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Twitter in Higher Education

Introduction
A recent article in the spoof newspaper The Onion (2009) had the title 'Twitter
Creator On Iran: “I Never Intended For Twitter To Be Useful”’. Although the piece
pokes fun at Twitter’s alleged triviality, it raises a serious point about how users
interpret technologies in ways that are very different from the uses for which those
technologies were original intended. Twitter is a striking example of technology’s
“interpretive fexibility” (Pinch and Bijker 1984) and is now commonly employed for
such diverse purposes as reporting, campaigning, public relations, marketing,
serendipitous professional networking, and enabling 'backchannel' conversations in
conferences.

Over the last twelve months, Twitter’s profle has increased dramatically as a result
of its use in two major events that made headlines globally. The frst event was the
terrorist attack in Mumbai in November 2008 about which many present on the
scene tweeted updates. Mumbai quickly became a 'trending topic' (i.e. a subject
about which a high number of posts were being sent) and the tweets by local
'citizen journalists' were used by mainstream media organisations such as the BBC.
Use of 'crowdsourced' reports were not without controversy (Herrmann 2008;
Sutcliffe 2008), but marked a turning point in the perception of Twitter as a serious
form of social media that could inform more conventional forms of reporting.
Mumbai, claimed one report, was “Twitter's moment” (Caulfeld & Karmali 2008).
The second event was the protest movement in Iran triggered by the alleged
electoral irregularities in the presidential elections of June 2009 that, it was claimed,
gave unfair electoral advantage to the eventual winner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
Twitter was used by many Iranians bring to worldwide media attention the
repression of the Iranian state against protesters. A national protest movement
became a global one as a result of Iranian Twitter coverage of unfolding events
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being picked up by twitterers outside Iran, many of whom tinted their avatars green
in solidarity with the protest movement (Johnson 2009).

Fig. 1: example of green-tinted avatar


http://twitter.com/Joga5

What is clear from these two examples is that interpretation of the technology by its
users was not conditioned by the 'inscribed' or 'preferred' interpretation of Twitter
as a simple status update or notifcation service. It's interesting to speculate that the
change from Twitter's initial self-description as a service that enabled users to
answer the question “what are you doing now?” to the injunction to “Share and
discover what's happening right now, anywhere in the world” was, in part at least, in
recognition of Twitter users' varied readings of the technology.

It is not the purpose of this study to discuss in detail the wider uses of Twitter and
its impact on media practices and political campaigning. Rather, its aim is to explore
some of the ways in which Twitter’s unintended uses might relate to learning,
teaching and assessment in HE, especially relevant in the context of emerging
research fndings that recommend that academics interrogate the potential of Web
2.0 and social media to undergraduate and postgraduate learning.

A recent JISC report, for example, stressed the value of “[b]lending the use of
familiar personal technologies – such as iPods, MySpace or mobile phones – with
institutionally based technologies and traditional practice – such as VLEs, face-to-
face classes and lectures – in ways that make learning more effcient, spontaneous
and meaningful” (JISC 2007: 25). Peter Bradwell, in a recent book on the
'borderless university', mentions Twitter specifcally and argues that “Twitter, the
'micro-blogging' site, is developing past its 'what I ate for breakfast' phase into a
useful resource for sharing links, brief ideas and commentary” (2009: 29) and is
therefore of great interest to educationalists in all sectors.

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In section 1 of this study, I will consider the key features of Twitter as well as the
range of third-party applications that enhance or extend Twitter functionality. In
section 2, I will cover current uses of Twitter for learning and teaching as well as
some of the issues that have been raised about the appropriateness of its use in
HE. Finally, my conclusion will raise a number of questions for future research.

1: Twitter explained

1.1: Twitter: microblogging and social networking


Twitter is a social-networking and micro-blogging service developed in San
Francisco and frst launched in October 2006. Twitter posts, or, ‘tweets’, are no
longer than 140 characters in length and can include hyperlinks. One becomes a
Twitter user, or twitterer, by creating a personal account and by posting tweets to a
personalised online news feed, or, as it is more commonly known, a 'timeline' which
displays them in reverse chronological order (i.e. most recent at the top). The default
setting for Twitter accounts is that user timelines are public unless the account
holder decides to make them private, in which case, they are only accessible to
approved followers of that account. If a Twitter user decides to follow another
twitterer, then they will receive that person's tweets on their timeline. Twitter
timelines, therefore, comprise of both tweets by the account holder as well as the
users they are following.

Part of Twitter's popularity is its ease of use and versatility; although Twitter a was
developed initially as a web-based platform, tweets can be sent via a computer or
via a mobile phone as an SMS message. On some mobile phone networks in some
countries, users can receive tweets from selected users they are following as text
messages. In the UK, for example, both Vodaphone and O2, allow tweets to be
received as SMS messages. There are now many free desktop clients (i.e software
users download and install) for Macs and PCs (e.g. Tweetdeck, Tweetie ) and mobile
‘apps’ (e.g. Twitterifc, Tweetberry) for various types of 'smart' phones (e.g. iPhone,
BlackBerry, Nokia) that make sending, organising and reading tweets easier.

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Due to their brevity, tweets have much in common with the short text-making
practices associated with SMS messages, instant messaging or Facebook status
updates. However, it is blog posts, albeit in a greatly truncated form, that tweets
most closely resemble insofar as tweets tend to be, to use Lankshear and Knobel's
description of blog posts, “hybrids of journal entries and annotations or indices of
links, or some mix of refections, musings, anecdotes and the like with embedded
hyperlinks to related websites” (2006: 139).

Unlike blog posts, there are distinct categories of tweets, each with their own user-
generated conventions:

1. simple tweets posted to the news feed; David Silver (2009) makes a
distinction between 'thin' (text only) and 'thick' (text and hyperlink to
other resources) tweets;

2. retweets (RTs) or tweets posted to the news feed that copy the content
of another person's tweet in order to share it more widely; a retweet
usually acknowledges the original author (@username) and is the main
way twitterers share information from network to network as well as
engage in conversations (boyd et al. 2009);

3. @ messages directed to a particular recipient or recipients which also


appear on the timeline; Honeycutt and Herring (2009) have argued that
the @ sign is “a marker of addressivity” that enables conversational
exchanges in an otherwise “noisy” environment;

4. direct messages (DMs) which similar to @ messages insofar as they are


directed at a particular recipient but which, unlike @ messages, are
private and, therefore, do not appear on the timeline; DMs are more akin
to SMS messages or email insofar as they're generally used for short
short, one-to-one exchanges.

The description of Twitter as a social networking site is equally valid insofar as


twitterers have the option of completing a profle to enable other users to fnd them
or learn more about them. The Twitter profle template is a space for a minimal
identity performance: name, username, a self-description of no more than 160
characters, a feld for the URL of the user’s homepage or blog and an image, or
avatar, that Twitter users select to represent themselves. A recent development in
opportunities for visual self-presentation in Twitter has been the adoption of a
'twibbon' to the avatar image allowing users to display signs of affliation and
support. Sites like Twibbon (http://twibbon.com) make this process easy by allowing

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users to browse and chose a twibbon from a range of options (political, sporting,
professional).

The example below (fg.2) shows the twibbon created by those wishing to display
their support for the NHS in the face of attacks from opponents of healthcare reform
in the USA.

Fig. 2: example of twitterer with twibbon supporting NHS


http://twitter.com/amcunningham

Twitter, as I have mentioned earlier, allows users to follow the updates of other
users; these appear in that user’s list of people they are said to be following. The
people they are following may, in turn, choose to follow those who are following
them. These physically distributed social networks of followers and followees form
innumerable loosely coupled communities bound by shared histories and interests.
Twitter therefore largely conforms to boyd and Ellison’s (2008: 211) defnition of
social network sites as “web-based services that allow individuals to 1) construct a
public or semi/public profle within a bounded system, 2) articulate a list of other
users with whom they share a connection, and (3) view and traverse their lost of
connections and those made by others within the system”. However, Twitter is more
accurately described as an ‘open’, rather than a ‘bounded’ system insofar as both
Twitter profles and the associated timeline of tweets are fully public unless users
decide to make them private.

Another way of bringing twitterers together is via the use of a hashtag. Hashtags are
a powerful tool that allow Twitter users to track what other people (especially people
they are not following) are reporting or thinking about a particular topic or event.
Hashtags were initially not an offcially supported Twitter service. Rather, they
emerged as a way of pulling otherwise unconnected twitterers together around a
shared topic that Twitter users adopted on their own.

It is not possible to follow hashtags through the main Twitter site since a hashtag is
not an account but a character string – e.g. #altc2009 - inserted into a tweet.

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However, hashtags are something that you can use the Twitter search tool to locate
and, once located, users can then subscribe to tweets using a particular hashtag via
the 'RSS feed for this query'. Desktop clients, like Tweetdeck
(http://tweetdeck.com/beta/) and browser-based alternatives like TwitIQ
(http://www.twitiq.com/) are available to facilitate a simpler user experience of
viewing hashtags. The use of agreed hashtags in tweets is now common practice in
conferences internationally in order to enable 'backchannel' interactions amongst
participants and is increasingly being used in teaching and learning. The MSc in E-
Learning at the University of Edinburgh, for example, has begun to use Twitter for
discussion and recommends its students to include the agreed module-specifc
hashtag in their tweets.

1.2: Third-party applications


In common with other types of social media, Twitter has made its API (application
programming interface) available to allow outside developers to create third-party
applications that enhance or extend Twitter's native functionality. It is not possible
to describe in detail all the applications currently available as there are around 200
(Hart 2009a). Instead, I'll briefy describe some of the more pedagogically interesting
tools. We might organise these into four categories; i) multimodal applications, ii)
polling services iii) annotation tools and iv) display or presentation tools.

Although Twitter is not intrinsically multimodal, applications have been developed


that extend its functionality to embrace more multimodal text-making practices.
One of the more popular Twitter applications (Rao 2009) is Twitpic
(http://twitpic.com/) which allows users to upload images from their computer,
compose a tweet and then publish to their Twitter news feed. Twitpic also works
from smart phones with users able to email images and text to Twitpic which then
publishes it as a tweet with a link to the image. Similar applications exist for video
(e.g. http://vidly.com) and audio (http://tweetmic.com/). Both Vidly and Tweetmic
allow users to send video and audio from their mobile, although Tweetmic requires a
mobile app that is available to iPhone users only. A slightly more sophisticated

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application, also only available to iPhone users, is Audioboo (http://audioboo.fm/)
which allows users to upload a picture as well as an audio fle.

Another popular category of Twitter application are polling tools. Twtpoll


(http://twtpoll.com/), PollDaddy (http://polldaddy.com) and PollEverywhere
(http://www.polleverywhere.com/) are currently the most used. Twtpoll, for example,
allows users to create and distribute polls on Twitter, Facebook and other social
media sites. With Twtpoll, users can collect responses and options from their
followers (and others via retweets), and have them organized in a pie chart, bar
chart or table.There are thirteen different types of questions you can set including
popular options such as multiple choice, multiple answer and study comment.
PollEverywhere offers 'live', as opposed to asynchronous, polling and enables
questions and their responses to be displayed within a presenter's PowerPoint
slideshow. Another signifcant feature of PollEverywhere from a pedagogic
perspective is the ability for Twitter users to post a tweet via SMS on their mobile
phone. This option opens up some interesting possibilities for in-class participation
for lecturers wishing to build review points and student participation into their
teaching sessions.

My third category of Twitter application covers web annotation tools that can be
quickly published to Twitter. Amplify (http://amplify.com/), for example, is a tool that
enables users to 'clip' sections of the web for annotation. The parts of the web
pages user select then and annotate can then be linked to from a tweet via a single
mouse click. To make the most of Amplify, users need to use Mozilla Firefox
(available as a free download for PC and Mac) as their browser. Users also need to
install the Amplify bookmarklet, a small app that runs in the browser and lets you
'grab' sections of the web pages being read. When users click on the Amplify
bookmarklet, a window appears allowing sections of text to be 'clipped' and a panel
to type in any notes or refections.

My fourth category of Twitter application are tools that allow tweets to be displayed
in real time to an audience and which, therefore, have been designed with
conference or lecture 'backchannels' in mind. The term 'backchannel' refers to the
digital communications space used to sustain primarily textual interactions
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alongside live spoken presentations delivered in a physical environment.
Backchannels are now a common feature of many technology-related conferences
globally with many organisers setting up 'twitterwalls' in the social or reception
areas of conference venues on which tweets using the conference hashtag are
displayed. The growing popularity of backchannels has generated demand for tools
that display the tweeted questions, answers and comments from the audience to
the lecture theatre via the data projector. Twitterfall (http://twitterfall.com/) is one
such tool and was used at the Institutional Web Management Workshop
(#iwmw2009) in July 2009. It’s free, browser-based and users don’t have to refresh
their web browser to view new tweets as the latest tweets are pushed to it
automatically. It’s also possible to pause and resume the stream of new tweets.
TwitterCamp (http://www.danieldura.com/code/twittercamp) is an alternative and is
an open-source desktop application (i.e. something you have to download and
install) that allows you to display tweets that appear on a blank screen like digital
post-it note. Finally, PollEverywhere, referred to earlier as a polling service, also
allows for tweets to be displayed on PowerPoint slides.

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2: Twitter for learning and teaching in HE

2.1: Current practice


A few academics have begun to consider Twitter’s uses in HE and the blogosphere
is full of posts talking up its potential (Ahrenfelt 2009; Carbone 2009; Gordon 2009;
Hart 2009b; Wheeler 2009). To date, however, there has been little real
implementation in higher education for the purposes of learning, teaching and
assessment (marketing, internal communications and alumni relations are separate
uses not under consideration in this study) and even less formal evaluation of its
impact. A recent survey in the USA conduced by Faculty Focus (2009) revealed that
more than half of nearly 2,000 respondents (56.4%) had never used Twitter. Of the
30.7% who claimed to be current users of the service, less than half used it as a
classroom learning tool, with slightly more than half have used it to communicate
with students (Faculty Focus 2009: 9). On the basis of current research, it would
appear that Twitter remains relatively underused in higher education with negative
perceptions of the tool inhibiting many from exploring its potential in the near future.

On a more positive note, there have been some interesting and valuable early pilots
of the technology that offer insights into how it might be integrated more widely. It's
worthwhile summarising some of the early uses of Twitter in higher education and
describing how they ft with a more coherent pedagogical model of Twitter use for
wider adoption. My choice of Twitter case studies here is limited to those which
have been documented and are in the public domain.

Case study 1: Twitter as broadcast medium

The frst of my case studies comes from the University of Bristol (UK) and is
described in a discussion paper published online (Ramsden 2009). Dr Sabah
Abdullah used Twitter for an undergraduate module in Economics. Twitter was used
to supplement the recommended reading list with relevant news items. A module-
specifc Twitter account was created using the module code (EC10160). Dr Abdullah
also provided instructions for students on how to create a Twitter account, and on
how to follow the EC10160 account. Use of Twitter was encouraged through
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references in her lectures. Dr Abdullah would generally read an online newspaper,
and, if an appropriate article was found, then the URL of the article would be posted
via Twitter. This case study of usage illustrates Twitter's potential as a 'broadcast'
technology or a means of disseminating information quickly to students in a way
convenient to them. The use of Twitter in this case study replicates some of the
functionality of the announcement tools in virtual learning environments (VLEs) like
WebCT, Blackboard or Moodle and is an example of a more teacher-led and
content-centric approach to educational technology.

Case study 2: Twitter as in-class conversational medium

My second case study of Twitter use is from Dr Monica Rankin, a history lecturer at
the University of Texas at Dallas. Her pilot use of Twitter is documented in a short
video, The Twitter Experiment, created by a student and uploaded to YouTube
(http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6WPVWDkF7U8) as well as social networking
sites like Facebook (http://www.facebook.com/video/video.php?v=541275338165).
Dr Rankin has used Twitter as a means of encouraging greater student participation
in large-group classes of around 90 students. Her intention was to “pull more
students into a class discussion which [she] wouldn't ordinarily be able to do with
that many people” (Kesmit3 2009). The students who appeared in the video
reported that the experiment worked well and helped them, in the words of Dave
Schallert, one of the freshman students involved in the project, to “pipe up and be
heard” in a large-group context that can be “a little intimidating” (Kesmit3 2009).
Also observed in the video were the use of a hashtag - #h1302w08 – that included
both a module code as well as a reference to the week in which the discussion is
taking place. Tweetdeck, a desktop Twitter client was also seen in a number of
shots as the software used to display tweets in the classroom. This case study
illustrates the deployment of Twitter as a conversational medium used to enable in-
class and well as post-lecture comments and refections. In spite of Dr Rankin's
reservations about the appropriateness of 140 character tweets to undergraduate-
level discussion, the Twitter-enabled interactions support recent claims that “despite
a 'noisy' environment and an interface that is not especially conducive to
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conversational use, short, dyadic exchanges occur relatively often, along with some
longer conversations with multiple participants that are surprisingly coherent”.
(Honeycutt & Herring 2009). Tweeted comments and questions also went some way,
according to the students featured, in militating against some of the factors that
inhibit student participation in large-group discussion, namely 'feedback lag', or the
suppression of questions due to the pace of the lecture, 'student apprehension', or
the fear of speaking due to the size or climate of the class and the 'single-speaker
paradigm' or assumption that only one person (usually the lecturer) speaks
(Anderson, R.J. et al. 2003).

Case study 3: Twitter for student data collection

My third case study comes from the Sheffeld Hallam University where the
Academic Innovation Team used Twitter as a technology to collect student feedback
on informal learning spaces. The team saw Twitter as “an innovative data-
generation method” (Aspden & Thorpe 2009) relevant to the life styles of the
students who refections were being sought. 15 students were recruited to take part
in a two-week study in which they were required to tweet an average of three times
per day about their learning activities and the spaces they were using. Most of the
student volunteers chose to register their phones to allow SMS tweets and used a
combination of PC- and phone-based updates. The team created a dedicated
project account (http://twitter.com/learningspaces) which followed the student
volunteers.

The benefts of using Twitter over print-based data collection tools included “the
ability for participants to update anytime, almost anywhere, and through a variety of
devices that are integral to their lives (cell phones, laptops, desktop PCs)” (Aspden
& Thorpe 2009). Use of Twitter also helped avoid “the diffculties associated with
information recall and [...] the risk of not having the appropriate equipment to record
key events” (Aspden & Thorpe 2009). The limited length of tweets meant that
updates were tended to be concise and focused. Finally, the 'real time' and public
nature of tweets helped inform ongoing institutional initiatives (e.g. the
redevelopment of the learning centres) that would have otherwise had to have
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waited until data had been collated and evaluated if more traditional data collection
methods had been used.

This case study reveals some of the ways in which twitter might be used as a data
collection tool of relevance in other contexts (e.g. work-based or placement-based
learning, personal development planning). A lecturer in Media and Cultural Studies
at Kingston University, to give another example, is planning to use Twitter in a
similar way on a module on media audience studies to help bridge the gap between
the theory and students' own practices as media audiences.

Case study 4: Twitter to enhance social presence

My fourth and fnal case study comes from the University of Colorado Denver and
related to the use of Twitter on a module on instructional design and technology
course. The evaluation of the initiative has recently been published in the Journal of
Information Systems Education as part of a special edition on Web 2.0 technologies
(Dunlap & Lowenthal 2009). In this case study, the authors encouraged their
students to use Twitter in a variety of ways: to post questions and queries to one
another as well as to the course team, to send student-to-student direct messages,
to tweet comments on relevant news events, to share resources, to reports on
conferences that were not attended by some of their fellow students, to links to
student blogs and to exchange personal information (e.g. a student tweeting they're
tired and off to bed which receives two replies wishing her a good night's sleep).
The authors claim that the use of Twitter can enhance students' perception of a
sense of 'social presence', an important quality that helps promote student
involvement, commitment and retention. They conclude that Twitter is good for
“sharing, collaboration, brainstorming, problem solving, and creating within the
context of our moment-to-moment experiences” (Dunlap & Lowenthal 2009).

This fnal case study illustrates something of the fexibility of Twitter to enable a
range of interactions from private messages between peers to arrange meetings
and to lightweight Twitter-based tutorials, or 'twittorials' (Clow 2007) that engage
the whole cohort. The evaluation also supports the social networking dimension of

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Twitter, with students clearly comfortable with the varieties of information exchange
and the heightened perception of belonging and of social connection to both
teaching staff and fellow students.

2.2: Academic staff attitudes to Twitter


The Faculty Focus survey (2009) referred to earlier is the most signifcant source of
data regarding higher education practitioners attitudes to the use of Twitter in
undergraduate and postgraduate education. What was signifcant about the fndings
were the reservations many expressed about Twitter's suitability in higher education.

The perception of triviality persists: “It seems to be a stupid time-eating worthless


pursuit”, “I think it’s mostly a waste of time and energy”, “I have enough other ways
to waste time, none of which are as silly as this one” and “It’s beneath my dignity”
(Faculty Focus 2009: 5).

Leaving to one side questions about privacy, security and faddism, more specifcally
pedagogic or intellectual concerns emerged from the data that focused on the
perceived deleterious infuence of Twitter on students' academic literacy practices:
“logical arguments cannot well be delivered in short bursts”, “[Twitter] [p]erpetuates
poor written and oral communication skills” “[m]ost of the discussion is worthless
and unrelated to the academic enterprise” and, more categorically, “I am sick of
student writing that is unprofessional. I am also tired of receiving student work that
has incomplete sentences, fragments, subject-verb agreement mistakes, point of
view mistakes, tense mistakes. Students need to learn how to write on at least a
13th grade level and on-line discussions, twitter, texting, etc. does not help them.
NO! I will not use this in my classes!” (Faculty Focus 2009: 6). There is a similarity in
some of these comments with earlier anxieties about the negative infuence of
'txtspk', the varieties of languages used in SMS messages, that researchers have
proven to be unfounded (Carrington 2005; Crystal 2008).

One fnal comment of note related to the perception that “Twitter encourages
comment without thought, refection on content – antithesis of learning” (Faculty
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Focus 2009: 8). This remark echoes some of the recent concerns about Twitter and
political awareness articulated by Paul Virilio in a recent article (2009). The
comment, like Virilio's anxiety about the speed of information in an increasingly
digital era, reveals a misunderstanding about the nature of tweets which are often
spontaneous comments quickly sketched that are refected upon at a later point or
are pointers to more developed refection (e.g. in blog posts).

Conclusion

What is clear from the four case studies is that Twitter can function as both a one-
to-many or broadcast technology (case study 1) as well a many-to-many or
participatory technology that supports the creation and development of personal
learning networks and a range of dialogic interactions (case studies 2,3 and 4).

Although, as John Traxler has argued, “to portray the demography of ICT access as
simply ‘digital immigrants’ and ‘digital natives’ (Prensky 2001) is to over-simplify a
situation where different technologies are adopted by different communities,
cultures and subcultures in different ways and at different rates. (2008: 4), numerous
recent surveys demonstrate that the mobile phone is the key youth technology
(Ipsos MORI 2007; JISC 2007; Salway et al. 2008; Kennedy et al. 2009). As case
studies 2, 3 and 4 have illustrated, Twitter is well suited to what Sherry Turkle (2008)
calls the “always on/always-on-you” techno-literate practices of young people
mediated by mobile phones and other portable devices. Moreover, because Twitter
is not yet embedded in the daily practices of young people in the same way as
Facebook, SMS or instant messaging, in using Twitter academics may avoid some
of the dangers often courted when they attempt to pedagogise vernacular
technology practices (Selwyn 2009).

However, resistance to this form of technology – and to the digitextual practices it


supports – remains strong and entrenched amongst academics. For Twitter to be
more widely adopted a number of research questions need to be addressed:

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• To what extent is Twitter embedded in the vernacular technology practices of
the 18-24 age group that remain the dominant category of students in higher
education?

• Are the relatively low levels of adoption of Twitter by the majority of this age
group as part of their vernacular technology practices detrimental to student
use of the service for the purposes of formal learning?

• Are there disciplinary differences in terms of student uptake of Twitter?

• Does the perceived relevance of social media to the courses students are
enrolled on and/or to their professional life post graduation inform their
willingness to engage with Twitter for learning?

• Does the use of 140-character posts have a detrimental effect on the


development of more conventional academic literacy practices (e.g. on
students' essay-writing skills)?

• Do students prefer the use of new and emerging technologies ('cool tools')
like Twitter over institutionally supported technologies ('school tools') like the
VLE?

• Are tools like Twitter more effective in enabling the co-construction of


academic knowledge than more established tools like VLE-based discussion
boards?

It is hope that I will be able to return to one or more of these questions in a later
study.

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