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Using Twitter in an Undergraduate Setting: Five recommendations from a foreign language class

By Elizabeth Irvin, Colin Taper, Lizza Igoe, Raymond S. Pastore / November 2015

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Media, the means by which instruction is delivered to the learner, are: "mere vehicles that deliver instruction but do not influence student achievement any more than the truck that delivers our groceries causes changes in our nutrition" [1]. For the educator, the choice of media is of secondary importance to the design of the instruction, as there is no single media solution. However, in a later piece Clark goes on to claim "it is important to derive media that are capable of delivering the method at the least expensive rate and in the speediest fashion" [2]. Given the ubiquitous nature of social media, and the mobile devices that can deliver it, perhaps social media is one such media.

Hughes described social media as "a collection of Internet websites, services, and practices that support collaboration, community building, participation and sharing. These technologies have attracted the interest of higher education faculty members looking for ways to engage and motivate their students to be more active learners" [3]. One of these technologies is Twitter, the 140 character means of communication. In 2011, Moran, Seaman, and Tinti-Kane published the results of a survey of 1,920 college faculty and found while the majority of participants knew of Twitter—98 percent of participants—a significant minority—a mere 2 percent—used Twitter in class [4]. Due to the limited use of Twitter for instructional purposes in a higher education setting, it would appear those considering implementing Twitter into an undergraduate level course could benefit from the experience of those who have Tweeted before them.

While there is not extensive research on the use of Twitter in higher education, it has been shown that Twitter can be an effective tool for increasing student engagement and mobilizing faculty and students into a more active and participatory role [3]. As cited in a 2013 issue TechTrends: "Twitter use in courses has been proposed for instant feedback in F2F classes, enhancing social presence in online classes, providing rapid updates to course information, and a way to motivate learners through application of new technology" [5]. Junco, Elavsky, and Heiberger examined the effects of how required Twitter usage (in educationally relevant ways) impacts the relationship between student engagement and grades, and found students using Twitter had higher scores, increased engagement, and higher GPAs than the students in the control group [6].

Some research has been conducted on the use of Twitter in foreign language classrooms, and results indicate it can be an effective tool in increasing student engagement and learning [6], In a study of the effect of Twitter use on the language use of students in a university-level Italian class, the author concluded, "Twitter helped reduce affective filters. As learners tweeted, they felt more comfortable and became more confident about communicating in Italian" [7]. Thus, Twitter can be used as a classroom tool. However, recommendations for its use and implementation are limited. As a result, the remainder of this article will examine using Twitter in an undergraduate classroom.

Twitter Implementation: Five recommendations

There are five topics to consider before adding a Twitter component to any college course. The following considerations should help avoid some of the pitfalls of introducing social media into a course. These recommendations were created after implementing Twitter in an intermediate undergraduate Spanish class over the course of two semesters at our institution. Twitter was selected so students could experience Spanish away from the classroom and textbook, and have a safe place to use Spanish without being penalized for their mistakes. Ultimately, the goal was to help them increase their proficiency in the language, and improve their cultural competency in a way that was meaningful to them and gave them more control over how they learned.

1. Planning to Implement Twitter

Is Twitter the right tool? Before integrating Twitter into the classroom, it is important to have a clear understanding of both the purpose and motivation for using it. How will it enhance learning? Why is it important to use this particular tool over something else? The popularity of a tool in the culture does not guarantee a successful learning experience in the classroom, and students must know up front what they are expected to gain from the experience in order to use the tool appropriately.

Twitter has been demonstrated to: improve contact between students and faculty by providing an avenue for contact congruent with their digital lifestyles, encourage cooperation among students, promote active learning by helping students relate the course material to their own experiences both inside and outside of the classroom, be an effective feedback tool for faculty allowing them to provide students with prompt feedback, and to maximize time on task by continuing discussions and building learning communities among students outside of class [3]. Before implementing Twitter into a class, consider if these are the activities the tool can support. If so, Twitter may be a good choice.

Time management. A social media project will require far more time from the instructor than for the students, and work should begin long before the course does to ensure a successful project with minimal complications. Consider the possible pitfalls from every angle and determine how to avoid them. Careful planning when creating the assignment instructions and establishing the rules early will help minimize problems.

Once the project has begun, the instructor is tasked with monitoring all activity. This requires daily involvement in the project reading posts, writing replies, and addressing questions and problems. Concerning this matter, "[faculty] should actively engage with students on the platform to obtain maximum benefit and is essential to impact student outcomes" [6].

Support. Be aware of the level or lack of support associated with the selected tool. In the case of Twitter, as opposed to an LMS with site support, this means the instructor is on the front line for offering support to students. Thus the instructor will be the go-to person for any question or problem students may have, and if they do not understand the ins and outs of the tool the students will lose faith in the project. However, if there are issues beyond the scope of the instructor's knowledge and/or at times the instructor is not available, students should know how to access support for any technologies and tools used in the course.

2. Integrating Twitter with Course Content

Integration. Any tool used for education can only be effective if its use is relevant to the course material. As such, "Twitter should be integrated into the course in educationally relevant ways" [6]. If an assignment is-or appears to be-extraneous to the course content, students will not see its value and will gain little, if anything. There must be a plan to discuss the assignment and connect it to other coursework. Be sure to clearly communicate why Twitter has been included in the course. If students understand how it will relate to or be used in class, they may be less resistant. Also, communicate expectations with students regarding how Twitter will be used during the course. Those expectations, along with clear guidelines should be included in the course syllabus.

Align assessment with course objectives. The purpose of using the tool is to enhance learning, so how will student's products be assessed within the tool? How does using the tool help the students achieve the course objectives? A tool is only useful if it helps get the job the done, so if students can't associate what has been assigned with what the syllabus says they should be able to do, there is a disconnect. Always have the course objectives in mind when deciding which tool to use and how it will be used.

3. Know the Students

Know the student population. Just because a social media tool is popular and widespread in our culture, does not mean that students use it heavily. Find out what students use first, and keep up with the trends. What is popular one semester might be passé the next. In the aforementioned Spanish class, the tool worked better than expected the first semester, but the second semester it was a flop. Very few students used Twitter on their own before the class, so trying to get them to use it for class proved almost impossible. It was until after the course concluded, that a student commented Twitter was considered a "girl thing" on our campus.

Resistance to using social media. Many students may have legitimate concerns about posting information about themselves on social media, and imposing a course requirement to do so can be a source of stress and resentment on the part of the student. Carefully crafted rules and assignment instructions can help these students avoid posting anything they do not want made public.

Lin, Hoffman, and Borengasser suggest students create a separate account, specifically for class and the use of a class-specific hashtag, rather than asking students to follow each others personal Twitter feeds. This way privacy can be better protected and oversharing between students will be decreased. In addition, their research on how students perceived Twitter as a classroom tool found "students enjoyed being consumers of tweets but seldom retweeted or replied" [5]. If students are going to be engaging in discussion via Twitter it is important to understand their possible perceptions of the tool before requiring them to use it.

4. Set Appropriate Boundaries

Ethical implications. When using social media with students, it is essential to maintain boundaries while finding the right balance of personal information to share. The professor must provide clear guidelines for students to follow, and set an example of appropriate behavior. Isaacs, Kaminski, Aragon, and Anderson suggest 17 guidelines for faculty as members of the social networking world, including: be aware and cautious of about any personal information displayed; work toward fair treatment and interaction with students whether or not they participate on the social network; be aware of any institutional policies around the use of social networking for academic purposes; maintain posted material in accordance with ethical standards or professionalism as an educator; and set communications guidelines up front [8].

Clear rules and guidelines. If Twitter participation is a course requirement, be sure to provide students with documentation regarding the nature of the assignment, the guidelines, and rules for receiving credit. If content control is an issue, have students open an account that is used only for class only. Make sure they choose a username that makes them easily identifiable.

Give clear guidelines about what is appropriate to post and what is required in order to receive credit for the assignment. A good rubric can help students know what is expected and acts as a guide for knowing what to post and when.

5. Anticipate a Learning Curve with the Tool

Managing expectations. Remember when asking students to use a social media tool in a new or different way, don't assume they know how to use Twitter or they will quickly be able to apply the tool to their academic lives. Any technology, whether it is new or an established technology used in a new way, requires a learning curve for all users. The "digital natives" in the classroom who have grown up using social media may view using it for class as an infringement on their use of the tool, and the nontraditional students who may have not yet jumped on the Twitter bandwagon may be resistant to learning how to use it. Students may be apprehensive about using the technology for class and will need extra support. Lin, Hoffman, and Borengasser suggest "providing scaffolding regarding student account setup and basic functionality" of Twitter [5].

Training. Students involved in the research study, "The Effect of Twitter on College Student Engagement and Grades," received an hour-long training session on how to use the basics of Twitter [3]. It is important to avoid skipping this step. If students do not know how or do not feel comfortable using Twitter, they won't participate.

Invest some time in training, both in class and out. Give students a demonstration of setting up and using their account, and give them documentation that explains it as well. Some will benefit from the hands-on training, while others are more comfortable following written instructions and working alone.

In a class with a mix of technological abilities, it's a good idea to have the students help each other. This is an opportunity to create communities within the class. Have the students form groups (or do it for them) whose purpose it is to help each other learn the tool. Give them the flexibility to determine if they want to meet outside of class or work virtually via email, video chat, or whatever technology they are comfortable using.

Modeling. Be sure to demonstrate to students how to use Twitter in class. Remain an active participant in the course Twitter stream. Junco, Heiberger, and Loken found faculty became more active and participatory through Twitter activities, which resulted in improved contact between students and faculty and faculty feeling that they could provide students with prompt feedback [3].


Twitter, other social media, or any other media type is not an independent solution to a learning problem; rather, Twitter is one of many tools at an instructor's or designer's disposal. Nevertheless, research has suggested Twitter can be a powerful learning tool when thoughtfully added as a support to course content. Before choosing to add or implement Twitter into an undergraduate course, consider the five topics proposed above: planning to implement Twitter, integrating Twitter with course content, knowing the students, setting appropriate boundaries, and anticipating a learning curve. Doing so better ensures students tweet about the course using #effectiveuseoftwitter.


[1] Clark, R.E. Reconsidering research on learning from media. Review of Educational Research 53, 4 (1983).

[2] ] Clark, R. E. Media will never influence learning. Educational Technology Research and Development 42, 2 (1994), 21-29.

[3] Junco, R., Heiberger, G., and Loken, E. The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27, 2 (2011), 119-132.

[4] Moran, M., Seaman, J., and Tinti-Kane, H. Teaching, learning, and sharing: How today's higher education faculty use social media. Pearson Learning Solutions. April 2011.

[5] Lin, M., Hoffman, E., and Borengasser, C. Is social media too social for class? A case study of Twitter use. TechTrends 57, 2 (2013), 39-35.

[6] Junco, R., Elavsky, C. M. and Heiberger, G. Putting Twitter to the test: Assessing outcomes for student collaboration, engagement and success. British Journal of Educational Technology 44, 2 (2013), 273-287.

[7] Atenos-Conforti, E. Microblogging on Twitter: Social networking in intermediate Italian classes. In The Next Generation: Social Networking and Online Collaboration in Foreign Language Learning. A. Lord and L. Lomicka, Eds. CALICO, San Marcos, TX, 2009, 59-90.

[8] Issacs, N., Kaminski, K., Aragon, A., and Anderson, A. Social networking: Boundaries and limitations. Part 2: Policy. TechTrends 58, 3 (2014),10-15.

About the Authors

Elizabeth Irvin is a lecturer in Spanish at the University of North Carolina Wilmington, where she has taught online courses in Spanish for five years. Recently, she designed and developed the language program for the university's online nursing program. She has an interest in leveraging technology to improve motivation and learning in learners.

Colin Taper taught secondary English in North Carolina for 12 years before working as a technology facilitator at E.A. Laney High School. He earned his M.Ed. in curriculum, instruction, and supervision from UNC-Wilmington in 2010 and is currently pursuing a master's degree in instructional technology from UNC-Wilmington.

Lizza Igoe is currently pursuing an M.S. in instructional design at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Her background is in science education and curriculum development in informal learning environments, primarily museums, parks and afterschool organizations. Upon completion of her degree she plans to pursue work in the museum field related to the design and development of educational programming, training and exhibits.

Dr. Ray Pastore has multiple years of instructional design experience, which includes extensive corporate, K-12, and higher education experience. He earned his Ph.D. in instructional systems with a minor in educational psychology from Penn State University, and is currently an assistant professor of Instructional Technology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington.

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