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Finding a Place for Twitter in Higher Education

By Hend Suliman Al-Khalifa / May 2010

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As one of the hottest web 2.0 technologies, Twitter has recently flourished in its number of registered users. Amazingly, nearly 73 percent of all Twitter users have joined the service in the first five months of 2009. This Twitter trend can and should be utilized to benefit education.

As has been reported previously in several case studies and articles presented in eLearn Magazine ("Twitter in Academia", "Capture the Backchannel", "Learn from Rogue Tweeters"), Twitter has various educational uses in both developing countries and more developed ones. But the real tipping point for Twitter in education will only come if teachers can manage to add Twitter to their arsenal of teaching tools. The question is can they do it?

The question of whether teachers could and would adopt Twitter was raised in a recent survey called "Twitter in Higher Education: Usage Habits and Trends of Today's College Faculty," launched by the Faculty Focus team in July 2009.

The survey covered nearly 2,000 higher education professionals in the United States. The questions varied between personal opinions (what, how, and why) and inquiries about potential uses of Twitter for education. The demographics of the sample included professors, online instructors, academic leaders, and individuals.

Alarmingly, the survey results show that more than half the surveyed faculty members think Twitter has no future in academia or potential use in higher education!

These same faculty members criticized Twitter for being a waste of time and contributing to the poor writing habits of students. Another problem with Twitter, they reported, is that it comes with some dicey privacy and security issues.

Regardless of the criticism, Twitter's remarkable growth among the millennium generation should be enough to secure its place as a teaching tool in higher education. Reading through comments that respondents wrote in response to open-ended questions in the Faculty Focus portion of the survey, it's clear that Twitter can indeed be used to solve some of the most pressing issues higher education professional faces, such as:

  • collaboration (between colleagues, in group meetings)
  • communication
    • between teacher and student, student and student, teacher and parents
    • as a conference backchannel
    • for job posting
    • to circulate department news
  • tools
    • as a personal learning environment/personal learning network
    • as a virtual office
    • to post assignments
    • for language learning
    • for class participation
    • to track attendance
    • to stay abreast of current issues in a given field

Despite these potential uses of Twitter in education, there are situations in which Twitter, as a medium falls short. The restricted number of characters used in a message, or tweet, limits users from explaining complex concepts or writing equations. Also, the amount of spam in Twitter and the shallow information disseminated each day, and figuring out how to wade through it or ignore it, is another impacting factor.

Clearly, as the survey explicates, Twitter is not adequate for everyone in academia. However, if you are a passionate teacher who wants to utilize new technologies in the classroom, Twitter can be an amazing, asynchronous communication medium — if and only if you have a strong network to follow.

We cannot stop the fast technological advancement in the web, but we can cope with the new generation evolving requirements in a meaningful way.

About the Author
Hend Suliman Al-Khalifa is an assistant professor at the Information Technology Department, CCIS, King Saud University, Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. She is also an advisory board member for this web site. She received her MSc degree in Information Systems (2001) from King Saud University, Riyadh, KSA, and her PhD degree in Computer Science (2007) from Southampton University, U.K. Al-Khalifa has participated with more than 45 research papers in symposiums, workshops, and conferences and has published many journal articles. Since 1999, she has also worked as a technology writer in Al-Riyadh Arabic daily newspaper, and she moderates an Arabic blog called tech2click.net, which contains information about new trends and technologies in e-learning and online. Her areas of interest include web technologies (semantic Web/Web 2.0), technology enhanced learning (e-learning, adaptive hypermedia), computers for people with special needs, and Arabic language and computers.

Comments

  • Thu, 01 Jul 2010
    Post by Lisa Chamberlin

    That same Faculty Focus report ALSO said that Twitter is being adopted by higher education at a faster rate than it is by the general Internet-using public..."Twitters footprint reached 10.7 percent of all active Internet users as of June 2009 according to market-research firm Nielsen Company, so it would appear that higher education professionals are adopting Twitter at a faster rate than the average Internet user" (p. 9). So, while there are those who are vehemently against this latest Internet "fad", they will be assimilated. In fact, 3/4ths of the respondents expected to see their Twitter use rise.

    Bottom line is there is a bit of a learning curve as you figure out the follower/followee relationship. And, until you "get it" - you just don't get it. And once you do, you wonder why everyone isn't reaping the benefits of the give and take.

  • Tue, 08 Jun 2010
    Post by James Durkan

    Hend, I don't think the problems you raise are inevitable. I've found twitter invaluable. Spamming is not an issue and I find that the barrier of 140 characters forces me to be more disciplined.

    I've experimented, quite satisfactorily, with tweeting a lecture (as a learner). I found that it was by no means a passive experience. I had to concentrate hard on actively listening so that I could create a series of 140-character synopses of the lecture and its key-points.

    There are other valuable contributions that twitter can offer. A regrettable shortcoming of HE is that it focuses on equipping the student with the knowledge (cognitive domain) to play a role. This is to the detriment of imbuing them with the appropriate attitude and behavior (affective and behavioral domains) for that role. Shadowing a respected member of the chosen field via twitter can really round off the learning experience. It also provides the added value of underpinning the HE learning by creating a strong association with real world experience.

  • Mon, 07 Jun 2010
    Post by heaba

    I think it is unfair to blame any particular piece of technology on the inability of its potential users to adopt it to their particular needs. Twitter has its limitations, of cause, but so most of other Social Media tools out there.I believe Twitter is a powerful social learning tool - for both formal and informal learning - as I have demonstrated in my free How-To guide. --------------------------------------- New Technology

  • Wed, 26 May 2010
    Post by Jenny

    I think it is unfair to blame any particular piece of technology on the inability of its potential users to adopt it to their particular needs. Twitter has its limitations, of cause, but so most of other Social Media tools out there. There are also a number of advantages in using these tools. The trick is not to be afraid to experiment with various technologies - if some of these are not suited for your particular course structure and teaching methods there are always other tools that would.

    I wonder what response Facebook would get from a similar survey?

  • Sat, 22 May 2010
    Post by Jane Hart

    I believe Twitter is a powerful social learning tool - for both formal and informal learning - as I have demonstrated in my free How-To guide. Those who can't see Twitter's future in HE, should take a look at the wide range of ways it supports social learning. You'll find the free guide here - http://c4lpt.co.uk/140Learning/twitter.html

  • Fri, 21 May 2010
    Post by Leon Cygman

    You said it yourself - "more than half the surveyed faculty members think Twitter has no future in academia or potential use in higher education". Just because it is a fad and many young people are using it, that does not mean that it is suitable for educational purposes. From my observations, the majority of posts are trivial, ego-centric and have little social value; then maybe I am following the wrong people. I guess I'm one of those educators who feel the same as the ones in the survey. Although an interesting phenomenon and a novel way to communicate, I did not see it as an educational tool, especially when there are so many others that can be used to provide a much richer teacher-learner environment.

  • Fri, 21 May 2010
    Post by Rex

    We recognized these same issues when we set out to build a web app that fixed them. The result was HootCourse, a web app that lets instructors easily use Twitter and Facebook in their classes.

    We're running a Summer beta program-- The more feedback we get, the better our solutions become. If you're reading this; you're invited. Just Google "HootCourse"

  • Wed, 28 Oct 2009
    Post by Steven Zucker

    Thank you for your thoughtful article. Far too often discussion of digital texts cite price and weight but ignore any discussion of the critical relationship between content and design. At Smarthistory.org we encourage content creators to look beyond the familiar organizational structure of the textbook and its analogue finding aids. Open textbooks ought to take advantage of the webs inherent strengths and allow users to organize material in numerous ways while pointing outward to high quality resources elsewhere on the web. Hopefully, these new resources will seamlessly incorporate multimedia allowing users to listen, read, watch and most importantly respond. Here is an opportunity to directly engage students, allowing them to initiate or join conversations both in and outside the confines of the text. Smarthistory.org begins to do this. It is a free, award-winning and web-based art history text. Its content is supported by its design and we believe that its broad adoption is due in part to its focus on user experience.

  • Fri, 23 Oct 2009
    Post by Clark Quinn

    Mark, thanks for the thoughtful response. I do agree that there have been a lot of experiments, but this is meant as a rallying call to strive for transformation, not just information.

    And I did mean more than just learning objects, and very much do mean focusing on how to create a meaningful experience, but under pragmatic constraints. I am concerned about the instructor experience, too, but by focusing on engaging learners in more meaningful activity, I believe the instructor gets to move from knowledge provider to discussion facilitator, and that should be a more rewarding activity (if you really care about the material and the learner, which can be an issue :).

    And by engagement, I mean a combination of things (cf my book, Engaging Learning): challenge, meaningfulness, active exploration, and more. The alignment between effective educational practice and engaging experiences drives my view.

    Thanks again, and I'll look forward to your thoughts on the tension between content and experience.

  • Thu, 22 Oct 2009
    Post by Mark Notess

    I do think that disruptive technologies and differing abilities to react to those technologies will reconfigure the textbook publishing space, and I wholeheartedly agree that learner experience design is key. I would add that instructor experience is just as important, but perhaps you're including both by expressing it as "learning" experience design? Certainly there are many assumptions made throughout the value chain about what's needed in the student and instructor experience, but I don't always see much interest in publishers understanding that experience at a deep enough level to truly transform it. Instead they seem to throw new technologies at it, in the name of innovation, and see what sticks.

    While reading this I wondered if you were merely wanting publishing to reconfigure itself to embrace reusable learning objects and something like a learning activity management system. Do you envision more than that?

    I found an interesting tension in this article between content and experience. I want to say more about that, but I'll have to think about it for awhile first.

    I've written elsewhere in the publication about the ambiguity surrounding the term "engagement". What do you mean here by "alignment with engagement"?

    Thanks for the article!