Much Ado About Twitter

Twitter is an example of a microblogging service, the above video, Twitter in Plain English by the excellent Common Craft, gives a succinct overview of its features and functionality. Other microblogging services like Yammer, and Jaiku have been around too, but have not garnered the high-profile “celebrity status” that their most illustrious competitor has achieved.

I got started on Twitter around 2007 as I was starting to get fed up with the various pokes, bites and invites that was emanating from Facebook account. My Facebook page was starting to get uncontrollable as other people were urging me to respond to their various online requests and activities. Twitter presented a simpler, less cluttered variation of the “My Status” feature on Facebook which I liked very much. However, it would be a year later when I got my “aha!” moment and realised that instead of following celebrities like Stephen Fry or Jamie Oliver, I could follow people who were in my field of interest and what’s more they were sharing ideas, resources and publicising up-and-coming conferences. All this within a 140 character limit! The power of URL shortening services like TinyURL,, and were designed for the likes of Twitter to make every character that you typed in count.

The growth of Twitter has given rise to a number of spin-off applications like creating “back channels” during a lecture or a conference using such tools as:

The ability to schedule the releasing of your tweets with such tools as:

Twitter clients have proven popular to manage not only your Twitter statuses, but the statuses of other social networking services like Facebook and LinkedIn, these include:

Other tools include audience response software like Poll Everywhere; the ability to embed Twitter feeds into your Microsoft PowerPoint presentations; and the ability to search and then follow people within your chosen field who use Twitter with tools like Twellow and TweepML.

Like a lot of technology, attention is drawn towards its suitability to support and sustain learning and teaching, and Twitter is no exception. Various individuals have blogged about teaching with Twitter; encouraging teachers to use Twitter for resource sharing; or have presented a top 100 list of things to do with Twitter. The Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies has compiled an extensive list of articles and resources on using Twitter for social learning. Others have used Twitter as part of research projects and experiments (see Aspden & Thorpe, 2009; Dunlap & Lowenthal, 2009; McNeill, 2010b and Smith, 2009).

Whilst the likes of me and other educationalists enthuse about the opportunities and potentials offered by the likes of Twitter, most of our undergraduates are rather underwhelmed by it and just don’t get it (see McNeill, 2010b), finding it boring compared to something that is more visually arresting and highly customisable like Facebook – and there is the rub, Twitter does not have the range of add-ons, games and applications that can be found in Facebook. What’s more, you are limited to just 140 characters to describe “what’s on your mind”.

From previous research, we know students are not comfortable using social networking services to support learning activities (Ipsos MORI, 2008) and feel that their tutors should not be invading their digital social spaces (Green & Hannon, 2007). To further reinforce the students need to compartmentalise their “learning lives” from their “social lives”, Salmon & Edirisingha (2008) provide a number of case studies where tutors were developing podcasts for their students to use. The lecturers assumed, quite wrongly as it turns out, that their students would download these MP3 podcasts into their personal MP3 devices. Most students (70% in one sample) did not want any learning related podcasts to be downloaded onto their iPods, preferring to listen to them from a desktop computer – thus negating the flexible and mobile affordances offered by MP3 technology.

However, before I am quick to shake my head in disbelief, I remind myself that not too long ago, I didn’t want to use my personal mobile phone for work purposes, preferring to use a secondary mobile phone for that very purpose. Do we therefore suggest to students that they might want to invest in a secondary portable device, albeit a much cheaper one, for learning-related activities?

Not only do most students seem to compartmentalise their “learning lives” from their “social lives”, there also seems to be a “fear and loathing” on their part for publishing their course-related work within the public domain via an external Web 2.0 service (like WordPress, PB Works, Flickr or YouTube), whereas they are happy to post snaps of their holidays, pets and friends on Facebook for all of the world and their dog to see. Whilst the “walled garden” of a virtual learning environment (VLE) offers a viable and trusted solution, some of our students are just not that enamoured with University VLEs finding them “clunky” and “unfriendly” and wanting the University VLEs to be “a bit like Facebook”.

Such contradictory attitudes and practices make it difficult for educationalists to guess the best way to engage their students in using a range of technologies to support their studies. One approach is to seek out visually appealing, safe and secure “neutral zones” which are neither the monolithic University VLE, nor the very public and social digital spaces that are inhabited by our students. Furthermore, our students need to know why we are using certain technologies to support learning outcomes and why these technologies are important and beneficial to the student’s overall satisfaction, which (hopefully) in turn lead towards the transferability of employable skills of a digital literate and competent citizen for the 21st Century marketplace.


Aspden, E.J. & Thorpe, L.P. (2009). “’Where Do You Learn?’: Tweeting to Inform Learning Space Development.” EDUCAUSE Quarterly, 32(1). Available from: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

Dunlap, J.C. & Lowenthal, P.R. (2009). “Tweeting the Night Away: Using Twitter to Enhance Social Presence”. Journal of Information Systems Education, 20(2), pp. 129-136. Available at: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

Green, H. & Hannon, C. (2007). Their Space. London: Demos.  Available at: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

Ipsos MORI. (2008). Great Expectations of ICT. Bristol: Joint Information Systems Committee (JISC). Available at: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

McNeill, T. (2009). “Twitter for reflective learning activities”. Available at: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

McNeill, T. (2010a). Twitter in Higher Education. Kingston: University of Kingston. Available at: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

McNeill, T. (2010b). Twitter in Higher Education: Social media, academic literacies and online learning communities.  Unpublished MA thesis. University of Sheffield. Available at: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

Morgan Stanley Research. (2009). Media & Internet: How Teenagers Consume Media. London: Morgan Stanley. Available at: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

Ramsden, A. (2009). Using micro-blogging (Twitter) in your teaching and learning: An introductory guide. Discussion Paper. Bath: University of Bath. Available at: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

Salmon, G. & Edirisingha. P. (Eds). (2008). Podcasting for Learning in Universities. Berkshire: Society for Research into Higher Education (SRHE).

Smith, A. (2011). Twitter Update 2011. Washington: Pew Research Centre. Available at: (Accessed 1.6.2011).

Smith, K. (2009). The Twitter Experiment. Dallas: University of Texas at Dallas. Available at: (Accessed 31.5.2011).

Wheeler, S. (2011). “Twitter: it’s still about the connections”. Learning with ‘e’s. Available at: (1.6.2011).