Twitter is one of those pieces of technology that people either love or hate. For the haters, it seems like a superfluous, narcissistic, even petty platform through which people who think they are more important than they really are share their most intimate details with the world. For those who love the medium, it is a way of filtering and digesting a vast world of digital information quickly and efficiently. Some even see it as a possible vehicle for changing the world. Others have begun using Twitter in education with positive results. A recent report from The Education Forum, Twitteracy: Tweeting as a New Literacy Practice, sheds some light on the debate over whether Twitter is a major time waster or a valuable educational tool for developing technological literacy. Is Twitter, with its 140 character limit really a tool that can make education better? If so, how?
Twitteracy Findings, No Surprise
Literacy as a general concept has changed dramatically in the Information Age. What formerly was limited to being able to read, write, and decode various texts, has expanded to encompass a wide array of the fundamental skills, knowledge, and abilities needed to be successful participants in our fast-paced, hi-tech world. Given the recent expansion of our understanding of what literacy is, it is not surprising that research has begun to emerge that considers Twitter as a new form of literacy. Greenhow and Gleason’s 2012 article is a prime example that presents many ways in which Twitter can be used in support of higher education. Here’s what they found:
- Increasing student motivation and engagement with course content – Through the use of Twitter in and outside of the classroom, students can be more engaged in short term activities that help keep them progressing toward small, manageable goals that are more tangible than long-term, abstract objectives.
- Increase student-to-student interactions – Twitter can function as a vehicle for both formal and informal student interactions which can help to build and maintain a learning community whose influence can stretch beyond the confines of the classroom or even the duration of the course itself.
- Increase student-instructor interactions – Contrary to popular belief, professors do not live in their offices and thus are not always available for their students. Faculty use of Twitter can increase their availability and provide a quick and informal way for students to ask questions or stay linked in with their professors. The informal nature of the medium and its familiarity to many students may make it a more comfortable way to interact with faculty members who many students incorrectly feel don’t have the time or inclination to talk to them.
- As a platform for collaborative meaning making – All social media sites are good tools for helping students to engage in a collaborative meaning making process with each other and their professors. Twitter allows information to be quickly shared, considered, and reshared in a process that can rapidly lead to new insights and understandings.
- Allows students to develop 21st Century skills – The very act of engaging in digitally mediated communications helps to develop useful skills that will be needed in the work world after graduation. The collaboration and teamwork skills that Twitter can support are also valuable in a hyper-connected work world where much of the daily communication may happen virtually.
- Provide a low barrier to publishing and self-expression – The informal writing necessitated by working within the constraints of Twitter helps to remove many of the barriers to contributing to academic discussions that may make many students feel excluded. This does not represent a dumbing down of the content, but rather a way to make students think efficiently and express themselves clearly while still feeling that they understand the requirements of participation in a conversation.
- Encourages academic risk taking – The informal nature of the medium and the seemingly temporary nature of it, encourages students to share freely and to express themselves more candidly than may happen in a face-to-face classroom environment where all eyes are on them should they choose to speak.
These are some of the many ways that Twitter is being considered as a new form of literacy and which may prove beneficial to learning at all levels, not just in higher education.
Putting Twitter to Work for You
One of the hidden reasons for so much resistance to the concept of using Twitter for education is a lack of understanding of the tool itself, and consequently an inability to envision how it could be used in the classroom. Here are a few pointers for getting started with Twitter and a couple simple ways to use it to boost your classroom participation and student engagement.
The best way to understand how any hi-tech tool could benefit your students is to begin using it yourself. The learning curve on Twitter is actually quite shallow so the first thing you should do is go to Twitter.com and sign up for an account. Once you have done that you will want to find a few people to follow. I would suggest starting with your favorite news personality, sports team, political figure, celebrity, TV show, or other individuals or organizations that you are interested in knowing more about.
Next, you will want to check your Twitter stream once or twice a day to see if anything interesting has been posted. If it has, click on the link provided and read the article. If nothing of interest has been written, get on with your day. This should take you no more than 5-10 minutes a day, unless you find things you want to read. You will find that, with a little cultivation, Twitter is a great source for news and information that is easy to scan through in order to decide what to read more about.
That is one very simple use of Twitter for your students as well. Require them to follow several people relevant to what they are studying and find relevant news items that inform the classroom discussion. It really is as easy as that.
A second quick use of Twitter is to have student submit reading discussion questions prior to class that you can filter through and answer as part of the normal classroom process. Additionally, you can ask students if they have portable devices that can allow them to Tweet in class. If they do, have them submit their questions via Twitter during the session and answer them in real time. This can allow you to not have your train of thought interrupted by questions, but still have them asked and answered.
Once you have mastered these, check out these 60 Inspiring Examples of Twitter in the Classroom for further resources and motivation. If you are worried about disruptions caused by encouraging your students to use their portable devices in class, don’t be. Learn to embrace disruptive devices and you will all benefit from the use of these powerful digital technologies in education.