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Tweeting to Learn: Extending Social Classroom Learning Via Twitter

Tweeting to Learn: Extending Social Classroom Learning Via Twitter
Social networking tools like Twitter can be a valuable tool for postsecondary educators looking to better-engage their non-traditional students.
As a social networking platform, Twitter can be a place for rich, informal learning for individual academics.[1] But can it have an equally valuable role in deepening what happens in college classrooms?

For some adult students, Twitter already has a place in their personal or professional lives, as they use it to:

  • Follow and interact with experts and sources (including news outlets, blogs and publications) in their specialty areas;

  • Access local, national and global breaking news;

  • Connect with professional organizations and fellow members; and

  • Follow conference backchannels on-site or from a distance.

As a social networking tool, Twitter creates an environment for personal learning networks that link individual students to peers and resources that build capacity and relationships in their professional lives.[2]  Harnessing that power in the higher education classroom can extend learning and introduce (or reinforce) the value of developing a global professional knowledge base.

There are myriad ways to use Twitter, both to support classroom management and increase student engagement. One example of the latter usage comes from a colleague who asks student peer groups to research topics and share discoveries on Twitter using a common course hashtag (a way to identify messages related to a specific topic in social media). Students not only share what they learn with classmates, expanding the group’s collective knowledge, but with others who read their tweets. This opens discussion and learning opportunities to not only fellow class members but to a larger global audience.

Similarly, students can follow content-related hashtags or terms (e.g., #nonprofit or  #governance for students in my classes) to access live discussions and news related to topics germane to the course. This opens the potential to not only discover live, current resources not found in textbooks, but to interact directly with those generating the content. Many authors, opinion leaders and practitioners welcome opportunities to interact directly with those interested in their work — especially students.

Students can follow conference hashtags, benefitting from knowledge and ideas shared without attending personally. For example, students in my courses regularly are encouraged to follow the backchannel of the annual Association for Research on Nonprofit Organizations and Voluntary Action  conference to sample cutting-edge research on the sector.

Backchannels can be used in the classroom as well.[3] Faculty can use Twitter to encourage comments and questions in a live classroom using a course hashtag. This creates not only an additional mode of participation for students (especially those who may hesitate to raise their hands in class), but to create a running log of ideas that resonate and resources germane to the topic in large lecture classes. (Using a curation tool such as Storify enhances the value and permanence of Twitter-based discussions — and courses more generally.) It also offers a chance to extend conversation beyond the classroom.

Twitter can support course management in other ways. For example, instructors can use it to announce quick schedule changes (e.g., session cancellations or classroom changes) that are more readily accessible than email for students using mobile technology. Students can use that same pathway to pose questions to instructors. Twitter also allows for direct messaging, offering the same immediate communication benefit in a private setting if needed.

Twitter can be used to share information and reminders about events of interest to students. It also can be used to generate thinking and interest in advance of a class meeting. For example, the instructor could send out a question or article link to stimulate thinking before class. Students then have an opportunity to come better prepared for a stimulating conversation, one that may already be in progress on Twitter.

Incorporating new tools in a classroom setting can spark anxieties for instructor and students. Adding Twitter to the mix is no exception. Setting personal boundaries as an instructor, and classroom policies for everyone, is essential.[4] Engaging students in defining ground rules about interacting with classmates, sharing information and respecting privacy improves the potential for quality participation and deepens understanding of what it means to participate in an increasingly connected and global society.

A related concern is the public nature of Twitter. People can, and occasionally do, say things they later wish they could take back. They follow profiles that tweet on topics that are, at best, not tied to a student’s academic interests. They may even get lost in their Twitter feeds during class instead of the work in front of them.

Certainly, those risks are real. They also are part of online life in a space where, if students are not already engaged, they will be — or should be — as working professionals. Modeling appropriate online behavior and jointly engaging in critical assessment of information can be an important additional contribution to their learning experience.

For a curated list of resources related to using Twitter in the classroom, click here.

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[1] Debra Beck, “Social Media Vital to Professional Development,” The EvoLLLution. Accessed at

[2] “Building your PLN,” Pinterest. Accessed at

[3] Katie Lepi, “10 New Ways Twitter is Changing the College Lecture,” Edudemic, July 25, 2012. Accessed at

[4] “Class Twitter Policies,” Prof KRG. Accessed at