Driving Student Engagement with Twitter

The importance of social media in our daily lives is becoming increasingly hard to ignore.

Our private, public, and even academic realms seem to be meshing with this virtual world – and at quite a fast pace.

To many, this integration is daunting — after all, the internet is permanent. and the vast nature of its abilities can be both powerful and scary. The research in this field follows a similar train of thought. While many scholars argue for purposeful integration of social media as an educational tool, they lack the true empirical evidence to support this claim.

According to Paul Tess, a professor of Educational Psychology at the University of Minnesota, “Most of the existing research on the utility and effectiveness of social media in the higher education class is limited to self-reported data.” In other words, many believe it to be important to consider but have a hard time understanding to what extent this integration will be effective.

Education’s main purpose has always been to transfer knowledge.

Whether it be through tangible writing or orated stories, human interaction is an essential key to this purpose. I’m not a researcher, but I believe that higher education would benefit immensely from engaging students in inclusive dialogue on social media — Twitter especially.

The questions then remain; Why is it important to include, yet another, dimension to learning? What are the conceived benefits of such integration? Furthermore, how do learning institutions balance this new responsibility?

To answer these questions, I looked to the growing research on the topic and attempted to expand and apply its findings. It is worth noting that the integration of social media in the classroom is not an attempt to push out previous learning methods (i.e. ‘brick and mortar’, virtual, hybrid) but rather to supplement these existing styles.

Twitter in the classroom

There are multiple ways to incorporate Twitter into the classroom environment. The degree of integration depends heavily on purpose and professor (or academic professional). For some, it may be beneficial to use Twitter simply for its original purpose — to share a concise note or thought.

The things that make Twitter seemingly limiting to use in the academic realm (character blocks, format, and engagement strategies), are the very things that can make it so effective in the classroom.

The newly expanded 280 character limit has the ability to quickly capture the scattered attention of our 21st-century minds. The limit requires educators and administrators alike to relay information in a shorter, more concise, fashion. This, in turn, can take seemingly complex ideas or events and summarize their meaning or purpose into a few sentences or less.

Another way of incorporating Twitter into the classroom is to use the platform as a resource bank. By making course specific hashtags or lists for classes, you can connect groups of individuals to each other conveniently in one place. Students can periodically access these forums and contribute as they see fit.

Twitter as a Student Engagement Strategy

According to a study conducted on Masters students at VU University in the Netherlands, student engagement did indeed increase with the added use of information and communication technologies (ICT).

The authors tested this by inviting students to participate using a specific tool (in this case Soapbox) on their phone or laptop during half of the lectures. For the other half, taught by the same professor, this tool was not used. After a series of evaluations, “the results show that the ICT tool facilitated and increased the level of communication and interaction among the students and between the students and the lecturers. Students’ scored lectures with the tool consistently higher on the item “engaging.” Most of the students appreciated the use of the ICT tool and said that they felt more involved.”

By this logic, it benefits students, especially those in large classroom settings, to have an interactive component to their learning. Social media (specifically Twitter) could very well be this missing link.

Dr. Richard Light from the Harvard School of Education proposes a similar approach, noting that “the strongest determinant of students’ success in college is their ability to form or participate in small study groups.”

By actively posing opportunities for students to contextualize their learnings (whether it be with the professor or with classmates), an institution can help facilitate the avenue for success. Social media networks, like Twitter, have an advantage in gaining the attention of these students, as it is a form of communication already commonly used.

Understanding the Potential

Though it has its benefits, the microblogging service that Twitter provides can create challenges for facilitators. How can you monitor such an open forum? How, in engaging students and others across campus, can you be sure that these spaces are inclusive and safe?

Though we ordinarily associate power with control, perhaps the solution (and effectiveness) comes in this inability to control. Unrestricted minds and thoughts are powerful, though there are always exceptions to this rule. Finding this balance is dependent on the professor and the learning outcomes of the specific class (or in a larger sense, the University).

In social sciences, for example, it may be more pertinent to monitor or even restrict some avenues of discussion. In mathematics and science, these ideas may have more objective tangible roots and therefore may not require such heavy scrutiny. Holistically, by working with students on platforms that they’re already participating in, we give yet another reason for students to stay engaged and involved, especially in long classes or generally across campus.

If education’s main purpose is to transfer knowledge, then perhaps there is no better way for this to occur than to allow students to engage and learn concisely from one another through forums they are already using.

Social media brings together people from all over the world and allows the opportunity for different individuals to share their thoughts, stories and beliefs. There is no longer an excuse for ignorance; knowledge is at the tip of our fingertips. It is my belief that we should harness this power, and use it.

Dalia Ibrahim

About the author: Dalia is a junior at Wayne State University pursuing a Political Science and Peace and Conflict degree. She is looking to make an impact in her local community of Detroit and aspires to one day be a human rights lawyer. Learn how we can help get your students involved.

Check I'm Here is now Presence. Learn more about this change in our blog post here.