Twitter in the Classroom

Since the release of the Pew Internet and American Life Project's December 2010 study of Twitter usage and the social media monitoring service Sysomos' release, in the same month, of data on the growth of Twitter, there have been a surge of fresh articles on the uses of Twitter in higher education. Taken together, the data from Pew and Sysomos tell a compelling story:

  • Only 8 percent of American internet users are Twitter users, but that percentage doubles among the college-aged
  • 42 percent of Twitter users joined in the past year, evidence of a rapid and recent increase in the tool's popularity

But it is important to cut through the hype and not to simply encourage faculty to use Twitter on the assumption that the tool will automatically have a positive impact on student engagement or academic performance, independent of a deliberate pedagogical strategy. The key to assessing where Twitter (or any social media tool) can help is to identify specific pedagogical challenges or outcomes and align them with the strengths of particular tools. For example, the strengths of Twitter include real-time, rapid communication and feedback; ease of sharing links and resources; and the ease of making a channel more public than a particular classroom. There are particular challenges that these strengths can help address, such as:

  • Increasing student engagement in a larger class or student group
  • Providing timely feedback to an instructor
  • Extending learning outside the classroom
  • Encouraging sharing of information and resources among students

Interviewing experts such as Ray Schroeder, professor emeritus and director of the Center for Online Learning, Research, and Service (COLRS, formerly OTEL) at the University of Illinois Springfield, and surveying pilot projects at an array of institutions, we have assembled a few examples of effective uses of Twitter.

Increasing Student Engagement in Large Classes

"For schools hit hard by the recession, Twitter is an inexpensive solution to the growing problem of increasing class sizes," a writer for Mashable suggests. While this may be overstating the benefits of Twitter, which is not a silver bullet for solving the faculty/student ratio, it does point to one of the best instructional uses of Twitter -- to engage more students in class discussion more of the time.

There are several benefits to moving a class discussion in a large lecture hall to a Twitter backchannel using a class hashtag:

  • Speed -- in the time it takes for one student to raise a hand and be called on by the instructor, multiple students can be tweeting back and forth on the class channel in earnest discussion of a point
  • Participation -- the students who are often either too shy or too introspective to participate significantly in a live class discussion often feel less shy about tweeting their questions and thoughts digitally
  • Documentation for review -- Schroeder points out that a Twitter backchannel can be reviewed by the students and instructor even after the session has ended; besides recording a lively class discussion, the instructor can also review the backchannel to identify and highlight teachable moments

To learn more about this use of Twitter and to see how it played out in Monica Rankin's pilot project at the University of Texas at Dallas, check out this video.

Timely Feedback to the Instructor

Besides encouraging students in large lecture halls to engage in animated (digital) discussion, Twitter can also be applied to help address the challenge of getting an instructor timely feedback on the lesson from a large number of students. Ray Schroeder suggests this use of Twitter: during a lecture attended by a large body of students, open a Twitter backchannel and invite students to tweet the points in the lecture that leave them confused. In this adaptation of the popular "muddy point" assessment exercise, the instructor can monitor the live feed, noting what points in the material require elaboration or clarification and responding in real time.

Learning Outside the Classroom

"Social media tools are exciting because they break down the idea that learning only occurs in class," notes Norm Vaughan, assistant professor in the Department of Education, Faculty of Teaching and Learning at Mount Royal University and co-author of the book Blended Learning in Higher Education (Jossey-Bass, 2008).

Ray Schroeder adds that Twitter can provide real-time opportunities for students who are dispersed in location to discuss and share commentary on a live event -- such as a guest lecture, breaking news coverage, or a State of the Union address from the White House. For example, students who meet regularly in a physical classroom in the afternoon can then "meet" on Twitter that evening and discuss the State of the Union address while it is occurring; the instructor can participate in the dialogue, and even invite voices from outside the class, such as other political science faculty, students in other courses, or even international contacts.

Here's another example of how Twitter can be used both to extend learning beyond the walls of the classroom and to broaden the dialogue beyond the class enrollment in meaningful ways. In an Italian course at Montclair State University, Enza Antenos-Conforti has her students tweet to each other, in and out of the classroom, in 140-character strings of Italian. Antenos-Conforti then invites native Italian speakers she knows to join the tweeting, in effect adding an element of immersion to the language course.

Encouraging Information-Sharing

Here is another pedagogical challenge: getting more undergraduates involved in research outside the classroom. Many institutions are looking to reach this goal by embedding librarians in first-year courses in a variety of ways. One institution -- Baylor University -- recently piloted embedding a librarian into the class's Twitter channel. The librarian, functioning as an "information concierge," responded to student ideas and questions during the class, suggesting reference materials, online links, or other resources where students can look to pursue the answers they need. While Gardner Campbell and Ellen Hampton Filgo, who collaborated on the pilot project, noted its potential for improving students' academic performance, there remain questions about how to scale a project that requires a substantial time commitment from the reference librarian.

Cole W. Camplese, the director of education-technology services at Pennsylvania State University at University Park, has used Twitter to take a different approach to encouraging information-sharing among students in a course. Camplese teaches with two screens at the front of the classroom: one on which slides are projected, and another on which is projected a stream of tweets from the students. Students in the class are invited to use the Twitter channel to share insights about the material with each other and post links to related resources, all in real time. Camplese notes that because of the visible, public nature of the second screen, students were shy about tweeting at first, but once they warmed to the idea, the digital class discussion became a rich supplement to students' class notes.