Using Twitter in university learning

In recent months I’ve been using Twitter as part of teaching-and-learning in the University of Westminster courses that I am involved in – and found it to be really useful, stimulating and rewarding.

I’m not the first to do it, of course – I see there are whole ‘guides’ to using Twitter within teaching available online, such as this one – but this blog post offers a few of my own reflections.

Having a hashtag for each course (or ‘module,’ or whatever you call a 12-week blocks of learning) means that the learning experience is extended beyond the classroom, in a way which is still visible and shareable with the rest of the class and their tutor.

In the courses ‘Media and Society’ (where I do a set of lectures, last autumn) and ‘Creativity’ (which I run, this spring) we’ve had hundreds of tweets using the assigned hashtag. Some of these have provided thoughtful comments on the lectures, readings, and online videos (I tend to assign a bit of watching as well as reading). Some others have asked interesting questions. And some have made jokey comments about this or that – all of which is fine. I think it’s just lovely to see students engaging with the subject beyond just turning up to lectures and seminars, making the odd verbal point, and handing in an essay.

Of course there have been the means to do this kind of thing for ages – notably online ‘discussion boards’ where students were meant to log in and stage some kind of performed debate, because you’d told them to. That never really worked for me. Or my students.

Part of the problem there, I think, was that those spaces were cut off from anything else that you might normally do, and you had to remember to go to them and log in and ‘participate’, but it tended to feel false and forced and artificial. Having to log in to a system seems like a trivial hurdle, but I think it was significant. Whereas on Twitter, the conversation about a class assignment can just weave in with the other Twitter conversations that students and tutors might be having anyway, and it seems much more natural.

For university tutors (or other people in some similar kind of role) who are thinking about using Twitter in this kind of way, here are my top three suggestions for how to make it work:

1. Keep going on about it

If you keep ‘reminding’ students about the Twitter conversation and the hashtag, and positively highlighting interesting tweets and the overall value of the whole conversation, that keeps things going. This may be obvious. But is true.

2. Set a task each week

Each week I set a bit of Twitter homework – usually to watch a particular YouTube video and Tweet a comment or question – to keep a baseline of activity and conversation going. That works.

3. Keep responding and interacting

Another obvious bit of Twitter etiquette, but as the person who initiated the conversation, you have to take an active interest in what happens, and respond to points and questions.

So, that was quite a straightforward list!

One potential stumbling block was that I seemed to be asking students to use their Twitter account for a particular purpose. Now, I recognise that they may already enjoy using their Twitter account for other purposes already and might not want university-related messages to appear in the stream of tweets which can be seen by their followers. Therefore, I point out that they could open a different Twitter account specially. (They have to link it to a different email address, but most of us have more than one these days – Google mail, university email, etc – and you don’t actually need to regularly access the one connected to the secondary Twitter account). However, I tend to emphasise that personally I think it’s nice if their uni tweets are just part of their normal Twitter account. But this is obviously optional.

Overall, I’d say that Twitter is a much better online add-on to a course than anything I’ve tried before (which, incidentally, has included setting up a whole dedicated social network for a course on Ning … but that’s far from the lightweight, easy-to-do ideal). And that’s not even what it was invented for. Which is, I suppose, part of what makes it effective.

Further reading: Having written the above, I did a quick web search and found some far superior articles about using Twitter in the classroom, such as 60 Inspiring Examples of Twitter in the Classroom, which has a correct and self-explanatory title.

7 Comments

  1. I too found Twitter worked really well on programmes I taught at Birkbeck (http://theinternationale.com/cloudteaching). I agree that the ease of use and low barriers to entry were key. Also the informality and mobility. One thing I did was start each lecture off with a look at the hashtags and feeds to see what ‘we’ had all been doing.

  2. I did not get as many tweets as I hoped with a hash tag for a module I run at Winchester School of Art but tips here are good. I had weeky blog tasks so blogging and twitting for first year Art students may have been a stretch! However funner was half way through my tag that I thought was very unique got taken over by some music event in another country !! So my tip is make tag super unique.

    • Ha! Thanks Adam. Yes, I think if my students had to blog as well, we would have had fewer tweets. Especially since university study often doesn’t involve weekly ‘homework’ (down our way anyway). Keeping it to one task, rather than two somewhat-similar things to do, is probably best. Many thanks.

  3. Just a quickie on the idea of opening multiple twitter accounts (I agree it’s not the best idea but…).

    If they want to create multiple twitter accounts and they have gmail they can use the gmail alt trick to set things up: http://theplan.co.uk/the-one-email-address-many-alts-google-trick/

  4. K8Nash:

    Hi David, thanks for this. I’m thinking of trying live tweeting as a way of getting first year broadcast journalism students into a habit of a) watching the news and b) starting to engage with it on different levels. I’m planning two bulletins a week where we try to stimulate a live discussion around the news – not sure how it will go. But I wonder whether you know any research on using Twitter for this purpose? Thanks!!

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