An Electronic & Computer Engineering lecturer used a combination of Twitter, a Wiki and online learning logs as tools to facilitate project supervision giving the students support at moments where they could potentially be struggling on their own. Students were encouraged to use Twitter for very short progress updates or queries and this complimented the other two tools involved. Twitter gave the group a communal space for the immediate sharing of experiences.

A medical lecturer designed a learning environment which consisted of 4 short videoed clinical scenarios built using high-fidelity mannequin-based simulations. Learners had to ‘tweet’ very short messages on the evolving condition of the patient in the video, at key clinical decision points or respond to specific questions posted by tutors.

A materials scientist used Twitter to post daily tasks or exercises as a revision challenge near the end-of-year exams.

A History lecturer used Twitter for a role-play exercise where students opened  accounts as historical figures then were asked to Tweet based on what that person would say.

Practical considerations

  • Can be useful to practise with 280 character tweets on a discussion board first to allow students to grasp the nature of the discourse
  • In situations where confidentiality is important anonymous accounts can be created alternatively students could create accounts with the same prefix like el101_smith, el101_jones etc
  • Don’t be afraid to be imaginative with your use of the tool and share your rationale for using Twitter with your students
  • Either yourself or the community as a whole should agree on mechanisms for communication and support as well as commitment to using Twitter. Enthusiasm will decline if the tool is not used.
  • Consider pulling multiple Twitter feeds into one place using a desktop or mobile client e.g. Tweetdeck
  • Remember that monitoring large groups may simply become unwieldy. May be worthwhile setting up student moderators.
  • Private messages can be sent and all Tweets can be made private if need be.
  • Engagement with tools like this needs to be prolonged to be really effective.

Learn More

More about using Social Media in your teaching:

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