I, too, resisted twitter, not so long ago.  Then, I took a great teaching training program in which I had to come up with a research topic for my final written project. I wanted to research ways to effectively engage a large class, as my first lecture for my first class loomed before me. Lo and behold, I found that twitter might be just the tool to help me connect. It’s safe to say I’m now converted (and I use it in small classes as well).  Now I find myself frequently vouching for the merits of twitter for teaching and learning.

So, if you are an educator who has never clicked on the little blue bird and signed yourself up for 140 characters worth of self-expression, this post is for you. This is is not the how, this is the why. And highly effective teachers who use technology always start with the why.  So…

Why use twitter in higher ed?

  1. You can start off small.  The twitter-sphere can be overwhelming. There are hashtags and short forms, direct messages, retweets, and favourites, there are throwback thursdays, follow fridays, moody mondays (I don’t know… SMH), and acronyms like SMH. You can display tweets from class discussions in real-time on the projector screen, you can make twitter-based assignments, you can track tweets and get tweet stats. But the good news is, you don’t have to do all of that right now.  You can start off small and still get great use out of it in your class.
  2. You can get customized, course-related news items, quickly.  A news story is a great hook for the beginning of class, but it can be a huge time suck searching for related and current news items.  Fortunately, my twitter feed is like an automatically customized list of headlines and is filled with course-related gems.  That’s because my feed is tailored based on who I choose to follow.  I follow journals, newspapers, science writers, politicians, environmentalists, and scientists, and they post fascinating and current items that are right up my alley!  You might be surprised how many colleagues from your favourite conference are already sharing their ideas on twitter.
  3. It can get students thinking about your course outside of class time. That’s right. They can never get away from you.  I’m going to call that a good thing.[tweet 392757991960608768 hide_media=’true’]
  4. It allows you to access different learning styles. For the first time, I am marking students for participation.  My class participates in several ways, but some of it is good, old fashioned, on-the-spot questions during lecture.  However, for every student whose hand shoots up in the air, there are 8 more1 who are quietly thinking carefully and mulling things over, with little desire to share their idea with the class just yet. Using twitter as an alternative way for students to share opinions and news items is one way to give voice to (and get input from) more students.
  5. It’s not Facebook. Captain obvious, here. But really, this is an important distinction. For many (myself included), Facebook is not the ‘place’2 to interact with students. I expect that a lot of misgivings about using twitter with students are more accurately attributed to Facebook.  Twitter can be less personal if you decide to make it so. For example, during my course, I post primarily about course content and leave personal stuff to my Facebook or <gasp> the people who I actually talk to face-to-face.  I explain to my students that I will not ‘follow’ them back.  This lets them know that I’m not lurking in their twitter space (I’m sure they don’t want me to know their personal details), and it also means that their random musings, however interesting they may be, do not clog up my twitter feed.  On the other hand…
  6. It’s more personal than email, and less intimidating than coming up to talk to you about the cool news item that made them think of lecture 2. You wish it wasn’t, but I know it’s true because I was afraid of you during my undergrad. By using twitter, you level the playing field and are playing by the same rules. You may fear that this will take away face-to-face interaction but I expect it would actually invite further interaction, now that you’re sort of human. Plus, your students can share their thoughts right when they are thinking of your class, even if it’s 2:30 a.m. What are the chances they were going to remember their idea over the weekend, and then actually come up to you at break and share the idea with you? Let them tweet you right when they think of it.

What do you think? Are you going to take the leap?

1 – totally fabricated statistic.

2 – does Facebook qualify as a place? Oh, geography…