10 Tips for Getting Started Teaching with Twitter

In response to my recent post sharing reflections of my students concerning Twitter chats in a recent blended course I taught, I was interviewed by Jennifer Funk from the ed tech blog edcetera to share more of my thoughts on the use of Twitter for developing a personal learning network. The resulting article is available here and below I’ve included the full interview transcript.

Twitter app
photo CC-BY hankenstein

Q: From a pedagogical standpoint, what is the value of integrating Twitter into the curriculum?

Twitter broadens the conversation beyond the confines of classroom, allowing for others who also may have insights and resources to share to be included in the conversation. In a social-constructivist approach to teaching that relies upon students actively engaging with the subject matter and sharing their ideas with others, any venue whereby students are able to easily share their ideas, additional resources they may find, as well as converse with one another and their instructor is worth considering. Twitter is indeed a fantastic tool for students to not only share their perspectives on issues, but to also to share links to additional resources as well as to engage in conversations with experts in their field of study.

Since one of my goals in my teaching is to help my graduate students (who are all in-service teachers) build their own individual personal learning networks that they can continued to develop long after they finish my course and even their graduate program, I currently see Twitter as a must-use tool for my students in building their personal learning networks. When introducing students to Twitter, they are often hesitant initially to setup a new social network account. However, after becoming familiar with the tool and understanding how “tweets” can be far more than just text status updates, but include links, photos, and even video, I find that my students truly embrace use of Twitter and find it to be a valuable tool in their own professional development. As they follow other educators, they build a network of colleagues and resources that they continue to learn from and learn with the rest of their lives!

The fact that Twitter is such a dynamic tool and it is optimized for mobile devices is another compelling reason for incorporating it into the curriculum. With the proliferation of mobile devices and preferences for many students to use their mobile device in place of other traditional desktop and laptop computers, technologies that are designed for mobile use are much more likely to be easily incorporated into the curriculum. No matter what mobile platform a student may have, there is guaranteed to be a mobile app available that makes it easy not only follow, but also contribute to a conversation on Twitter, anytime, anywhere!

Twitter is also very flexible and can be utilized in numerous ways, both within the classroom as well as outside to continue a conversation. Faculty who teach large lecture sections could incorporate Twitter as a backchannel for students to ask questions, reflect on their learning, and engage in a dialogue during a lecture. Those who teach smaller sections, labs, or online courses can make use of Twitter to provide news and updates, provide links to additional resources, or even simply seed thoughts for discussion. While Twitter is primarily an asynchronous form of communication, the ability for real-time updates and search of what others are contributing right now make it a fantastic tool for current events and following public conversations in real-time. If one wishes to keep their tweets private and restricted to only a few select followers, that capability is also available. The true value however in Twitter is that conversations are public, allowing for anyone/anywhere to contribute.

Q: Realizing that fear (loss of control, loss of time, etc.) is a deterrent for many professors who might be otherwise interested in using social networks with students, what hesitations did you have about using Twitter with yours, and most importantly, what policies/procedures/strategies did you put in place to minimize the risk factors?

A cautious approach to using social networking tools with students is certainly advisable. In deciding to try using Twitter in my teaching, there were a number of hesitations that I needed to overcome. First, I was concerned about protecting the privacy of both my students and myself, not wanting to give too much personal information. I didn’t really want to see personal tweets from my students, nor did I want to merge my own personal social networking activities with those for my teaching. I also was unsure as to how I might best encourage my students to participate. I did want them to regularly participate on Twitter, but also needed to maintain the graded discussion activities hosted within the learning management system (LMS).

I also wasn’t sure if I would need to, or how I would, manage the volume of posts from students. I was used to years of teaching primarily with the discussion board tool and was conditioned to always reading every post that student would make. I wasn’t sure how much students would make use of Twitter and as a result, how much extra reading would I need to do in order to keep up with the conversations that were taking place.

Overall, I needed to come to grips with the realization that I could not “control the experience” in the same way as I had traditionally controlled discussions within the LMS. While I could provide guidelines and expectations for the students, they ultimately could post anything they wanted and there was a risk of the discussion diverging from it’s intended path. While this “risk” always existed within the LMS, the difference was that the environment of the LMS is controlled (with only the students and myself being able to view the conversations), whereas the public nature of Twitter potentially exposes any conversation to be access by anyone.

After deciding to try using Twitter in my teaching, there were a number of decisions that I needed to make in terms of how I personally would interact with my students on Twitter. I decided I would keep sharing personal “what I’m doing now” types of information to a minimum, but wouldn’t completely abstain from all personal information. I would occasionally share a photo or a more personal bit of info so students would feel as though there were able to connect with me on a more personal level.

I selected a hashtag for the course, beginning with the # sign, that wasn’t already being used prevalently on Twitter that I would post all course-related tweets to and would instruct students to do the same. Hashtags that I have used include: #edt6030 #edt6040 #edt6060 #wd1231

I scheduled regular times each day to check Twitter, generally once in the morning, around lunchtime, and in the evening. I found that I was able to quickly read and respond to the latest tweets from my students and didn’t need to spend as much time reading and responding as I typically spend within the discussion board in the LMS.

I drafted detailed expectations and instructions for my participating. I included these expectations in my syllabus and discussed them with students during our first class meeting together. I found numerous examples already online for how other educators where using Twitter in formulating my own approach. I recommend taking a look at available Twitter rubrics, such as the one shared by the University of Wisconsin – Stout here. In my most recent course section taught, I required students to tweet, with details of my expectations and a summary of the feedback that resulted from my students here. However, I’ve also in other courses made Twitter simply an optional mode of communication that students can choose to engage with me in if they wish.

I informed students prior to our first class meeting together of the expectation to “tweet” for the course and asked students to sign-up for Twitter accounts prior to class. I encouraged students to bring their mobile devices to our first f2f class session and introduced Twitter to my students during that first class session. We discussed together the options for keeping their accounts private or public, but after we discussed the value of allowing others from outside our class to participate in the discussions, the unanimous decision was made to keep our accounts public.

At several different points throughout the course, I specifically asked my students how the experience using Twitter was going and I we were able to work through a few additional questions that they had. The students found Twitter to be very easy to use, once they understood the basics and by the end of the course, students in the course where they were required to tweet each week, had unanimously found Twitter to be of great value to their own personal learning.

Q: You write that one of your goals in creating the Twitter assignment was to “expand the discussion beyond the scope of the typical Blackboard discussion space”; what is your reasoning for moving conversations outside of controlled environments and into public social networks? In what way can this kind of activity not necessarily replace what you do on Blackboard, but instead support it?

There were several reasons why I wanted to move certain conversations outside of the controlled environment of the LMS and into a public social networks. First of all, using a public social network allows others from outside the class section to contribute. For example, in the instance where more than one section of a course is being taught, students can engage in conversations with students, and other faculty as well, from across the various sections, but even beyond to students from around the world interested in that subject matter! Having a single conversation that students from multiple sections, as well as other faculty or experts who may wish to contribute, poses some fascinating opportunities for conversations and resource sharing!

Another reason I chose to make us of a social networking site was that conversations within a social network live on after the course ends, whereas conversations within the course discussion board end when the course does. I didn’t want the resource sharing and collaboration activities to end when the course did, but wanted the experience to have the potential of being more transformative in that students would develop personal learning networks that they could continue developing after the course was over.

I did not abandon the secure discussion boards for the course. I still find secured discussion within the LMS to be effective for more in-depth, academic conversations where students are honing their academic writing skills and expressing their ideas in more substantive way. Many LMS’s have integrated assessment tools that aid in the evaluation of contributions to discussion boards, still making them very efficient and effective for in-depth conversations. But, for select discussion activities that are more surface-level, using Twitter can certainly be a viable alternative

Q: How long had you been a Twitter user before integrating it into your curriculum?

While I had been using Twitter for over a year before I finally began integrating it into my curriculum, that amount of use prior to incorporating into the curriculum isn’t necessary. After just a few weeks of use, one should be comfortable tweeting and be able to begin considering ways to implement. A familiarity and comfort level with the features of Twitter is all that is necessary.

Q: For those faculty who have not yet familiarized themselves with the platform, what resources or strategies do you suggest they employ prior to attempting to use it with students? Or, do you believe there is value in learning alongside students?

I do believe there is value in learning Twitter alongside students, but a basic familiarity is helpful and will greatly increase the likelihood for a successful integration in the curriculum. For that reason, here are a few resources to review and recommendations from my own experience that I would pass along to any educator getting started with Twitter in their teaching:

  1. Become familiar with Twitter yourself first. You don’t need to be a Twitter expert and can learn to an extent alongside your students, but I feel you do need an initial familiarity with the process of posting to Twitter, following others, retweeting (aka: forwarding tweets from others), following hashtag searches, and sending direct messages. A good place to start is to view the “Twitter Basics” and “Extending Twitter” tutorials. For even more resources, see jasonrhode.com/tag/twitter
  2. Install the Twitter app on your mobile device and start using Twitter consistently (daily). While you can login to twitter.com to check see the latest tweets in your stream, if you do have a mobile device, you will likely find that accessing Twitter via an app is a quicker and equally effective way to follow the conversations of your students.
  3. Follow several other educators on Twitter and see how they are using Twitter. There are many great directories of Twitter users you might consider checking out where you can find other Twitter users to follow, such as wefollow.com, twellow.com, or tweetfind.com. You also can feel free to follow me @jrhode.
  4. Read the book, “Social Media for Educators: Strategies and Best Practices” by Tanya Joosten. This book is a fantastic primer for anyone looking to incorporate social media, including Twitter, in their teaching. You can grab a copy of the book from Amazon here.
  5. Let others know that you are on Twitter. Include your Twitter username in your email signature, in presentations you give at professional conferences, etc.
  6. Setup a saved search for your course hashtag that you can then follow. I mentioned earlier the importance of selecting a course hashtag and instructing students to include the course hashtag in any course-related tweets. To easily follow just the course-related tweets from your students (and not necessarily all the tweets from your students), do a search for your course hashtag and save that search either on your mobile Twitter app or at twitter.com. In doing so, you’ll be able to quickly select that saved search and see the latest course tweets.
  7. Setup a private list each course section you teach and add students to that course-specific list as well as a separate list of students. Lists within Twitter are wonderful for creating a subset of users that you wish to follow. I recommend creating a list called “students” where you can add all your students as well as separate lists for each of the sections you teach. Add students to whichever list corresponds to their section. As long as you keep your lists private, you will be the only person who can see the collection of tweets sorted by either all your students or just the students for a particular section. If you ever need to see all the tweets from a subset of your students, or from all your students, you’ll then be able to do so by accessing your lists.
  8. Don’t feel like you must read every tweet from everyone you follow. Twitter isn’t like email where you have an inbox that fills up with emails you receive from others. Rather, Twitter can be compared to a stream that is continually flowing. The more people you follow on Twitter, the harder it will become to read everything that those you follow post. That’s ok! Twitter let’s you see what individuals are saying right now. It is for this reason again that if you want to engage with students via Twitter, I suggest that you login on a daily basis to keep up with the flow of conversation.
  9. Add a Twitter widget to your course. Make it easy for your students to see the latest course-related tweets when they login to your course. One way of doing this is to create a Twitter widget and and embed within your course that will scroll the latest new tweets for a specified hashtag. See the quick video tutorial here for creating a Twitter widget and posting embedding it in Blackboard. The process would be similar for any other LMS.
  10. If you blog already, feed your blog posts to your Twitter account. Now this is an advanced recommendation, but if you do already have a blog, consider using Twitter as another means of sharing with others the content that you are blog. You can use a free utility like IFTTT.com, twiterfeed.com, or some other tool that will allow you to automatically share your blog contributions on Twitter. These new tweets that are automatically posted to your Twitter account from our blog will contain a link to the blog article, driving followers back to your blog.
  11. Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

    Let me just encourage you again to give Twitter a try! I’d love to hear more of your experience using Twitter in your teaching. You can “tweet me” @jrhode