Twitter in Higher Education

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

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

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-toface 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.


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.


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 usergenerated 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 ( make this process easy by allowing

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

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.

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 ( and browser-based alternatives like TwitIQ ( 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 ELearning 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 ( 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. and audio ( 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

application, also only available to iPhone users, is Audioboo ( which allows users to upload a picture as well as an audio fle. Another popular category of Twitter application are polling tools. Twtpoll (, PollDaddy ( and PollEverywhere ( 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 (, 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

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 ( 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 ( 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.


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 modulespecifc 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

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 ( as well as social networking sites like Facebook ( 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 inclass and well as post-lecture comments and refections. In spite of Dr Rankin's reservations about the appropriateness of 140 character tweets to undergraduatelevel discussion, the Twitter-enabled interactions support recent claims that “despite a 'noisy' environment and an interface that is not especially conducive to

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 datageneration 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 ( 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

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

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

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).

What is clear from the four case studies is that Twitter can function as both a oneto-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:


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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