Using Twitter—But Not in the Classroom: Twitter as a Tool to Expand Classroom Conversation

David Parry

At least on the surface, it seems utterly ridiculous that a communication technology that limits conversational utterances to 140 characters might be of use in a classroom setting. Twitter, critics often (incorrectly) argue, seems to foster two of the cultural practices we often work so hard to resist in the classroom: reductive communication utterances and egotistical self-absorption. As a professor, I see it as one of my jobs to maximize the signal of discussion while limiting the noise, and a cursory examination of Twitter might suggest that it involves way too much noise to be of any pedagogical value. Indeed, I find it to be one of the social media tools with the highest pedagogical return, fostering discussion and expanding both the content and means through which students engage with classroom material.

Despite its popularity and seeming stranglehold on the microblogging market, Twitter is neither the only nor oldest service of its kind. Twitter was preceded by Dodgeball (now discontinued), Jaiku[1] and Tumblr.[2] Following Twitter’s public release in July of 2006, other more robust microblogging services have been launched, FriendFeed (bought out by Facebook (McCarthy)), Plurk[3] and Pownce (now defunct), all three of which allowed greater configuration. It is worth noting that there is an open-source microblogging service called Identi.ca[4] (an alternate to the corporately dominated landscape). For a range of reasons both technical and historical, however, Twitter has become the most popular of these social media services. Indeed, the name Twitter is in most cases used as a pseudonym for microblogging, and the word “tweet” as both a noun and a verb has already entered the English lexicon. And partly because of its popularity, Twitter is the clear choice, at least for me, when it comes to incorporating microblogging into my teaching.

There are two primary reasons I choose Twitter as my microblogging platform of choice. First is the critical mass of people already using Twitter. As is the case with most social media tools, the more people who actually use a particular service, the richer the possible range of experiences. My second, and just as crucial reason for using Twitter, is due to the way it has become part of the social media ecology, weaving its way into other services. Twitter is designed with an open Application Program Interface (API). An API allows other developers to write programs and applications which “interface” with Twitter and extend its possible uses. Having an open API makes it easy for other programmers to augment Twitter’s functionality without first having to obtain permission from Twitter, as long as the code follows the rules established by Twitter. There are several services that make it easy to upload a picture and link to it via Twitter, and a seemingly endless offering of applications (over 300, 000 registered applications) that allow one to interact with Twitter outside of the web interface and augment its features, configuring it to best serve one’s own specific purpose. Practically, this means that when using it in the classroom, it is easy to do things beyond writing short, 140 character, messages. It is important to recognize, and I have this conversation with my students when we use Twitter, that Twitter is not the only microblogging service. Contrary to popular belief, microblogging does not equal Twitter, and other services afford other pedagogical opportunities.

The first thing to realize about Twitter is that it is not a single thing; or, more specifically, treating Twitter as a single object is not very useful when it comes to gaining an understanding of it. Twitter is a communication platform. Like blogs, television, radio, or even books, Twitter is a means of communicating that can be adopted for a range of purposes. Rather than ask, “How can I use Twitter in the classroom?” it is better to ask “Is there a type of communication I want students to practice more, and can Twitter help me accomplish this goal?”

Even a brief investigation into what has been written on effectively using Twitter in the classroom yields a range of approaches and assignments. Instructors frequently use Twitter as a means to notify students by sending reminders and updates, a way to send reminders and updates in-between class sessions. Several language instructors use Twitter as a way to have students communicate with native speakers. (Teaching an Italian class? Have students follow native Italian speakers and communicate with them.) Perhaps most interestingly is the way instructors have repurposed Twitter as a creative medium, having students assume the identity of a fictional character and tweet as that person for a week, or perhaps even stage a real-time reenactment of a piece of literature. Finally, instructors have used Twitter as a means of engaging students in large lecture classrooms, much like Twitter is used at conferences now, enabling students to ask questions of the instructor. The way I use Twitter—and the basis for its pedagogical value for me—is actually in doing the reverse, in using it as a tool to foster conversation outside of the classroom.

During the early days of Twitter, the exact nature of the service, and even of microblogging more generally, was the subject of many critical pieces. Many analogies or frameworks for understanding microblogging’s space in the social media ecology were offered up. As I indicated, though, due to the various ways people use Twitter, one analogy is not likely to cover the full range of practices: Twitter is legion. But one analogy that is partially true, at least partially true of the way I like to employ Twitter pedagogically, is the Twitter-as-cocktail-party analogy. Twitter is like a continuously running massive cocktail party with innumerable conversations happening at once. One does not have to be present for the entire time, or participate in every conversation, but can check in and out of the party and move between different conversations as appropriate.

As a professor, one of my primary pedagogical goals is to get students to “join the conversation.” Regardless of the subject matter I am teaching, I see it as my job to show students what is currently being said about a particular topic, helping them to understand the field of study, the terms under which the dialogue is taking place. And, equally as important is encouraging them to use that base understanding to take ownership over the knowledge they have gained and to begin to participate in the ongoing dialogue around the subject matter. I try to stress to them that they should not just write and produce for me, an audience of one, but come to see that the conversations we have in class are part of a larger cultural discourse in which I encourage them to have an investment (hopefully past the confines of the semester, but at the very least for our 15 weeks of inquiry).

It is in obtaining this pedagogical goal that I find Twitter to be most useful, getting students to “join the conversation” or extend the conversations past the time of our two weekly meetings, or the space of the University. Twitter is a monstrous, always-on cocktail party, a conversation in which students can participate. Given the current state of higher education, I think we will increasingly find students who spend less time on campus, and more time commuting to our classes, working two or three jobs, and engaging in activities independent of the campus environment. Class time becomes just one part of their week, not necessarily its focus. The experience of attending class and then continuing the conversation outside of the classroom, either in the dorms or at the local college hangout, is becoming more the exception than the cultural norm. Twitter can become a powerful meta-tool for developing and tracking ongoing conversations related to our semester, a means of having a dialogue that includes not only those in our class but hopefully many others as well.

To be sure, there are problems with Twitter, and concerns that ought to be raised when using it in a classroom setting. First, it is important to recognize that Twitter is a commercial service. Like other commercial social media tools, the value of a company is predicated on the public freely sharing information from which a company can than harvest market value. With a projected value of $3.7 billion, it is worth pausing to ask both where this value comes from, and in what way does having students use this service contribute to its value (Efrati). Within the context of the class, though, I always raise these issues, using Twitter as a privileged example, to question the market value of social media services such as Twitter. Having students read uncritical articles from mainstream business publications that ask about the future of Twitter and its “monetization” helps to illustrate the problem of unquestionably accepting the corporatization of our social interactions. (Unlike other popular social media services, Twitter’s future revenue model is less clear.) Connected to this are concerns about Terms of Service (TOS) and Privacy. Here again, I find that these pedagogical concerns offer up a pedagogical opportunity. Unlike many other social media services, Twitter’s Terms of Service and Privacy are eminently readable. At roughly 3,000 words, contained in one page, and written in easily understood terms, Twitter’s TOS is ridiculously svelte compared to Facebook’s, which approaches 10,000 words couched in heavy legal jargon. Thus, Twitter actually affords the opportunity for students to discuss these issues in an approachable way and even compare the services TOS and privacy policies to other less transparent companies, services, and software applications. One of my pedagogical priorities in teaching social media is to have students take ownership and control over their digital presence, rather than simply default to certain services and blindly accept those company policies. Twitter often serves as a productive framing ground for this conversation.

As with any social media service or any microblogging client, Twitter certainly has limits that frame its pedagogical possibilities. One of the primary limiting factors in using Twitter as a means of communication, a conversational tool, is that compositions are limited to 140 characters. This limit is actually a technological one, born of the fact that Twitter was initially conceived of as a mobile phone microblogging application which worked by leveraging SMS. Indeed, Twitter is still used this way in many parts of the world; one does not need a Smartphone web browser to use it, and the low bandwidth requirements make it convenient even if one does not have a wireless connection.

The most significant pedagogical challenge associated with Twitter is the degree to which there is a great deal of “noise” in the channel. As with any form of media, but especially social media, it can be difficult to limit the noise in the channel while maximizing the amount of signal. In this regard, Twitter can be compared to analog television (pre-cable days) where in order to clearly view a channel, it was necessary to adjust the pair of antennas attached to the set. While initially tuning-in to a specific channel would often yield a great deal of noise with only a hint of the actual broadcast, with a small amount of effort, and often continual adjustment, it was possible to receive a clear picture. Tuning into Twitter works this way, as well. Initially all of the tweets look like noise, and it can take a significant amount of work to see the signal. One of the challenges in crafting an assignment can be to navigate this noise, the sense that there is too much information, most of it not perhaps not relevant to a particular student at a specific moment. A well thought-out assignment encourages students to pay attention to the signal within Twitter while eliminating all of the noise, helping them to learn how to manage a vast flow of information, learning to tune into various channels as their needs change.

The 140 character restriction means, however, that it is necessarily difficult to make any sort of long form argument on Twitter. Communicating in these exceptionally short phrases can lead to avoiding nuance in favor of more simplified statements. Overall, though, criticism is somewhat unwarranted; while it is true that each individual tweet can only contain 140 characters, thus placing limits on what any one individual can say, the conversation taken as a whole can often be rich and developed. The key then is to design an assignment such that Twitter becomes only one part of the conversation, rather than the entire means of discourse.

Over the past semesters, I have developed the following techniques for incorporating Twitter into the classroom in an effort to maximize its pedagogical usefulness while minimizing or even capitalizing on its limitations—maximizing the signal while trying to minimize the noise. Twitter can be overwhelming, especially to those who have never used it before, so I like to introduce it in stages. Initially, I have students create accounts and begin by following my account, their classmates’ accounts, and accounts from ten people whom they do not know. I encourage them to choose people as opposed to organizations because I want them to think about how Twitter can operate as a conversation between people, not merely a way for organizations to inform interested parties about “breaking news.” Likewise, I encourage them to follow people who are not necessarily Twitter “stars” like athletes or Hollywood personalities, but rather voices not typically represented in the media.

Finding the people to follow can often be the most difficult part of beginning to use Twitter, so I suggest several routes to discovering these voices. First students can look for people who directly relate to the course material being covered. I teach digital media studies, and many of the authors we read are also active on Twitter. This presents a particularly rich opportunity for students to contextualize those authors beyond the pieces we way have read and, as has occurred on more than one occasion, engage in conversations via Twitter with these authors. Another suggestion I make to students is to follow professionals in the field where they hope to work post-graduation. For students interested in journalism or social justice (as many of my students are), the range of voices on Twitter is again fairly diverse. Finally, I find that it is useful for students to share their list of people who others might find interesting in some way with each other. I usually use the class Wiki for this, making it part of the assignment to list one person they are following with a short explanation as to why others might want to follow that person.

Once all the students have accounts and are following a number of people, I give them the first assignment, which is simply to send at least ten tweets between the current class and the next class meeting. I place no other restrictions on the assignment other than to say they should spread them out (i.e., not send all ten five minutes before class). It is also useful at this point to demonstrate to students a few Twitter clients that leverage the Twitter API to create a more rich experience. While the web interface has vastly improved over the last two years, it is my experience that students who use Smartphone applications or clients for their laptop/desktop computers have an easier time managing the flow of information. During the following class, I discuss with students their experience using Twitter, what their general impression was, what worked and what did not. This step is crucial as it helps to demonstrate the range of experiences people are having; even the short few days of initial use yield divergent impressions. At this stage, I find students frequently see Twitter as a version of Instant Messenger or an always-on chat room, so the goal of the next part of the assignment is to get them to see the way Twitter can be used to track conversations and serve as a stepping-off point to discourse rather than an endpoint.

For the next step of the assignment, I explain to students two crucial features of Twitter. First, one of the ways information is organized on Twitter is via the use of hashtags (#). After hashtags are explained, students cannot only start to see how conversations get organized but also discover who else is talking about the subjects they are tweeting about. As part of this explanation, I introduce a hashtag for the class (usually the class number: e.g., #eng205) and indicate that any tweets containing material relevant to the class should now utilize this hashtag. On a related note, this also leads to an explanation and discussion of trending topics, which are often driven, although not always, by hashtags.

The second piece, which is just as important is to explain what David Silver refers to as the difference between thin and thick tweets, where thin tweets contain just a statement or a response (no additional information) and where thick tweets contain a brief piece of contextual text along with a link to something more developed (something that cannot be described simply in 140 characters) (Silver). The goal is to get students to see how Twitter can operate at the “meta-conversational” level, pointing to various places on the Web where more nuanced conversation is developing, that there might be a great deal more meaning in any particular tweet than the 140 characters might initially suggest. For the next part of the assignment, I tell students they need to send at least fifteen tweets, five of which must be “thick” tweets, and five of which must contain relevant hashtags. I also require them to pay attention to the trending topics. At the beginning of the following class, we talk about the experience of using Twitter this way and pick out one of the more active conversations that occurred, looking closely at the way Twitter was just “part of the conversation.”

At this point, I find that the dynamic of Twitter often takes over as students start to use it as a meta-communicative tool, tracking material relevant to class, sending links (thick tweets) and sharing some of their life casting tweets (what they are doing for the weekend or how they feel about their job at the moment). Even those lifecasting tweets have important value, as they tend to “speed the class up”—reaching that point that usually happens only late in the semester where students start to feel comfortable and familiar with each other, often creating a more productive learning environment. What is important from a pedagogical standpoint is not to let these conversations happen only on Twitter. That is, whenever there is a particularly interesting or popular conversation on Twitter, incorporating it into the classroom discussion makes Twitter part of the extended learning process instead of a distinct sphere. When done well, with a group of students who are invested in the class material, this can create an atmosphere whereby students start to understand that the issues being discussed are not limited to the confines of the semester, but rather have importance beyond the classroom.

Works Cited

Efrati, Amir. “Profit Elusive, but Twitter Gets $3.7 Billion Value.” Wall Street Journal Online. Wall Street Journal. 15 December. 2010. Web. 28 December. 2010. <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704828104576021954210929460.html>.

McCarthy, Caroline. “Facebook buys FriendFeed: Is this a big deal?” Cnet News. Cnet News. 10 August 2009. Web. 29 September 2010. <http://news.cnet.com/8301-13577_3-10306560-36.html>.

Silver, David. “The Difference Between Thin and Thick Tweets.” Silver in SF: Teaching and Learning in a City Called San Francisco. 25 February 2009. Web. 29 September 2010. <http://silverinsf.blogspot.com/2009/02/difference-between-thin-and-thick.html>.


[1] See <http://www.jaiku.com/>.

[2] See <http://tumblr.com/>.

[3] See <http://www.plurk.com/t/English#hot/>.

[4] See <http://indenti.ca/>.