Twitter in higher education

Barack Obama @ Twitter
Barack Obama @ Twitter
Originally uploaded by Comicbase

There has been a lot of discussion in the office recently about micro-blogging,twitter in particular, and its place within education. This discussion was started after I reported back to the team about my experiences at the at the CETIS / Eduserv VW2009. While I’ve been following the use of micro-blogging for some time this event was my first opportunity to be in a room where I could follow the live ‘tweets’ from other delegates including some of the presenters (this was only made possible by the organisers specifying a tag which delegates could choose to include in their tweets to make tracking easier).

It was very intrigued to see how various people used twitter. Firstly there were the conference organisers tirelessly bashing away to provide a minute-by-minute summary of what was being said (to such a degree that one of them was frozen out of twitter for making too many posts in one hour). Then there were the presenters, some who bravely listened in to the conference tweets as they delivered their presentations while others posted tongue in cheek threats to the ‘twittering’ audience to behave during their slot. Finally there was the audience providing their immediate thoughts and reflections. As you will see from the cevw09 tagged tweets the discussion has also continued beyond the event.

Back in the office we discussed how twitter might be used in a lecture environment. The initial model I suggested was for students to use twitter to post questions tagged with a unique code during a lecture. The lecturer could then follow these in real-time choosing whether to verbally respond there and then or follow-up after the class. Having a tagged twitter feed could also be used as a communication channel outside the classroom.

It’s fair to say opinion was divided. The biggest concern was it would be too big a distraction not only for those ‘tweeting’ but also the people around them. Its true to say at the VW2009 event there were times when I was more interested in what was going on in twitter, I would however argue that this was not because twitter was a distraction but because the presentation was so poor that I was looking for any distraction!

There is of course an entirely separate issues of the physical distraction of students typing during the class (very recently I was observing a 1st year lecture which was stopped by the lecturer until all laptops were put away). With the increasing affordability of this type of technology it’s inevitable that laptop usage in class will increase. Will we see the segregation of classes into laptop and non-laptop areas? I hope not, but it is hard to see what the solution is.

A better model for twitter integration was suggested which I quite like. This would involve defined periods when students were encouraged to ‘tweet’. For example, 20 minutes in you say to the students “for the next 3 minutes discuss with your neighbour the issues raised so far (or have a specific question you want them to answer). Please feel free to ‘tweet’ your thoughts or questions using the tag #xxxx”. The lecturer could then choose to take a couple of minutes to respond there and then or follow up after the class.

The above model is probably still not without its issues but is there a role for micro-blogging like twitter in education? Yes, but it won’t be for everyone. There are probably two broad strands. There will be students who already use twitter, or similar, and I’m sure as well as organising their social life or telling the world what soup they just ate there will be some who us it in their studies. It might be to co-ordinate projects, looking for support/advice from their friends, sharing their inspirations at the end of the day it will be just part of their personal learning environment.

The second strand will be led by the e-learning champions. There are probably a number of factors to consider to maximise the benefits of micro-blogging. The golden rule is to make sure usage is appropriate. I don’t believe micro-blogging is for everyone and I see it as more of a supplemental tool. I would hate to see a classroom of students being forced to ‘twit’ (possibly with the exception of journalism students for which twitter is becoming an essential tool). Probably the ultimate challenge continues to be that with the disaggregation of the tools students choose to support learning how does the institution stay engaged.

If you want to get some more ideas on how to use micro-blogging in education Professor David Parry has an interesting post on twitter for academia. Another great post by Alan Lew on Twitter Tweets for Higher Education (posted in August 2007! Now that’s what I call early adopter) contains some good resources including Educause’s 7 things you should know about twitter.

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