ACM Logo  An ACM Publication  |  CONTRIBUTE  |  FOLLOW    

#teachingwithtwitter: Tweeting to foster online engagement and learning

Special Issue: Instructional Technology in the Online Classroom

By Catherine Honig / December 2018

Print Email
Comments Instapaper

Over the past decade, educational technology (EdTech) journals and websites have placed increasing emphasis on the use of Twitter in teaching. Many resources offer "how-to" guidance on integrating Twitter into courses, and they describe a variety of approaches for using Twitter to ratchet up student involvement in the learning process. For example, "50 Ways to Use Twitter in the Classroom" offers Twitter teaching ideas for the K-12 classroom, while "3 Unusual Ways College Professors Can Use Twitter" addresses college courses. The gist of the reporting is that microblogging in the Twitterverse brings a contemporary flavor to courses, engages students in the exchange by establishing a backchannel discussion of class topics and activities, and generally enhances connections and collaboration among learners.

As a social networking platform, Twitter is remarkable for features such as its 280-character tweet limit, hashtags that categorize tweets according to themes, and the ability to follow users and organizations that evoke interest or simply stir curiosity. Twitter users connect and form communities around ideas, viewpoints, experiences, and expertise. Twitter is about engagement and social presence, and this is exactly what leads to its compelling potential as an online networked learning space for educators and students.

An emerging body of cross-disciplinary academic research regarding Twitter as a pedagogical tool confirms a variety of educational benefits related to Twitter-based course activities and provides insight into the specific practices that enhance student engagement and learning. Employing experimental design, Junco, Heilberger, and Loken demonstrated that comprehensive use of Twitter in a course for "pre-health professional students" resulted in increased student ratings of engagement on a NSSE-based survey and a higher semester GPA for an experimental group that used Twitter [1]. A second study expanded the investigation in a "general education course on media and democracy" and found that such effects are dependent upon two critical factors: a) requiring students to use Twitter, and b) faculty engagement in Twitter-related course activities [2] .

Using a field biology course as their research context, Soluk and Buddle built a student team project around the use of Twitter [3] . Content analysis of students' tweets illustrated that Twitter can effectively support collaborative learning within and between student teams. Moreover, the study showed that successful use of Twitter as a teaching tool was related to communicating a clear pedagogical purpose and including a well-detailed grading rubric that outlined expectations for how students should use Twitter in the course.

In a marketing course, Lowe and Laffey encouraged (but did not require) students to follow course-related tweets on contemporary marketing topics [4]. A list of "lessons learned" covered the importance of connecting tweets to weekly course content as well as referencing the tweets in weekly class lectures. Student surveys and interviews illustrated that students who followed the tweets viewed them as valuable to the learning process.

Dunlap and Lowenthal introduced Twitter in online courses (instructional design and technology) with an eye toward building social presence by offering students an opportunity to communicate and collaborate outside of the LMS [5]. Although participation was voluntary, most students tweeted. The content of the tweets indicated constructive uses ranging from resource sharing to problem solving. Among the nuggets of guidance imparted by the authors was the importance of communicating the purpose of using Twitter, outlining clear guidelines for tweeting, and "modeling" appropriate tweets.

Taken together, the research findings on teaching with Twitter paint a compelling picture of potential benefits that can be derived through the effective application of selected "best practices" [6]. Of course, there are concerns to consider as well. For example, most research studies seem to place primary emphasis on engagement, and we are only beginning to investigate and understand the impact of Twitter on student learning. In addition, large-scale survey research suggests that even as faculty increasingly use social media for teaching purposes, lingering concerns about issues such as student privacy may present barriers to adoption [7].

Two years ago, as I contemplated the design of an online undergraduate course in Contemporary Issues in Leadership," I wondered: Could Twitter be right for my course? Would I be using technology for technology's sake or would my students and I be tweeting with purpose? Six course sections later, I can report that I have successfully integrated Twitter into my online teaching practice. To foster both engagement and learning, I emphasize a structured tweeting process that calls for continuous tweeting of content that directly relates to course learning outcomes. Here are the highlights of how I apply the prevailing wisdom on best practices for teaching with Twitter.

Tweeting with Purpose

Twitter is a natural fit with my "Contemporary Issues in Leadership" course, and my primary purpose for using it is to actively engage students in shaping the content related to a major course learning outcome-namely, the examination of emerging issues in the field of leadership. Although the course incorporates various readings and media, asking students to tweet about contemporary leadership themes broadens the class group's examination of current trends. It also gives students a stake in knowledge construction and allows them to place intentional focus on topics of personal and professional interest.

A secondary objective has to do with Twitter itself. Social media plays a crucial role in business, and students in this course explore its intersection with leadership. Introducing Twitter as a class activity affords a firsthand opportunity for students to build awareness of Twitter's potential (and shortcomings).

Importantly-and employing a key best practice-I overtly communicate the reasons to tweet [3, 4, 5, 6]. The following message appears on multiple pages in my online course, and I use real-time web conferencing and screencasting to reinforce the learning-related reasons for tweeting.

During our time together, we will have a first-rate opportunity to examine and discuss current themes and emerging issues in leadership. To broaden and enhance these discussions, you will be asked to TWEET about leaders and leadership events throughout the duration of the course. Your TWEETS will connect current events to the course learning outcomes by very briefly describing their importance or meaning. Incorporating Twitter in the course also serves as a nod to the role and influence of social media in promoting awareness, discussion, and change in business and around the world. TWEETING throughout the class will create a real-time backchannel for our class activities and discussions!

Does the communication work? From the start, students express openness to tweeting. In written course introductions-where students post their Twitter handles-many share that they are looking forward to seeing what the Twitter assignment is all about, and it is not uncommon for students to start tweeting before addressing other course activities.

Tweeting Logistics

Some of my students arrive in class with Twitter accounts, but most do not. Yet in two years of teaching with Twitter, I have not encountered a case where students had trouble getting under way. Happily, Twitter is easy to use, and three simple instructions go a long way toward ensuring a smooth tweeting experience.

  • Ask students to open a Twitter account, and post links to the Twitter sign-in page (where students can register) and the Twitter Help Center (where students can surf the Getting Started guide).
  • Provide a place for students to share their Twitter handles with the instructor and class group (e.g., an LMS discussion board).
  • Create a Twitter hashtag that is specific to the class, and let students know that they must include the hashtag in their tweets.

Occasionally, students ask whether they can start by posting "practice tweets" on the class hashtag, and a positive response to this request helps students build confidence in using Twitter. If privacy is a concern, recommending students create disposable Twitter accounts can allay fears (at least to some degree).

Tweeting in a Structured Assignment Framework

Research points to the benefits of introducing Twitter as a required (vs. voluntary) activity [2, 3]. I use a low-stakes graded Twitter assignment (10 percent of the total grade) that is designed to engage but not overwhelm. Students are asked to tweet about current leadership-related news and developments. The instructions for tweeting are detailed and explain exactly what should appear in the body of students' tweets.

  • A hyperlink to a relevant and reliable source (such as a news video or article) that depicts a current event having leadership implications.
  • A brief takeaway (i.e., a meaningful conclusion about the connection of the news/events to leadership in general and to the course learning outcomes in particular).

A grading rubric for the Twitter assignment ensures adherence to expected tweeting content, baseline tweeting frequency (i.e., at least once per week), and even professionalism in tweeting (e.g., appropriate word choice, spelling).

The specificity works. A content analysis of the Twitter hashtags for three course sections revealed that tweeting reinforced the course's learning outcome coverage. About 25 - 30 percent of the weekly tweets were directly related to the weekly readings and discussions (and supported weekly learning objectives) while the remaining tweets expanded the course's coverage of contemporary leadership topics (a major course learning outcome and a key objective associated with using Twitter).

Exploring the Hashtag: Integrating Tweets in Class Discussion

The assignment expectations drive continuous tweeting (i.e., engagement). Still, there is more to deriving learning from a backchannel hashtag than simply requiring students to populate it, and therein lies a special challenge for online courses.

What are the best venues for delving more deeply into the tweeted content? I have tested several approaches for weaving the tweets into weekly online class discussions. For example, I start a mid-week Tweeting Trends discussion thread and encourage students to respond with questions and observations. I also use weekly Twitter polls to capture students' perspectives, and I fold the poll results into online class discussions. Although these activities follow "best practice" guidance for engaging with students in tweeting activities [2]., student response on LMS discussion boards has been decidedly lukewarm (read: minimal). It seems the "tweeting energy" of the hashtag does not necessarily carry over to the LMS discussion board

Far more effective has been an approach in which I assign students to discuss their tweets in VoiceThread, a cloud application for asynchronous discussions using voice and video. This approach requires students to integrate the activities of tweeting and discussing, and it also provides an opportunity for online students to hold a voice discussion. Mixing the two technologies-Twitter and VoiceThread-allows for in-depth analysis of tweeted content (including strong connections to the learning outcomes) as students share far more by voice than in written remarks on the LMS discussion board.

So when it comes to engagement and learning what do students have to say about Twitter?

Engagement and learning. At the end of the course-when I ask students to reflect on the course experience-a positive response to Twitter emerges. Students' remarks fall into two general categories. First, they see Twitter's value as a resource and observe that the class hashtag illustrates just how much is going on in the field of leadership and how important it is for practicing managers to stay abreast of current trends and issues (i.e., it is a learning tool). Second, students view Twitter as a distinguishing feature of the course—something that provides a break from the "garden variety" online course components of discussion boards, papers, and quizzes (i.e., it is engaging).

Tweeting for class versus career. Given this positive posture toward Twitter, do students say they will continue to use it after the course concludes? A few say they would like to use Twitter professionally, but they wonder how to go about it. Incorporating guidance on this topic would support students in transitioning from an educational to a professional use of Twitter, something that would further strengthen the use of Twitter in the college classroom.

A Final Thought on Tweeting for Learning

Students do a terrific job of tweeting spot-on illustrations of contemporary leadership issues, and they do an equally great job of tweeting main points, sharing perspectives, and asking compelling questions-i.e., they construct the content that tweeting is meant to generate. A clear pedagogical purpose, a solid assignment structure, and a strong connection to course learning outcomes work in students' favor. Integrating the hashtag content into other areas of the course maximizes learning, and class discussion presents a natural avenue. However, in online courses it may be useful to look beyond the LMS for more engaging options. To be sure, there is value in continued exploration because Twitter can expand learning in uniquely beneficial ways.


[1]Junco, R., et al. The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning 27, 2 (2011), 119-132.

[2]Junco, R., et al. (2013). Putting Twitter to the test: assessing outcomes for student collaboration, engagement and success. British Journal of Educational Technology 44, 2 (2013), 273-287.

[3] Soluk, L., and Buddle, C.M. Tweets from the forest: using Twitter to increase student engagement in an undergraduate field biology course [version 1; referees: 2 approved]. F1000Research 4, 82, (2015).

[4] Lowe, B., and Laffey, D. Is Twitter for the birds? Using Twitter to enhance student learning in a marketing course. Journal of Marketing Education 33, 2 (2011), 183-192.

[5] Dunlap, J. C., and Lowenthal, P. R. Tweeting the night away: using Twitter to enhance social presence. Journal of Information Systems Education 20, 2 (2009), 129-135.

[6] Chapman, A. Tweeting in higher education: best practices. Educase (September 14, 2015).

[7]Seaman, J. and Tinti-Kane, H. Social media for teaching and learning. (2013).

About the Author

Catherine Honig, Ph.D. is an Associate Professor and Chair, MBA Program in National Louis University's College of Professional Studies and Advancement (CPSA). She earned her doctorate in industrial/organizational psychology from Bowling Green State University and has over 25 years of higher education teaching experience. She currently designs and teaches online courses in organizational behavior, leadership and I/O psychology, and her research interests place emphasis on high-touch online instruction, student perceptions of online and blended learning, and the impact of EdTech tools on student learning and engagement in online courses.

Permission to make digital or hard copies of all or part of this work for personal or classroom use is granted without fee provided that copies are not made or distributed for profit or commercial advantage and that copies bear this notice and the full citation on the first page. Copyrights for components of this work owned by others than ACM must be honored. Abstracting with credit is permitted. To copy otherwise, or republish, to post on servers or to redistribute to lists, requires prior specific permission and/or a fee. Request permissions from [email protected]

© ACM 2018. 1535-394X/18/12-3236705 $15.00


  • There are no comments at this time.