Using Twitter as a Learning Activity

Apr 13th, 2011 | Posted by

Twitter Basics

Twitter is a popular Web 2.0 tool for micro-blogging and is beginning to find a place in higher education learning environments. Micro-blogging is the term used to identify the act of communicating via brief texts within some Web 2.0 tools, especially Twitter. Twitter allows only 140 characters in total for Twitter account holders to compose statements or “Tweets.” These Tweets may range in content from “what I’m doing today” to hyperlinks that may be of interest to subscribers (“Followers”). Engaging students in discussion via Twitter allows them to interact with materials that are presented in real time. There are many Twitter accounts created for many different areas of interest. For example, one could follow NY Times at Twitter, The White House at Twitter or Empire State College at Twitter.


Two important Twitter-related concepts to keep in mind when implementing Twitter as a learning activity are “signal” and “noise,” terms borrowed from radio broadcasting. “Noise” describes those Tweets that are of very little contextual quality and have little relevance. “Signal,” on the other hand, describes posts that have relative meaning and which might provide stimulating discussions among your students.

Twitter and the C.O.I. model

Twitter has been used to enhance “social presence” as defined by the Community of Inquiry Model (The Model of a Community of Inquiry, 2007). A case study from the University of Colorado, Denver focuses on the use of Twitter in a module of an instructional design and technology course (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009). The authors encouraged their students to use Twitter in a variety of ways: to post questions and queries to one another or to the course team; to send student?to?student direct messages; to tweet comments on relevant news events; to share resources; to report on conferences attended; to link to student blog postings; and, to exchange personal information. The authors claim that the use of Twitter can enhance students’ perception of a sense of “social presence,” an important concept that helps promote student involvement, commitment and retention. They conclude that Twitter is good for sharing, collaboration, brain-storming, problem solving, and creating within the context of moment?to?moment experiences (Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009). This case study illustrates something of the flexibility of Twitter to enable a range of interactions from private messages between peers, to lightweight Twitter?based tutorials, or “Twittorials” that engage the whole cohort. The evaluation also supports the social-networking dimension of Twitter, with students clearly comfortable with the varieties of information exchange and the heightened perception of belonging and of social connection to both teaching staff and fellow students.

Additionally, Bradshow reports on the use of Twitter in journalism courses (Bradshow, 2008). He describes the difficulty of engaging students who have not used social media before. Part of his aspiration was to expose students to Twitter as a means of helping them see the implications of new technologies for the journalism profession. He argues that teaching students about the tools, through the tools, will help them have a better understanding of the broader implications of these technologies for journalism (Conole & Alevizou, 2010).

Potential applications

Several observations from David Perry’s (Assistant Professor of Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas at Dallas) January 23, 2008 blog entry on Twitter for learning purposes are summarized in the following bullets:

  • Class conversations continued via Twitter. Tweeted information served to reinforce the connection between the class material and its existence in the “real world.”
  • Enhanced social presence as viewed in the Community of Inquiry model…Students became more willing to talk and engage in coursework discussion by getting to know each other better through Twitter.
  • Twitter’s “Public Timeline” – Students (and faculty) can get a sense of what on Twitter is getting the most attention on a global level.
  • Track a Word – Using this function of Twitter will allow one to subscribe to any post that contains that word. For example, a student studying the Civil War could track to find any Tweet that contained the word “Manassas.” This is another efficient way to distinguish Twitter “noise” from “signal.”
  • Perry’s interest in going to the MLA convention, a convention for those in the language and literature field, led him to track the initialism “MLA” on Twitter. Doing so helped him connect before the convention with other Twitter users that were going, as well.
  • The author was able to get instant feedback on lectures from students who were also able to post questions regarding lecture content with classmates responding!
  • Follow a professional in your chosen field – Perry notes that students interested in journalism can follow NewMediaJim, real name, Jim Long. Jim works for NBC and Tweets about being on Air Force One, covering the Middle East, etc. He has 42, 213 Twitter followers, to date, and offers a not-easily-found, insider’s view of journalism.
  • Follow a famous person of interest to you – Many celebrities, artists and politicians have Twitter accounts they post to, regularly!
  • Grammar rules: – Because of the limited amount of characters allowed in Tweets, students will have to be more aware of grammar and punctuation rules to create Tweets that are clearly understood.
  • “Rule-Based Writing” – Again, because of its character limitations, students will have to be aware of how that affects the content they choose to Tweet.
  • Allows students to contribute to the “Teachable Moment.”
  • Twitter is good for sharing short inspirations that may pop into one’s head.
  • “Round-Robin Writing” – Remember this from grammar school? Perry, in his blog, cites how this can be a stimulating activity when done via Twitter.

Twitter is a rich resource for any field of study that can benefit from media-reported, current events. If Empire State College faculty members are interested, they can see their center’s Faculty Instructional Technologist and can also find ESC-related Twitter info here.


Bradshow, P. (2008) ‘Teaching Students to twitter: the good, the bad and the ugly’ Blog post 15/02/2008. Retrieved January 12, 2011 at

Conole, G. & Alevizou, P. (2010). A literature review of the use of Web 2.0 tools in Higher Education. Retrieved from

Dunlap, J. C. & Lowenthal, P. R. (2009). Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2).

Junco, R., Heiberger, G. and Loken, E.  The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, no. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00387

N.A. (2007). The Model of A Community of Inquiry. Retrieved from

Perry, D. (January, 23 2008). Twitter for Academia. Retrieved January 16, 2011 from

  1. Elliot Luber
    Apr 14th, 2011 at 19:30
    Quote | #1

    Last summer I had students in my Corporate Communications class at ESC’s MBA program follow (with their permission) six noted media experts on Twitter for two weeks, and then write a paper about how one of the experts used Twitter to promote his or her career. Students enjoyed the program, but the time constraints of the shorter Summer semester made it difficult.

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