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Teaching with Twitter

July 1, 2011

Twitter posts seem to be everywhere these days, from politicians and government offices to celebrities and entertainment news.  I have been using Twitter for some time now as a regular part of my networking and professional development, and today I even sampled some of the tweets from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s Royal Tour of Canada. (Happy Canada Day, neighbors to the north!)

Many folks are trying to figure out how this incredibly powerful tool can be effectively incorporated into teaching and learning.  There are two broad categories here: 1) passive techniques that use twitter as a one-way source of information, and 2) more active techniques that require your students to sign up for an account and tweet.

The former category is much easier to integrate into your teaching, but perhaps not as high-impact as the latter.

One-way source of information

Instructors and others can write tweets that can be incorporated via a twitter widget into websites and LMS.  From simple reminders about homework assignments or timely pointers to news and information resources, students simply need to use tools they are already using to read the messages.

Along a similar line, a feed can be created from a twitter search (including hashtags) or a twitter list and incorporated into a page students regularly view.  Many professional organizations tweet (like the Mathematical Association of America or the Ecology Society of America) and can expose students to the world of professional scholarship.  I have incorporated these twitter feeds into Subject Guides I create for disciplines and classes.

Student Participation

A much richer way of incorporating twitter in your teaching requires students to sign up for and use a twitter account.  Several articles and blog posts have discussed various strategies.  The twitter stream can be used as an in-class back channel (much like it is at conferences) or outside of class to keep students engaged.  A 2010 study in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning showed that the use of twitter (both in class and out of class) resulted in an increase in both student engagement and final grades.  Students can use twitter to continue an in-class discussion beyond class time, ask questions during class (especially helpful for the more introverted students), and connect with classmates.

Despite the positive results of this study and many instructors’ enthusiastic adoption of twitter, there are pitfalls.  A recent article in The Chronicle discussed an attempt at cheating-by-twitter, and the hazards of the in-class back channel getting out of hand.  Other blog posts have described a student backlash against using the tool.

As a librarian, the most interesting report of using twitter involved a librarian who was embedded in the class via twitter.  The librarian (from her office) paid attention to the in-class back channel (and the after class tweets) and was able to provide commentary and point to relevant resources.

Like all technology tools, the decision to use twitter must depend on your educational goals: What do you hope to achieve?  And is twitter the right tool to do this?  Will your students find the use of twitter to help or hurt their educational experience?  Jumping in with both feet without a plan for using twitter probably won’t work for students or instructors.

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3 Comments
  1. I was that librarian who was embedded via Twitter. If you have any questions about the project, I’d be happy to answer them. 🙂

    • Ellen – Thanks! I think the biggest question from myself (and my colleagues) relates to the scalability of embedding via twitter. We have a pretty active library instruction program, but struggle with scaling up and are always concerned about having enough time. How did that work out for you?

      • Sorry for the tardy reply, I was on vacation.

        Yes, scaling was/is definitely an issue with this project. It really did take a lot of my time. However, I didn’t have a lot of demand from other faculty to try it, and now the professor I was originally working with has moved to Virginia, so I’m not involved any more. (I’m not sure whether he’s going to try it again – he thought it beneficial enough, though, that he might, if he finds the right librarian at his new institution…)

        Some of the ways we brainstormed about scalability were to think about doing it not synchronously – subscribing to a hashtag and reading through it later, for example. I’ve done that for a few other classes I’ve known about. It takes away the “just in time”-ness of what I did with the original class, however, so that needs to be taken into consideration. Also, possibly using grad students/TAs or other community members (a business prof here thought that getting local business folks peeking in a twitter stream might be a neat idea…) These are all just ideas that have been thrown about, though. Besides the non-synchronous idea, which I dabbled in a bit.

        Ultimately, I think the idea is that using the tools that students are using, the librarians can become known as good sources for information and really become a part of their learning processes. That’s what I found with the classes I was embedded with. I still get questions from them.

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