Using Twitter in Higher Education

This academic year, I ran a pilot study exploring the use of social networks in post-graduate teaching. This post provides a brief overview of the project and of the main findings, as recently presented at the Brookes-Burgundy’s 3rd joint research conference. This was a small study – it ran over a very limited time and the data was gathered from a very small population.

Last year, I decided to add a social media dimension to the post-graduate modules that I teach. Why? Two reasons, really.

First, it seems odd to me that today’s students are taught in pretty much the same away I was taught 20 years ago. Essentially, we meet weekly for lectures, with some readings and tasks to complete in between. For some time now, I have been following some discussion threads and writings about ways of extending learning beyond the classroom – and social networks are mentioned over and over again.

Second, whenever I ask someone in the industry what is the single thing that our students ought to do to improve their employability, the answer is ‘digital presence’. Invariably. Having a digital presence is important because:
- It shows recruiters that the student has the skills that they need – for instance, 95% of Nokia’s recruits are now identified through social media
- It is a major advantage in the interview process as discussed by Mark Schaefer here.

The next step was to choose the platform.

Upon consideration of the relative advantages and drawbacks of various social network platforms, I settled on Twitter. This was to be used in addition to the standard Virtual Learning Environment (VLE).

At the start of the semester, I administered a short survey to obtain an overview of the students’ attitudes to the VLE and Twitter, and to assess their familiarity with the technology.

The survey was inspired by the Technology Acceptance Model (TAM). This framework is used to predict the acceptability of a technological tool, and identify any modifications that need to be made.

The results of the survey were very encouraging. Overwhelmingly, students had very positive perceptions of the technology’s ease of use and usefulness. They also had very positive attitudes towards both the VLE and Twitter. So, according to TAM, the experience should proceed smoothly.

One (big) caveat though – the vast majority of students were not using Twitter when the semester started. While some had an account, less 5% actually used it consistently.

Throughout the semester, I used Twitter, alongside the VLE, to share links to news articles, opinion pieces or other multimedia resources related to the topics discussed in the modules.

Surprisingly (for me, at least – given the results of the survey), there was very limited reaction to the module postings. By and large, the students did not reply or react in a tangible, visible way to the Twitter posts. Though, neither did they react to the content on VLE (which was consistent with behaviour in previous editions of the modules).

At the end of the modules, I ran the survey again but this time I included a small number of open-ended questions to capture the students’ opinions and suggestions.

While the students still reported very positive attitudes towards Twitter, these were now at lower levels than those reported at the start of the semester. Though, it must be repeated that I am talking about a short pilot study and a small number of responses, only.

On a more positive note, there was some student activity on Twitter in a broad sense. So, if the goal was to get students to establish a digital presence, it worked… for some!

The comments from the second survey help understand the lack of enthusiasm for Twitter.

Students could see the benefits of using social media as part of their development as digital marketers (e.g. to engage in online discussions with social media experts). Yet, opinions were divided regarding its role in the classroom: some students appreciated its inclusion, others felt that it was a distraction from what should be, in essence, a face to face interaction.

Mostly, they were not familiar with the platform. The fact that Twitter was used for one module, only, meant that some did not have enough incentive to invest time and attention to learn how to use it.

There were also some questions regarding the suitability of the platform for the needs of module delivery – i.e., the extent to which 140 characters can facilitate discussion and sharing, and best position the students’ in the eyes of potential recruiters.

These findings suggest that there is room for using social media in postgraduate education, though Twitter may not be the best tool.

If educators do decide to use Twitter, it is advisable to provide training and/or to direct students to good sources of information about the practical aspects of the platform as well as its potential in personal branding and career development – one such source is, in my opinion, the book The Tao of Twitter.

Educators also need to consider what tools are used in other modules and, if possible, consider initiatives at programme level, rather than for specific modules.

Recent user statistics suggest that Twitter is becoming increasingly popular among youth. Hence, some of the challenges faced in this pilot may cease to exist – particularly the ones regarding familiarity. Still, it needs to be carefully considered whether this is the most suitable platform for educational purposes.

Did these results surprise you?

As an educator, an employer or someone in the classroom, what are your thoughts on the use of Twitter in education?

4 thoughts on “Using Twitter in Higher Education

  1. It seems to me that Twitter has certain properties which might need to be kept in mind when using it as part of an educational experience. Some of these features could really enhance its impact, though others could probably impede. It’s a personal view, and a non-specialist one, but here are my threeThe Fame GamePeople go to Twitter to read other people’s messages because it’s a way to “connect” to someone they admire, or perhaps their peer group are interested in (i.e. they’re a fan) in a way that was not easily done before (celebrity used to be a very distant thing). In this case, if the person in question writes or links to anything inherently interested, then it’s a bonus, but they’d probably follow them whatever.The ultimate social radarAnother reason for following someone is that it’s a way to get an early “heads up” on what’s going on, on news. Journalists and politicins can be interesting to follow because they give the sense (sometimes correctly) of being ahead of the mainstream news media, or similar networks. If you can build a reputation for advanced notice, or leaks, or juicy bits of information, then Twitter can really work well. Spats are fought, agendas defined, secrets reveled, and so on….The fact that it’s so easy to pass this on via re-Tweets, and easy to hunt for in trending via hash-tags, makes this a powerful medium (in short spikes) for when things are changing rapidly. Of course, because it’s social, it can also become a self-fulfilling prophecy (i.e. people anticipate what Twitter might say to the point that this anticipation becomes the trend and begets the news). Make Me a StarThirdly, people might use Twitter to broadcast their own thoughts, usually as a means to building their own personal brand or reputation. It feels to me that this “rags to riches” potential (a kind of ultimate online lottery) is what a lot of people on Twitter secretly want, but because the population is so large they have virtually (no pun intended) chance of attaining. But the need to build up a following, to have influence, to achieve fame – these are fairly modern socially desirable states.For education, I think your experiment with Twitter was very worthwhile and you should keep it up. Sharing links and interesting bits of information is certainly a technical feature of Twitter, but given that you report little real take up I would wonder which of the above types of reason for using or not using Twitter came into play with your students. If the students, for example, had been given certain aspects of their course only via Twitter, would that have exploited the second point above (assuming that this point is a valid one)?

  2. I was not too keen to use FB because (among other reasons) it is a personal space (and I did not want to invade it), it does not add to the discussion facility of the VLE (and, so, it had limited ‘learn’ value) and the interactions would be private (and, thus, not beneficial from the point of view of ‘earn’).But… you gave me a great idea, Arjan! Rather than use Twitter simply to share content, I can make it part of an exercise. Maybe an hypothetical scenario, some groups are the customer, others the marketer and have them consider how they would use the various SM tools (not just Twitter but also FB, Pinterest, blogs, etc) to deal with service failure, share good experiences and so on.I am very happy to share this on OpenIDEO – do you want to let me know what you have in mind? Maybe by e-mail

    • Hey Ana, I understand the FB thing. However, what I see happening there, is that people mix purposes there more and more. Especially with so-called private groups.
      What I find interesting, especially in a marketing course, is the choice between your own virtual space (in this case the VLE) and using something that’s already there. Sometimes it simply works better to use what’s already there, and where people are already on. Because people who are on FB, probably have integrated the use of it in their daily lives/routines, it’s easier to reach them there. You don’t have to convince them to make another platform part of their daily routine. If community building is part of the course, these are important factors to consider for marketeers.

      About the OpenIDEO thing, I’ll send you an email.

  3. Super interesting research, Ana. And a good starting point for further exploration. What I’ve seen in the years I’m using social networks, is that somehow the landscape develops into specialist functions. For some ways of interacting Twitter is better suited than facebook, and vice-versa. And then there are the other networks that can be used. Many out of the box.I think that if you run another experiment/research, you might want to consider what function which network fulfills for you. Personally, I don’t like Facebook groups, but the nature of the tool gives easier options for longer messages and threaded discussions. Twitter is good for sharing of information, and can work very well for focused discussion. But people need to be aware of and familiar with it. So, it could be worth to bring a twitter feed (a search for the course-code hashtag) into the classroom, and have some hours during the days there is no class dedicated for ‘open chat’. For example: every day between 6 and 7 pm, you answer questions about the coursework. Questions that have been posted earlier. This can than easily evolve into a more realtime chat.But what I think is also important, is to see how Facebook is more of a marketing tool, and Twitter might work better in customer service activity. This distinction you could also bring into the use of these networks for a course.Another challenge with the specialist functions, is that this might also mean that you need to facilitate discussion on multiple platforms. A facebook group in which people are free to share links can get very messy very quickly. And it can be hard to keep up.Personally, I like tools such as Yammer very much. But the challenge there is that people need to get on there first. That can be prohibitive.Well, many thoughts, and I hope my ramblings make a bit of sense. Very, very interesting topic. If you have any time, it would be wonderful if you can share some of this in the new OpenIDEO challenge…

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