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Draft version originally published: Ebner, M. (2011), Is Twitter a Tool for Mass-Education?

?, 4th International Conference on Student Mobility and ICT, Vienna, p. 1-6

Is Twitter a Tool for Mass-Education?

Martin Ebner Social Learning, Computer and Information Services Graz University of Technology Abstract: Teaching as well as attending lectures in big lectures halls is an often-usual situation in middle European universities. Bearing in mind that a huge mass of learners leads to a decrease of lecture-student interactivity during lectures, the research work aims to enhance traditional face-to-face teaching by technology. The well-known and widely used microblogging platform Twitter is used to display questions, notices and ideas on a wall just in time. Therefore a so-called TwitterWall is developed by Graz University of Technology concerning special pedagogical needs. Afterwards a first use in a big lecture is pointed out and discussed. The publication concluded that the use of Twitter in combination with specific software can help to enhance lecture interactivity in mass-education.

The last year in the research area of Technology Enhanced Learning was dominated by the discussion about how Web 2.0 technologies can be used for learning as well as teaching. Stephen Downes (Downes, 2005) introduced the term e-Learning 2.0 in 2005 and described the influence of upcoming technologies, widely known as Web 2.0 (OReilly, 2005) , in education. Since then a lot of research work has been done to think about how Weblogs (Luca & McLoughlin, 2005) (Farmer & Bartlett-Bragg, 2005), Wikis (Augar et al., 2005) (Caddick, 2006) or Podcasts (Evans, 2007) (Towned, 2005) enhance our way we teach and learn. Within the last years mainly two new aspects have become more and more important: Social Networks and m-Learning (mobile Learning). Microblogging is a format that combines both and therefore gains attention by researchers as well as teachers. Twitter1 is the world best-known microblogging platform, where anyone can post 140 signs to address a worldwide community of followers. Since the early 2007the service is growing constantly and is today, besides Facebook2 and the new founded Google+3, one of the biggest social networking applications. People are connecting with each other in a very smart way, sharing and discussing their topics, exchanging information, using it with their devices over mobile Internet access and evolved different techniques to enhance their online communication (for example the use of Hashtags). Microblogging can be seen as a new form of blogging activity and is described by Templeton (Templeton, 2008) as a small-scale form of blogging, generally made up of short, succinct messages, used by both consumers and businesses to share news, post status updates and carry on conversations. Java et. al (2007) carried out that there are four types of microbloggers (daily chatter, reporter, communicator and one who shares information) and showed that people in general like the service as well as the simplicity to communicate with the world. Based on the concept of followers (people reading my posts) and followes (people I am following) microblogging helps to connect and exchange information with nearly anyone. Finally it must be pointed out, that one of the advantages of Twitter is its data policy. Since the very first beginning Twitter as well as all other growing microblogging platforms committed to publicity. All messages in general are public, readable by anyone worldwide. Bearing in mind all the troubles with Facebook and visibility of posts to friend-of-friend the clear statement of Twitter is gathering trust and transparency. Surveys for example at Graz University of Technology pointed out that Twitter is a well-known service amongst freshmen, but not so intensively used as for example Facebook (Ebner et al, 2011). Concerning the use of Twitter Graz University of Technology (TU Graz) has a long tradition. For the first time the service was used at ED-Media conference 2008 to enhance the keynote presentation by using a twitter-wall (Ebner, 2009). This approach was improved and repeated one year later with a high increase on tweets (Ebner & Reinhardt, 2009). Beside conferences similar microblogging tools (Laconica4) were used to enhance students exercises. Instead of doing weekly activity and learning reports the tool was used to document the learning process (Ebner et al, 2010). Finally microblogging was also used successfully to collect and share information easily amongst different student groups (Ebner & Maurer, 2008). Based on all these studies we can state that the strength of microblogging is primarily: Simplicity: In general the concept of microblogging is just easy. There is just one field for editing 140 signs sent to ones community of followers.

Draft version originally published: Ebner, M. (2011), Is Twitter a Tool for Mass-Education?, 4th International Conference on Student Mobility and ICT, Vienna, p. 1-6 Mobility: Today every smart phone has a Twitter client. According to the last trend studies iPhone as well as Android phones are growing rapidly as well as mobile Internet access in West European states. Personality: Because every user can use her/his personal account and her/his personal device the administration becomes quite easy. There is no need to administrate different user accounts. Searchability: If a group is using a specific Hashtag (e.g. for an event or lecture) tweets are searchable in real-time without any definition of concrete group.

On base of these principles and facts this research work addresses a further step towards the manifold usage of Twitter: We ask: Can Twitter also be used for mass-education?

Mass Education
Mass education is not a phenomenon of our decade. The traditional face-to-face teaching situation using a big blackboard is still a much liked routine of teaching in Western Europe universities although the methods, equipment and possibilities of didactics have changed within the last ten years dramatically. Lecturers in classes with more than hundreds of students are often reduced to a PowerPoint presentation, disregarding any individual learning process or learning styles. Of course this kind of information transfer seems to be very efficient for the teacher one teacher and hundreds of students; on the other side teaching and learning is less satisfying. Furthermore the interaction between teachers and students in a huge classroom is reduced to simply questioning and answering, whereat it decreases with a growing number of students due to different reasons (Anderson et al, 2003): Feedback Lack: Teachers get little feedback from students about their teaching speed or comprehensibility of content Student apprehension: Fear of students to ask a question or to interact during the lecture because of the huge class Single speaker paradigm: The only-one speaker syndrome (learner-lecture) leads to less participation

There are different studies and publications reporting the same and expressing the necessity of improving the learner-lecturer as well as learner-learner interaction in huge classes (Bligh, 1971) (Gleason, 1986). Bearing in mind that learning is a social and in particular an active process, which proceeds by and through conversation (Motschnik-Pitrik & Holzinger, 2002) (Holzinger et al, 2008) as well as interaction (Preece et al. 2002), research efforts are well founded. Furthermore Smith (Smith, 2001) pointed out that the attention span in such lectures is only about 20 minutes and described the problem of continuous attention of students over a long time period (at least 45-90 minutes). It can be summarized that setting of the teaching method in huge classrooms must be rethought especially in three dimensions: Interactivity: Interaction between teacher-students as well as student-student must be improved Learning community: Students should see themselves as part of a big learning community, with simply the one goal to pass the lecture and learn as lot as possible Infrastructure: The infrastructure to implement new things must be given, regarding to software as well as hardware teachers and students are normally using

Information Systems for Enhancing Classroom Interactivity

According to the problems of mass education in former years some few information systems were built to overcome the interactivity lack. Different attempts have been made to increase students activities. The literature is listing Classtalk, ClassInHand, ConcertStudio, CFS (Anderson et al, 2003) and Active Classe (Ratto et al, 2003) as very first ones to allow students to ask question during the lecture using special devices. Mostly the antecessor of todays smartphones were used the Personal Digital Assistant, short PDA in combination with a stand-alone information system. Till then some research work has been done dealing with streaming technologies in combination with synchronous playbacks called AuthoringOnTheFly (Datta & Ottmann, 2001) and a tool to manage especially classroom interaction (Scheele et al, 2005). All these research works are lacking on using innovative technologies (mobile phones, WIFI or integration of Web 2.0-technologies) and some of them require additional money (for buying special devices for interaction) for example Clicker5 needs so called Clickers which work with the supported information system. At TU Graz a first prototype was programmed in 2008, which allows students to use their own mobile phone, WIFI as well as the university-wide learning management system, to comment each lecture slides by their own

Draft version originally published: Ebner, M. (2011), Is Twitter a Tool for Mass-Education?, 4th International Conference on Student Mobility and ICT, Vienna, p. 1-6 or public for discussion amongst students. Furthermore the lecturers are given a sign to interrupt their talks and answering the anonymous questions (Ebner, 2010). A similar approach can be found at Vienna University of Technology where the lectures slides can also be commented, recollected and shared from students point of view (Purgathofer & Reinhard, 2008). Bearing in mind all these experiences and how they can help to enhance classroom interaction one important step towards to classroom interaction is to make the tools easier to use. Simplicity is one of the key factors. The following crucial factors must be addressed to support interaction: Ease of Use: A tool for classroom interaction must be as easy as possible. Students should not pay attention to the usage but to the lecture content. Anonymity: The tool should hold the possibility of anonymity. Students who like to answer or ask something must be able to do that without divulging their real name Clearness: Classroom interactivity must be visible to everyone just in time. If questions, remarks or any contribution occur it must be readable to any participant Pedagogical Approach: Finally, a tool must be adaptable to a pedagogical approach and work as teachers need it for their lectures According to these facts, the next chapter introduces in the description of a tool using Twitter for enhancing classroom interaction.

TwitterWall @ TU Graz
Due to the fact that Twitter is now a tool of studentss daily life (see chapter Introduction) it was decided to program an information system dealing with microblogging. Following consequently the factors described above (ease of use, anonymity, clearness) the general approach is defined, as learners should be able to use their own Twitter accounts for active participation in the classroom. Furthermore the instructor (teacher) needs a possibility to get an overview about the whole activities in a defined time period. Furthermore there must be a possibility to filter posts in different ways. So the idea is to offer a sorted information stream in a specific time frame. If such a stream becomes displayable, teachers as well as students can interact during the lecture also online. It can be summarized that the programmed so called TwitterWall for the use in mass education following a didactical approach contains these crucial elements: Use of Twitter Accounts: Each participant must be able to contribute with his/her own personal Twitter account Wall: On the wall of a specific lecture all tweets using a predefined lecture hashtag must be displayed Filtering: Automatic filtering must be possible; predefined keywords should have their own streams Defined time frame: Due to the fact that the lecturer is within a fixed time frame, its obvious that only tweets during that period are shown Posting without Twitter account: If any of the students has no Twitter account, than there must be also a possibility to contribute URL collection: Hyperlinks posted within the time frame should also be filtered and presented in an appropriate way

On base of these facts the Department Social Learning at Graz University of Technology (DSL) began to develop such a TwitterWall. From the technical perspective a PHP-framework was combined with a usual MySQL database. The main parts were the login procedure using TwitterOAuth and the use of the provided Twitter-API (Application Programming Interface) to get all tweets with a predefined hashtag with a specific search query.

Draft version originally published: Ebner, M. (2011), Is Twitter a Tool for Mass-Education?, 4th International Conference on Student Mobility and ICT, Vienna, p. 1-6

Figure 1. Startscreen of the TwitterWall (

Figure 1 shows the main page of the TwitterWall at TU Graz ( On the left side all defined hashtags are displayed, that are ever used in the TwitterWall. If a hashtag has a red button the livesearch is not working for it and no tweets were collected via Twitter search functionality. The other way round a green button marks an ongoing lecture and Twitter-search possibility. In the middle the tweets currently collected by the system are shown and on the right the users of the written posts.

Figure 2. Administration area for teachers

Draft version originally published: Ebner, M. (2011), Is Twitter a Tool for Mass-Education?, 4th International Conference on Student Mobility and ICT, Vienna, p. 1-6 Figure 2 gives a short insight in the administration area for the lecturers. First of all a hashtag can be predefined for the forthcoming lecture to set the general filtering of the Twitter stream. All tweets containing this hashtag will be automatically stored in the database within the time frame defined by teacher. Furthermore further keywords can be defined to allow a filtering of the saved information stream. Finally the filtering can be said to be a single event (e.g. a specific lecture) or a periodically one. Figure 2 shows an overview of the TwitterWall settings for the lecture GADI 2011 with the hashtag #gadi2011and three additional keywords (#question, #notice, #idea) done in five single events.

Figure 3. Main Screen of the TwitterWall

The TwitterWall for the lecture (in our specific case GADI 2011) is shown in Figure 3. On the left side all tweets containing the predefined hashtag of the lecture are displayed this is the so-called lecture Twitter stream. On the right side the filtered tweets by the defined additional keywords (shown on the right top) are pointed out. Students with no Twitter account could contribute posts with a maximum of 140 signs by clicking on write anonym! No Twitter.

The TwitterWall was tested for the very first time in the course Social Aspects of Information TechnologyThis course is an obligatory one for students of informatics during their bachelor program and tries to educate students to have a critical view on how informatics influences the human society of today. More than 250 students attend this course every year to listen to about 17 presentations held by different experts in different fields. Topics are for example Human Computer Interaction, eHealth, Google, Weblogs as well as Virtual Worlds or the use of informatics in civil engineering. Students had to write two essays on topics of their own choice to pass the lecture or keep on weblogging as well as microblogging (Ebner & Maurer, 2009). Due to the fact of the high number of learners the lecture takes place in a big lecture hall with about 300 seats. For years now the lecturer tried to keep a discussion on the lectures topics. Students were encouraged to ask questions after the presentations as well as to give critical statements. However in recent years a typical lecture

Draft version originally published: Ebner, M. (2011), Is Twitter a Tool for Mass-Education?, 4th International Conference on Student Mobility and ICT, Vienna, p. 1-6 ends with no questions and no remarks from the auditorium. The interactivity of the lecture was so to speak not low; there was no interactivity at all. Therefore the lecturer decided to use the TwitterWall to enhance the lecture interactivity. Beside the predefined hasthag #gadi2011 following keywords were announced: #question: If any question occurs during the lecture, learners can just asked it in time. #notice: If anything concerning the lecture should be saved (for example a good statement) learners should tweet it and in that way get a remarkable shareable package of notices in the end of the lecture. #idea: If anyone has just a good idea, this keyword can be used http: this is the stream of all URLs posted during the defined time period

So the didactical concept of the TwitterWall in that case was that students can tweet their questions just in time and anonymously (because of the Twitter Avatar) to the wall. In the end of each talk all questions were displayed and shown via the projector to the whole auditorium. Furthermore the collection of notices is a useful resource of the lecture outcome.

Discussion and Conclusion

After three months of using the TwitterWall for the lecture Social Aspects of Information Technology it can be pointed out that on average after each talk three questions were asked via Twitter and about 5 statements each presentation. Summed up this means an interactivity of more than 40 questions and 60 notices. If this result is compared to former years, lecturers were very satisfied und mentioned that the tool worked successfully concerning their needs. Due to the fact that the possibility to tweet without an account was implemented afterwards all asked questions come from the Twitter API. Short interviews with students pointed out that they think the tool is quite useful for asking questions and it addresses also the ease of use concept. Furthermore they find it a quick and nice possibility to store remarks and important statements. Some learners mentioned that they would need a functionality to save the filtered tweets. It can be summarized that the TwitterWall in general addressed the needs of more interactivity in masseducation. The possibility to ask questions in an anonymous way is a first and important step into the right direction, but in future the possibility to share remarks, statements and online resources must be also used in a more accurate way. Students should also be able to rate the content and to suggest it to their friends and colleagues. Furthermore for teachers a deeper integration to their lecture activities should be carried out as well as a good didactical concept. Finally it can pointed out that using a TwitterWall with some especially developed educational functionalities will help to increase classroom interaction for high numbers of learners and that todays devices are an appropriate hardware to do so.

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