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The Effects of Twitter in an Online Learning Environment

By Logan Rath / February 2011

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Twitter is a popular microblogging tool designed to answer the question "What are you doing?" The service launched in 2006, and in the past year has brought about an increase in unique visitors of 19 million per month [1]. As defined by O'Reilly and Milstein, "Twitter is a messaging service that shares a lot of characteristics with communication tools you already use," and given its flexibility, "Twitter can fit with nearly anyone's workflow" [2]. Users participate by posting status updates, or "tweets." Members may also connect with each other by "retweeting" or reposting a tweet and giving credit to the original poster. Additionally, users may "follow" someone to receive updates when the person in question tweets.

It was not too long before two researchers, Mason and Rennie started to discuss the implications of Twitter for educational purposes [3]. They cite its popularity as one reason that many practitioners have the desire to adapt the service for an educational benefit, specifically by using hashtags so relevant topics can be followed and users can contribute to and discuss the conversation as long as # is affixed to a tweet [2]. Hashtags exist for several purposes: professional associations and conferences (#sunycit09, #ala), geographic regions (#ROC, #WMass), current events (#NYMarriage), and courses (#idt507).

This article aims to explore the use of Twitter in an online learning environment. A study was conducted involving graduate students enrolled in the master's degree program in Information Design and Technology at the State University of New York (SUNY) Institute of Technology. To determine students' participation levels, the sense of community of the course, and perceived benefits of the course members when using Twitter.

Review of the Literature

The content of Twitter is varied, and several authors point out that posts are not always educational in the traditional sense. DeVoe, a librarian at Temple University, gives some popular categories of tweets such as "recent achievements, favorite links, random thoughts and observations, or day-to-day minutia" [4]. However, she also states this "immediacy coupled with community" is one of the benefits of the service. O'Reilly and Milstein affirm this phenomenon by using Leisa Reichelt's term "ambient intimacy" to identify the "lightweight but meaningful connection" that results from the awareness of what the people one follows are doing [2].

DeVoe has written of the benefits of using Twitter as a means for "distributing other communications, such as RSS feeds, video, and images" as well as suggestions for getting started including ideas on how to create an online presence [4, 5]. But, unfortunately, very little scholarly material exists that discusses Twitter in an educational context. An article in Read Write Web profiles Monica Rankin, a professor of history at the University of Texas, Dallas, who uses "hashtag[s] to organize comments, questions and feedback posted by students to Twitter during class," resulting in more active class discussions [6]. Also the Chronicle of Higher Education reports on a similar professor at Pennsylvania State, Cole W. Camplese, who encourages back-channel communication during his courses [7].

A thorough review of the literature must also discuss the social aspect of information, how information becomes knowledge, and how people find information. Buckland highlights the primary difference between information and knowledge in stating "knowledge, belief, and opinion are personal, subjective, and conceptual" [8], and identifies communication as basic type of information system in his manuscript. It is the intangible nature of knowledge that separates it from information. Buckland's ideas can be combined with John Seeley Brown and Paul Duguid's concept that people are the most important part of knowledge [9]. The two authors discuss a study by anthropologist Julian Orr that examines the use of chat to foster knowledge sharing. The study denotes "chat continuously but almost imperceptibly adjusts a group's collective knowledge and individual members' awareness of each other," stories are a "means to understand what happened´┐Ż and why," and retelling a story constitutes a means of learning, thereby binding people through interpretation of a shared concept [9].

Peter Moreville separates from Buckland and Brown and Duguid by discussing the social aspects of knowledge in the context of findability [10]. Moreville concerns himself with how users find information. With notions of push and pull from the Web, he describes the nodes and links to connect people to information, which ties in nicely with an article written by Jansen, Zhang, Sobel and Chowdury. In describing electronic word of mouth (eWOM), specifically tweets, the authors found that "consumers increasingly use these communication technologies for trusted sources of information, insights, and opinions" [11]. However it is important to include that before their 2009 study, there were no previous research completed to examine microblogging and eWOM communication.


During the Fall of 2009 students enrolled in Introduction to Technology, a graduate level course at SUNY Institute of Technology, were selected as a target population. Two sections of this 15-week course are delivered as part of an online master's program and use the ANGEL learning management system (LMS). When the course began, the professor introduced the usage of Twitter in the syllabus as well as through course announcements. The hashtag #idt507 (the course number) was chosen and a wiki was created to help students learn how to use Twitter. A discussion board was also designed for students to share their twitter handles for the purpose of facilitating following. There were no required assignments involving Twitter. Although discussion was encouraged, the LMS remained the primary location for coursework and weekly discussions. After 13 weeks, a survey with 10 multiple-choice questions and one free text answer question was distributed to all students in the course.


The total number of respondents was 22 (N=22). The target population totaled one section of 19 students and one section of 20 students, totaling 39. One student, being the person conducting the study, was removed from the total target population, resulting in 38 possible respondents. Therefore, the response rate was 58 percent.

Starting with frequency, 17 respondents rated themselves as being either occasionally or very active, with a level of participation of at least every few weeks. It is interesting to note that 77 percent of respondents did not participate in Twitter prior to this course. Of that population, two-thirds came across course-relevant information. On the contrary, only one of the give individuals who used Twitter prior to the course discovered course-relevant information.

The study also chose to examine whether or not Twitter had any bearing on the sense of community in an online course. Overwhelmingly, 86 percent responded in the affirmative; a sense of community was important to the targeted graduate students.

Comparing Twitter to other social networking sites such as MySpace, Facebook or LinkedIn, the initial result of the survey was 15 people believed that there was no uniqueness to Twitter. However, 40 percent of respondents still found course-relevant information through its use. Concerning those who did see Twitter as unique, seven respondents two did not find course-relevant information using Twitter. However those two respondents admitted to connecting with people outside of the course. In turn two-thirds of students felt equally as close or closer to students in an online course when Twitter was not used. Among the seven respondents who said that Twitter had brought them closer to classmates, only one person had previously used Twitter. Interestingly the frequency of use varied with four reporting themselves as very active, two reporting as occasionally active, and one reporting as rarely active.

In question 11, the free response question, it was noted Twitter "helps make a course less formal," and that without the LMS Twitter would be valuable. Otherwise, "it becomes more of the same and nothing new." One respondent expressed Twitter "has added a place for non-IDT 507 chat to take place. [The LMS] is specifically for class discussion, and is lacking that space." While another noted, "It was an extra step to follow and participate for the class, along with keeping up with the discussions on [the LMS]." Finally, when answering the question of whether or not the use of Twitter would impact a student's choice to enroll in a particular section, 73 percent were indifferent and 23 percent preferred a course where Twitter was not used. The sole respondent who preferred Twitter's use had a frequency rating of very active.

Discussion and Conclusions

This study provided some interesting answers to the use of Twitter in an online learning environment in graduate education, particularly since little data has been officially gathered prior to this study. With so many students preferring Twitter not to be used in future courses; it is remarkable to see how many students believed themselves to encounter additional course-relevant information through its use, which they did not believe they would have found otherwise.

Based on this study, the integration of Twitter into the LMS might be a factor in helping the overall adoption of Twitter as a social networking component of the class. Overall it would appear students prefer discussion boards to a social networking site, but the reasons for this are yet unknown. The fact that Twitter was not a graded assignment, that it was an extraneous location for class participation, and that there was no consequence for non-participation likely resulted in the failure of adoption, but this cannot be proven without further research.

There are serious implications for the future of combining social networking with class participation. First, there was much enthusiasm and participation noted by professors who use Twitter that was not echoed when a particular graduate student population was surveyed, this should be investigated. Speculated reasoning for this includes that if students are not already used to using Twitter it may appear as an extra chore or homework assignment for which they receive no reward. Second, should Twitter, or any social networking site for that matter, be pushed if students are satisfied with discussion boards? Possibly over the next few years, as LMSs develop and incorporate the ability to contribute to social networking sites from within, use will increase. However, for now, it would seem discussion boards are the place keep in-class participation. In the mean time, possible future areas for research on this topic include: demographics of students using Twitter in class, the program of study in relationship to the participation of Twitter, the effect of Twitter on hybrid education and an analysis of how instructors are using Twitter in courses.

There are several places for the next steps of research in this field, and it will be exciting to see what is forthcoming as this relatively new technology continues to evolve.

About the Author

Logan Rath, MLS is the Digital Services Librarian at the College at Brockport, State University of New York. He conducted this research as part of the graduate program in Information Design and Technology at SUNY Institute of Technology. You can follow Logan on Twitter.


[1]'s Site Profile. Compete Inc.

[2] O'Reilly, T. and Milstein, S. (2009). The twitter book. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly.

[3] Mason, R., and Rennie, F. (2008). E-learning and social networking handbook: Resources for higher education. New York: Routledge.

[4] DeVoe, K.M. (2009). Busts of information: Microblogging. The Reference Librarian, 50, 212-214. doi:10.1080/02763870902762086

[5] DeVoe, K.M. (2009b). Constructing who we are online: One word, one friend at a time. The Reference Librarian, 50, 419-421. doi:10.1080/02763870903130127

[6] Kirkpatrick, M. (2009, June 1). How one teacher users Twitter in the classroom. Read Write Web.

[7] Young, J.R. (2009, April 8). Wired campus - professor encourages students to pass notes during class. Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from Wired Campus Blog

[8] Buckland, M. K. (1991). Information and information systems. Westport, Conn: Praeger.

[9] Brown, J.S. and Duguid, P. (2002). The social life of information. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.

[10] Moreville, P. (2005). Ambient findability. Sebastopol, CA: O'Reilly.

[11] Jansen, B.J., Zhang, M., Sobel, K., Chowdury, A. (2009). Tweets as electronic word of mouth. Journal of the American Society for Information Science and Technology 60 (11), 2169-2188. doi:10.1002/asi.21149


  • Thu, 24 Feb 2011
    Post by Rick

    Development of Twitter users who increasingly can not be ignored. Especially used for educational purposes. The higher levels of human mobility, the media like Twitter quite adequate as a means of learning for students. If we do not or do not use it, then we are getting further behind in the field of communication technology.