Friday, October 23, 2009

Twitter Lessons in 140 Characters or Less

Kathleen Kennedy Manzo / Education Week  / October 16, 2009 [Online]

The Twitter feed for Lucas Ames’ class in American history has shown some lively exchanges of ideas and opinions among students at the Flint Hill School. One day this month, 11th graders at the private school in Oakton, Va., shared articles on the separation of church and state, pondered the persistence of racism, and commented on tobacco regulation in Virginia now and during the Colonial period—all in the required Twitter format of 140 or fewer characters.

Those are exactly the kinds of interactions Mr. Ames had hoped for when he decided to experiment with the microblogging tool in his classroom this school year.

He and other teachers first found Twitter valuable for reaching out to colleagues and locating instructional resources. Now, they’re trying it out in the classroom as an efficient way to distribute assignments and to foster collaboration among students.


“It’s not a research-based tool,” said Daniel T. Willingham, a professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, in Charlottesville. “The most important thing to remember is that we have no idea what impact these tools have on learning, and it will take a decade to answer that question.”


Classroom Connections @Twitter


Twitter has not caught on among school-age children as quickly or universally as other Web 2.0 tools, such as Facebook or MySpace: Only about 1 percent of the estimated 12 million users in the United States are between the ages of 3 and 17, although young adults are the fastest-growing group of users, according to recent reports. Still, some teachers are hoping that, given the appeal of social networking, Twitter can be used to get students engaged in the content and processes of school.

“For a lot of teachers who started off using Twitter as a professional-development tool, they’ve been building a professional learning community and using information that’s been shared,” said Steve Dembo, the online-community manager for the Discovery Educator Network, or DEN, which encourages collaboration among its more than 100,000 members across the country. [snip]

In discussions on the DEN, which is hosted by the Silver Spring, Md.-based Discovery Education, Mr. Dembo has noticed a significant uptick in questions and recommendations among teachers about using Twitter, mostly addressing how to simplify administrative tasks or encourage students to conduct research or collaborate with classmates and their peers across the country.

Mr. Ames, the history teacher, has already seen some results in classroom participation by students, who are given the choice of participating in the Twitter feed or writing an extra research paper.


Dorie Glynn, who teaches a bilingual 2nd grade class at Kirk Elementary School in Houston, has been preparing students for conversations of their own on Twitter. The students have started following other classes at the school, and across the country, as they get ready to share data on regional cultures, weather, and to play a virtual I Spy game, in which they will hunt for geometric shapes in maps and photos sent from Twitter followers in other places.


Pros and Cons Debated

With scant research on the efficacy of social-networking tools such as Twitter, and few clear insights into the best (and worst) uses for them, there is little agreement among researchers and educators about how or whether Twitter-like technologies could or should be used in schools.


Today’s students, she added, are going to need to have highly developed critical-thinking skills, be able to digest large amounts of information, and determine what’s important and what’s not. Those are the very kinds of skills they tend to use with Web 2.0 tools, she argued.


A few studies have found some positive correlations between text-messaging aptitude and literacy. Research on gaming and educational multimedia programs have also shown some positive impact on learning. But few scientific experiments can show a direct link between the use of such technology and student achievement.


Few teachers, though, need definitive studies to tell them that social media can be a problem in the classroom if not carefully planned for and controlled.


Even so, Mr. Willingham said, tools such as Twitter may have utility in helping students communicate, stay organized, and learn research and analytical skills.

The anecdotal evidence among Twitter fans, however, has been positive, Mr. Dembo of the Discovery Educator Network said.

“Most of the people expressing concerns are not the people who’ve found value in Twitter in their professional or personal lives,” he said. “That’s not to say their points about the potential downsides are not valid.”


Beyond Technology

At the Flint Hill School in Virginia, Mr. Ames has been carefully considering how he might control usage before expanding Twitter use in his class. Right now, students contribute to Twitter outside the classroom, although tweets are mostly related to conversations and content from class.

“As we prepare students for college, we tell them it’s not always just about how hard you work, but how smart you work,” he said. “These collaborative tools can help them become smarter students, and to use collaborative knowledge versus going through these classes on your own and never talking to anyone about them.”

As with any tool, Mr. Willingham said, the medium should not be the primary concern for teachers. The way students receive information—through Twitter, via e-mail, or in a printed handout—may not have a dramatic effect on how they use it.


“The medium is not enough,” he added. “People talk about the vital importance of Web 2.0 and 3.0, and that kids have got to acquire those skills. But we can’t all just be contributing to wikis and tweeting each other. Somebody’s got to create something worth tweeting.”



  1. RE: Your interest in info on Twitter/microblogging in education

    I heard a very good presentation by Cliff Lampe at Michigan State University entitled "Community Building & Social Media Tools". In it, he cited some sources of social media research/stats. I don't have my notes with me, but perhaps his site would be of some help.

  2. Some Edu/Twitter links at


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