Thursday, November 26, 2009

Twittering > The Student Experience

Twittering > The Student Experience

Association For Learning Technology / Issue 17 / October 2009

Alan Cann (Department of Biology)  / Jo Badge  (School of Biological Sciences) / Stuart Johnson (Student Development)  / Alex Moseley (Course Design and Development Unit)
University of Leicester, UK


[snip] Twitter is a powerful personal research tool, populated by carefully selected individuals whom we have chosen to 'follow' for their knowledge and insight. [snip] Unlike a Google search, which will only suggest links related to the terms searched, a question posted via Twitter usually yields a range of replies, from shortened URLs containing answers to the question to more intelligent responses. For example, when Professor Martin Weller asked on Twitter

"What are the key components of a viral idea?",

he received a wide range of replies ... . Similarly, a tweeted remark I made during a seminar on creativity turned into an online discussion on the subject  ... . [snip]

While the largest age group on Twitter is the 35-49 range ... . the service is rapidly growing in popularity among younger users. The most recent data ... suggests that 65% of Twitter users are under the age of 25 ... [snip] . One year ago, a Twitter search for 'University of Leicester' revealed little of interest. More recent searches reveal a growing volume of conversation between existing students, often across institutional boundaries, and also from prospective students, commenting on perceptions of the University and Higher Education (HE)in general.


Based on our personal experience of Twitter, we were interested in examining what use students would make of the service and to what extent it could be used as a support channel. In the summer of 2008 we were awarded 10 iPod Touch devices through the JISC TechDis HEAT3 scheme ...  to evaluate their potential as low-cost mobile gateways to microblogging services. The iPod Touch was chosen for its superior accessibility over other mobile devices (such as regular mobile phones), ease of use, multi-mode nature, wifi capabilities, and for its attraction as a device to students (helping to encourage participation in the project).

We selected Twitter as the sector-leading microblogging service. The benefits of using Twitter for data collection have previously been described ... .These authors found that Twitter could provide light-hearted but insightful information about how students' university, home, and social lives blend together. There are many free Twitter clients available for the iPodTouch; the service is also available via a simple web page and via mobile phones through SMS.

Study participants were campus-based first year undergraduate students in the School of Biological Sciences, all 18-19 years old, who were participating in their first semester of higher education. [snip]

Participants were provided with an iPod Touch, although they were free to 'tweet' via other devices. To incentivise recruitment, several students were selected at random to keep one of the iPod Touches at the end of the project. Participating students were required to tweet at least four times per day, ... .They were also encouraged to label their tweets with a unique 'hashtag'  ... . Participants were enthusiastic about using the devices and were rigorous about using hashtags in their messages.

This provided a powerful means of tracking a stream of information for later analysis. The hashtags were easily tracked using RSS ... . Tagged messages were collated and archived via the RSS feed from the hashtag using an RSS aggregator (Google Reader), since Twitter content does not remain on the system indefinitely. Tweetstats ...  was used to further analyse the number of messages per day, Twitter clients used, and the percentage of @tweets (i.e. replies to other Twitter users). A measure of the student networks was made by counting the number of followers and following accounts listed on their profile pages. The evidence collected online was supported with a short online survey that asked the participants about their previous experience of Twitter and their impressions of using it on this project.



All of the study participants were new to Twitter and had not previously used it or any similar microblogging service. We provided the participants with online training materials about Twitter and the iPod Touch via a project wiki ( but the iPod Touch devices proved to be very intuitive and very little instruction was needed beyond the initial face-to-face set up meeting.


Table 1: Analysis of Twitter use by participants.

All of the participants used multiple interfaces to access Twitter, including some not available on the mobile devices.

In a relatively short period of time, the participants formed quite sophisticated peer networks, following up to 60 accounts with the ratio of following:followers at 1.5. Although many messages posted consisted of simple status updates carrying the designated hashtag, participants were also highly conversational in their use of Twitter, with over a third of their messages being @replies to other people (Figures 1 and 2). [snip]

Figure 1: Graphs to show the pattern of hashtag usage on Twitter by the participants.

Some typical examples of messages posted during the project:

"Doing metabolism questions over msn, testing each other is a fab way to learn! If only I knew any answers".

"Has the words 'russian bride' written on his hand, and can't remember much of last night.... Now for chemistry revision".

"Is rather worried about the assessment tomorrow and is preparing herself for failure".

Participants were very open in their Twitter postings and a strong community soon grew. Nevertheless, students were conscious that their messages were public and exercised mature self-editing in their online behaviour, with no incidences of inappropriate content being posted during the project. [snip]

Figure 2: Word cloud generated from tagged messages sent by the participants during the four week project period.

Emergence of Peer-Support

Peer support became a key feature of this student network, with activity rising just prior to assessment deadlines or during revision for exams. Content analysis of the messages indicated clear evidence of the emergence of personal learning networks. Students used these networks when preparing assessed work or revising for tests, often in situations when they were physically isolated from their peers. [snip]

Summary and Future Plans

As a relatively low cost mobile device, the iPod Touch is an easy to use device that does not require much training or support and allows a wide range of applications. However, the data during this work shows that Twitter was the main attraction, with students accessing the service via a range of devices and continuing to do so when the iPod Touch devices were no longer available.

The academic departments involved in the study were so impressed with the affordances of Twitter that they have continued to use it in their pedagogic academic practices and plan to work with other bodies in the University such as the Students' Union to promote the use of Twitter as a lightweight communication channel in the coming academic year.


We are grateful to JISC TechDis ( for their support under the HEAT3 scheme.



1 comment:

  1. Excellent info. Will incorporate some of your work as I plan professional development on the use of Twitter in the classroom for my high school colleagues. Thanks!


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