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Twitter in academia
a case study from Saudi Arabia

By Hend S. Al-Khalifa / September 2008

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Twitter, the popular "micro-blogging" communications platform, is used in Saudi Arabia mostly by the young to exchange news and follow peers' activities. Though a number of academic uses have evolved in other countries, none had been attempted here. So I decided to test the effectiveness of Twitter as a tool for keeping my students connected to the blog for my "Introduction to Operating Systems" course. Though it came with a number of challenges and setbacks, the service proved very valuable to my students.

Twitter is a free service that allows users to exchange short messages (known as tweets) of up to 140 characters quickly and easily. Tweets can be read via email, instant messages (IM), text messages on a mobile phone, or on the Web. In the second semester of the academic year 2007-08, I asked the 190 students enrolled in my course to sign up for Twitter so they could receive classroom announcements and news posted on the course blog. Sixty students signed up for the service.

The underlying infrastructure in Saudi Arabia presented some unique challenges to this trial, as telecommunication services in the country often suffer from major glitches, including slow and unreliable Internet service or even blackouts. Twitter seemed to me a good alternative for situations where students cannot access the Internet but may want to receive timely updates to their mobile phones. To that end, our course blog was connected to a third-party service called Twitterfeed, which converted the blog RSS feeds into Twitter tweets. The service checks for updates on an hourly basis.

The 140-character limit also proved a major challenge. Given the size requirements needed to encode Arabic text, our text messages had a functional limit of 80 characters. If not properly managed, this had the potential to result in posts arriving with full titles but incomplete content.

Though the Twitter experiment was rife with problems—the service actually went down for a full month during this course—I would use the service again in my courses if available. In summary, here are the pros and cons from my experience:


  • Timely announcements without need for reliable Internet service
  • Better connection with students, all of whom have mobile phones
  • Substantial time savings for students, as they don't have to visit the blog on a daily basis.


  • The service was unstable and unreliable throughout the trial
  • Students had to pay a small fee for activating the service
  • Shortened message space caused by the use of Arabic language.

Student Feedback

Near the end of the semester, I posted a survey for students regarding their Twitter experience. The results of this survey showed that 93 percent of the students preferred receiving text announcements over visiting the blog every day to check for updates. Overall, the students were very pleased with the service: 76 percent said it was excellent, 22 percent said it was acceptable, while 2 percent only said it was useless. Most interestingly, 93 percent of students are going to subscribe to Twitter if offered by any future courses.

I was surprised to find that only 37 percent actively wanted to continue using Twitter for non-academic purposes in the future; 58 percent said that they might use the service in the future and 5 percent said that they will not use Twitter for any purpose. In general, the responses seemed very positive and encouraging, especially given that this was the first time my students tried such a service.

Unfortunately, as of August 2008, Twitter stopped delivering international text messages, which means I can no longer use the service as outlined above. This is a great loss for us here in Saudi Arabia. I remain hopeful that Twitter will restore this service in the future, or that another service will step in to fill the gap.


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