Twitter in the College Classroom: Engaging Students 140 Characters at a Time

If it seems like everyone is tweeting these days, it’s not just your imagination.

In 2007 Twitter users, as a whole, made about 5,000 tweets a day. By 2008 the number had increased to 300,000 per day, before growing to 2.5 million per day in January 2009. Just one year later, in January 2010, the figure jumped to 50 million tweets per day.

I think that is what people mean by the phrase “hockey stick growth.”

Despite its rapid growth, however, Twitter can be a bit puzzling to someone on the outside looking in. With its quirky lingo, written (and unwritten) rules, and very real potential for being a classroom distraction, some instructors feel Twitter is a can of worms that’s better left unopened. And yet, as an educator, you can’t help but be curious to see what all the fuss is about, not to mention the desire to add something new to your student engagement toolbox.

In an effort to demystify the Twitter universe for faculty considering leveraging the power of the micro-blogging platform in the classroom, Kerry Ramsay, a professor at Loyalist College, presented a seminar on Using Twitter to Enhance Collaborative Learning.

After covering the basic terminology, Ramsay, who has applied social media in a variety of contexts to help create a collaborative learning environment for her post-graduate students, explained why Twitter makes sense in the college classroom, including how it can be used for research, networking, and to maximize classroom connections.

One of the most common uses for Twitter in the classroom is as a discussion tool, particularly in large classes where it’s often hard to get students to participate. Ramsay notes that Twitter won’t replace classroom discussions, but rather enhance them by establishing a safe format for both introverted and extroverted students to share their opinions. For example, an instructor could ask students to summarize key points of a recent reading, and use the tweets as a starting point for discussion.

In some cases, instructors may chose to have students tweet comments or questions during a lecture. Known as backchanneling, this requires a willingness on the part of the instructor to give up some control to the students who now have an easy way to share their opinions as well as offer links to supporting information in real time. In order to maximize the power of the backchannel, Ramsay recommends having a TA monitor the live Twitter stream, and respond in a timely manner. You also will need to create a hashtag for the class to use.

Despite the many benefits of using Twitter to enhance student engagement and collaboration, there are challenges as well, including:

  • Keeping students focused on the topic
  • Learning how to write clear, concise tweets within the 140-character limit
  • Ensuring comments remain constructive and professional

“Learning how to use Twitter can be a humbling experience, and it takes a little time to get comfortable with it, but don’t give up,” Ramsay says. “Ask a colleague for help, practice with your friends and family, and before you know it you’ll have the confidence to use it in the classroom.”

To see a YouTube video on how one professor uses Twitter in the classroom, go here »