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Academia and the Twitterverse

Posted on July 15, 2013 by Tadween Editors | 0 comments


Image credit: Chinen Keiya/Flickr

Technology continues to transform education all over the world. We have previously covered the issue of MOOCs, the use of technology in the classroom, and other issues of education and technology. But now we can see technology and education interact in quite an unlikely place: Twitter. The 140 character limit to tweets seems to conflict with the unending process of education. However, there are some signs that the Twitterverse is beginning to have an influence on pedagogy.

While the site may not be of obvious use in the classroom, like any other social media tool it can be used as a means of engaging the public and exchanging ideas, as well as advocating on behalf of education or universities. Universities and educators around the globe have a social media presence through Facebook; now they are similarly adapting to Twitter. Yet, Twitter is quite different from Facebook with its limited word count per tweet.


Innovative ideas and discussions concerning the use of Twitter in the classroom have already begun circulating. Tom Barrett recently highlighted on his blog “35 Interesting Ways to Use Twitter in the Classroom.” Edudemic, a website focusing on the use of technology in education, also features “100 Ways to Use Twitter in Education, By Degree of Difficulty.” BestCollegesOnline.com also has its own version of Twitter tips, with “100 Serious Twitter Tips for Academics.” For those who express interest, there is even an online course on “Twitter for Academia” offered by Oxford University.

While models for using Twitter in the classroom are relatively new, there has already been a clear impact of Twitter on academic research. Twitter has become a source for data collection. Programs, such as NodeXL v.210, are being developed in order to collect and organize data from Twitter and other social media websites to be used for research. In the meantime, education groups are frequently creating guides about Twitter and academia.

Perhaps the most comprehensive of these guides is one that is published by the LSE Public Policy Group and the LSE Impact of Social Sciences blog, “Using Twitter in University research, teaching and impact activities: A guide for academics and researchers.” According to LSE, “the guide is designed to lead the novice through the basics of Twitter but also provide tips on how it can aid the teaching and research of the more experienced academic tweeter.”

There are a plethora of other guides and how-to-manuals on Twitter and academia that are in the works or floating around in the world wide web, but there are also words of caution when it comes to academics engaging on Twitter.

While Twitter may provide a valuable tool for exchanging ideas in real time, Lee Bessette wrote a piece for Inside Higher Ed that reminds academics and scholars that Twitter is open to the public and easily accessible to everyone, and, therefore, educators must watch what they say. Following an incident in which an academic friend of hers had false accusations against her blasted on Twitter, Bessette fears that “Twitter for academics is turning into academia in 140 characters, with the same power structures, the same petty politics, and the same rigid policing of speech and ideas.” Katrina Gulliver’s “10 Commandments of Twitter for Academics,” written for the Chronicle of Higher Education, gives some suggestions for how academics can keep things professional while still being themselves on Twitter.

In an article in the Guardian on how Twitter is affecting academia and research, Ernesto Priego simplifies Twitter’s usability by saying that it is a microblogging platform that “is purposefully designed to exchange information and to facilitate reciprocal communication and attribution, therefore enabling the creation of communities of individuals interested in common topics.” Priego states that traditionally, academics would publish their work through pre-established channels in the form of a document (whether a thesis, book, or an article). But now, more academics are putting material online. “They make it available, but this does not necessarily guarantee people will read it.”

That is when social networking sites like Twitter take things a step further. Networking on social media requires academics to reach out, publicize, and Tweet in a frenzy in order to get their publications acknowledged by certain audiences, or by the public-at-large.

Priego also touches upon a very important point regarding how Twitter (and social media in general) has reshaped the traditional roles of academia. Conventionally, the producer of knowledge is the professor or lecturer, whereas the student is the receiver. But in the Twitterverse, and in other social media more generally, these roles change. A lecture becomes a “conversation,” thereby allowing anyone to produce knowledge. This complicates the issue of who is producing knowledge, and how they are producing it.

Aside from the publicity that Twitter can afford educators, schools, and universities, there is something to be said about its general impact on knowledge consumption and production. The 140 character limit per tweet speaks to the growing trend in knowledge consumption that has been inspired by new gadgets and technologies, where time is of the essence and the less there is to read the better. In 2012, the Pew Research Center conducted a survey on how youth are gathering research in the digital world. Of the teachers surveyed, eighty-seven percent said that new technologies are creating an “easily distracted generation with short attention spans.” In addition, sixty-four percent claim that today’s digital technologies “do more to distract students than to help them academically.”

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