Friday, November 27, 2009

EQ > "Where Do You Learn?": Tweeting To Inform Learning Space Development

By Elizabeth J. Aspden and Louise P. Thorpe

EDUCAUSE Quarterly (EQ) » EQ Archives » EQ Volume 32 (2009) » Volume 32, Number 1, 2009 »

Key Takeaways >

Emerging technologies and applications can extend traditional approaches to data generation and can be used effectively in institutional planning.

Having participants provide real-time information offers valuable behavioral insights in context, rather than relying on information recall.

Using a method where data is shared and emerging — as opposed to controlled and presented summatively — enables informed decisions about ongoing projects and developments.

Learning environment development has been a key part of the Academic Innovation Team’s remit for a number of years at Sheffield Hallam University (UK) ... . Beginning with our research into the impact of e-learning on the student experience in 2002 — and recognizing the way e-learning influenced students’ views of physical spaces — we started to look more closely at the ways in which our students and faculty use on-campus spaces, and at ways in which our environments needed to evolve. A recurring theme that emerged was the importance of serendipitous meetings and the ad hoc use of those "in between" times: in between taught sessions, in between focused study, in between study and home.

Student Use of Informal Spaces

By 2007–8 a particular focus of ours was students’ use of informal learning spaces. We set out to develop an understanding of different patterns of informal learning and to examine how we can support these through effective provision of space, resources, and integrated online and face-to-face activities.


For the purposes of our work, we chose to define informal learning as:

The activities that take place in students’ self-directed and independent learning time, where the learning is taking place to support a formal program of study, but outside the formally planned and tutor-directed activities.

Tweet, Tweet: What Are You Doing?

In early 2008 we were looking for an innovative data-generation method to support our work.[snip]

At the time, one of the authors was using Twitter as part of an established and active network; the other had just started experimenting with it and was on the verge of abandoning it. After all, there’s a limit to the number of times you can update (or tweet) "sat at my desk…" to an audience of people in the same office and still believe that there’s a point! It was registering her phone to enable short message service (SMS) updates on the go that convinced her to think about the possibility of harnessing this succinct, mobile, always on technology as a sort of micro-diary. What if we could take Twitter’s "What are you doing?" prompt and instead ask "Where are you learning?" Could we get students to send tweets that would offer insights into their learning patterns, activities, and environmental triggers?

We recruited 15 students to take part in a two-week study. During this time ...  we asked each participant to:

Register for a Twitter account and tweet an average of three times per day about their learning activities and the spaces they were using;

•Provide three longer summaries per week offering additional information on points of interest selected by us (for example, "You mention working in x location — what is it about this space that works for you?"); and

Take part in a final reflective interview at the end of the fortnight.

Only one participant had used Twitter before, but with a five-minute introduction to the application, all the students managed to use it successfully and easily. Most chose to register their phones to allow SMS tweets and used a combination of PC- and phone-based updates. Using a dedicated project account (@learningspaces), we were able to track and collate the tweets of our participants.

[snip] ... [T]hose students who expressed an interest in participating mentioned specific benefits as contributing to their willingness to take part:

•Benefits for themselves: "Taking part would encourage me to open my eyes more of what I do day to day to learn!"

Benefits for their programs of study: "I feel that it would benefit me within my field of study."

•Benefits for on-campus spaces: "Me and my friends are always complaining about where we can study, so this could improve the spaces available to us."


Benefits of Twitter for Data Collection

The benefits of using Twitter over more traditional diary-based data includes the ability for participants to update anytime, almost anywhere, and through a variety of devices that are integral to their lives (cell phones, laptops, desktop PCs). [snip]

•Their environment: "I’m in collegiate learning centre doing group work in the main part downstairs! It’s quite distracting and it’s really hot in here!"

The resources they are using: "In Adsetts quiet area revising. Just books, not computer."

•The sorts of activities they are involved with: "Tuesday evening, muddled study at home, cooking, sorting out car to menders, family, laptop runs in conservatory and gets picked at."

The limited length of tweets — 140 characters — meant that updates were concise and focused on the key question. This also encouraged participants to be selective in capturing the most significant aspects to share.

The use of Twitter as the collection tool contributed an additional dimension to the diary-based data by making the data visible to the community in real time. [snip]

Using an emergent technology based on community and sharing to gather research data also changed the nature of the relationship between the participants, the researcher, and the wider community. [snip]

On occasion, the participants and researcher used the direct-message facility on Twitter to send private communications, although most of the time e-mail was used as a back channel for queries, instructions, or follow-up requests.[snip]

As Twitter use becomes more embedded in everyday life  ... , some interesting conversational models are emerging. Consequently, we expect that researchers and participants alike would feel more comfortable using Twitter in this way than we did in early 2008.

Stories to Help Decision Making

To aid longer term planning and decision making, we created a set of 10 personal stories based on the data collected from the individuals involved in the study.

To view Angela’s story, Billy’s story, and all the rest, see:


We are using these stories internally to initiate and frame dialogue with key decision makers, drawing upon students’ rich personal experiences to inform the facilities, services, and opportunities we offer to learners. The @learningspaces account is continuing its life as an alternative communications channel.

Twitter proved to be a valuable tool for data generation, particularly when combined with the slightly longer summaries. To further enrich the data, it would be interesting to look at using the text-based information with photos ... .

Using Web 2.0 for Evaluation on Your Campus?

For institutions considering using Twitter or other Web 2.0 applications for evaluation, we recommend thinking through the following issues:

1. Would my institution accept data generated using Web 2.0 applications (Twitter, Flickr) as valid or useful? What barriers to acceptance might there be? What steps might I need to take to encourage acceptance?

2. How many participants would I need? What kind of support might they need? What criteria might I use to select participants? How might I encourage participation? How long would the study last?

3. Could I use Twitter to generate data about institutional priorities other than learning spaces? Could I encourage the use of related applications (Twitpics, Snaptweet) to enrich the data set? How might I share emerging findings within my own institution?

As for our experience — overall, Twitter exceeded our expectations for this work. Although the depth and style of our participants’ tweets varied greatly, most offered us much more than we had hoped for by providing lighthearted but insightful information about how their university, home, and social lives blended together. [snip]


Authors >

Elizabeth J. Aspden ( is a Senior Lecturer, Curriculum Innovation (Learning Environments), Learning and Teaching Institute, Sheffield Hallam University.

Louise P. Thorpe ( is Head of Academic Innovation, Learning and Teaching Institute, Sheffield Hallam University.

© 2009 Elizabeth J. Aspden and Louise P. Thorpe. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 license.



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