Social Networking | Viewpoint

Using Twitter To Support Learning

Twitter has become ubiquitous and many educators use it or a similar micro blogging technology to maintain connection with students in terms of announcements, information flow, and assignment updates.

While some instructors have experienced success in community building and numerous articles detailing the more common uses of the platform are available online, a couple core questions have emerged.

Can Twitter help support and facilitate the instructional process itself? If so, how, and in what ways can instructors successfully integrate the technology with existing courses?

Facilitating Instruction
Direct and effective communication is crucial to good instruction, and Twitter can help provide that. But can it accommodate the exchange of ideas, collaborative input of participants, or academic dialogue of an educational setting? In order for this to happen the focus has to move away from being entirely on oneself and uni-directed flow, and toward the larger community. This in itself is a helpful instructional shift and has both positive and negative consequences for students, as it can both stimulate and intimidate the user. In terms of instruction, while teachers are confined to firewalled networks and classes are still thought of as individual units, locking profiles is safer. The problem then, however, is that the very potential of the technology is minimized just as the potential of secured blogs is diminished by limiting access. Undoubtedly, students can still benefit from experiencing the effect of ongoing connection to topics and information flow, but the wider significance of explorative learning is curtailed.

As Chris Betcher, a teacher from Sydney wrote in his blog, we must "remember that Twitter is about 'small pieces loosely joined,' which is really how the world works in real life. In real life, it is the tiny, seemingly insignificant social connections that so often direct our lives in some surprisingly major ways."

And it is this very essence of the technology that challenges existing course norms and the need many instructors seem to still have of controlling both student input and output during the course path. In terms of intentionality and learner autonomy, a great advantage is that as a Twitter user, you can choose who you follow, which means that you can not only follow those who agree with you but also those who do not and who can present an opposing position to your own. Thus, it is a kind of debating tool, or at the very least, a forming tool for opinions and ideas. That is, while the technology is not a discussion tool nor an open blog or wiki, it does still provide students with the opportunity to participate in an authentic and published environment that retains all of the responsibilities of any openly published work. This has incredible impact on students provided the comments move away from information flow to actual academic thought, although this can also intimidate students.

While most current younger-aged students may seem used to the idea of social networking tools and unconfined in their desire or ability to share personal details, when it comes to academic thought, students can still demonstrate reserve and lack of confidence. Therefore, the idea that their academic thoughts and comments will be read by a class of peers means that they will likely take extra care to make sure those comments are relevant and helpful to the whole community.

Distributed Dialogue
The main advantage of the technology is that true collaborative knowledge building can take place. That is, academic dialogue without the bias of class groups or course constraints. Students can truly run with an idea by tweeting it along with a discursive source. That tweet can then be followed and shared and built upon to continue the dialogue without constraint.

The challenge to the instructor is not to manage this process, but to assess it and support it and to have checkpoints and due dates that must be met along with grade distribution according to effort and outcome. While we facilitate this kind of discussion in class, micro blogging can actually help realize the distributed nature of open and non-biased dialogue. By doing so, instructors can use the technology to help facilitate the learning process beyond the easily recognizable benefits of wider communication.

Additionally, since tweets must be efficient and focused, which helps organize thinking and condense larger concepts into manageable segments, the technology can also be used to develop higher order thinking skills such as analysis and summary.

Currently, Twitter applications include tools for collaboration in mixed media, picture and video sharing, group sharing (which introduces cooperative aspects of the technology), and polling for quick surveys and data gathering. All of these can enrich the exchange of ideas and increase the potential of thought sharing and concept building.

Constant Connection
For many, the idea of continuous connection and flow may sound dreadful. However, there is much for teachers to gain in terms of the kind of academic community building that can be facilitated in a micro blog environment. Unlike asynchronous tools that teachers enjoy exactly because they can schedule their time for responses around their schedules, micro blogging presents a different reality. Although it is continuous, one can determine when the flow will start for them. This means there are many more posts to read and the currency of tweets move much faster. So, what is the benefit?

Synchronous environments are usually more socially connecting than asynchronous environments. With effective guidance, micro blogs like Twitter can provide ongoing connection at any time and the social connection can move toward academic connection. That means the potential for developing more dynamic learning communities is possible through micro blogging. As with any other technology, instructors should give themselves time to understand and appreciate the culture of the micro blog before truly analyzing its full benefit to the teaching and learning environment.

I would, then, suggest the following steps:

  • Begin tweeting on your own time and possibly for your own professional benefit by following educators in your field;
  • Invite your class to tweet with you through one course, keeping your focus only on communication flow (announcements, class summaries, etc.) and assignment ideas;
  • As you are experiencing these two environments, write down the similarities and differences. From this comparison, suggest to yourself what aspects of each might benefit your next group of students;
  • Looking at the learning outcomes of your next course, find one or two that could be supported using Twitter or a similar service. Write this into your course syllabus as a pilot and invite the students to provide input based on a rubric you have created that includes the learning outcomes you are targeting specifically.

Next, think through the benefit of actual knowledge building that goes beyond the immediate constraints of your course. What would happen if your students actually started to build new knowledge? What benefit would there be to them and to their learning? How can you integrate that exercise into your experience with them? Next, transfer that to the micro blog environment. Begin the process, facilitate it with a framework of completion dates and criteria for success, and analyze how effectively the tool helped the students in the process.

In my experience as an instructor, I've found that the more students are empowered to learn, the more they will risk and venture beyond the immediate. This kind of gradual approach will help you to become more accustomed to the technology, the culture, and the application to teaching and learning without feeling as if you are risking your students' learning in the process.

The ongoing challenge of technology
A few questions emerge from this kind of discussion:
  • Is it necessary to use every new technology in a teaching and learning environment;
  • Are teachers always going to be on a learning curve with new technology; and
  • Is it ever acceptable to not pursue the latest tools and integrate them into one's teaching methodology?

The answer to each question rests on how much the technology has changed our students' perception of their world. For example, when we consider the changes new technology has made and continues to make on social networking, communication, and media production, we realize that students enter our classes with established perceptions. Even students who may not have used certain technologies at home or school are interested in learning their use because it is so much a part of their society. Additionally, as communication is a foundation stone of teaching and learning and the conduit for clear understanding, tools that affect those systems must become integrated into any teaching and learning environment. Our challenge as teachers and college faculty is to not simply repeat the regular social norms of use but push ahead and see how these can be modified and applied to benefit instruction.

Twitter or any other micro blogging software can provide an interesting environment for teachers to explore with students and integrate into their teaching methodology. The challenge remains to keep current with newer technological applications and increase awareness of how they are affecting the students with whom we work. Rather than worry about losing academic rigor, think through how these technologies can support the learning outcomes and even facilitate their achievement with students. Rather than seeing yourself as a teacher who must determine every process of learning, begin experimenting with technology and allow some of the processes to be facilitated simply by providing an environment of immediacy, connectivity, and accessibility for your students--one in which you continue to guide and instruct but also one in which students can allow their own inquiry to lead the way.

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About the Author

Ruth Reynard, Ph.D., is the executive director of academic programs and faculty at Daymar Colleges Group and an education consultant. She can be reached at ruthreynard@gmail.com.

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