Using Twitter in Higher Education
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Using Twitter in Higher Education

Using Twitter in Higher Education


Politicians are increasingly using social media to engage with their constituents, and it has been said that President Obama skillfully used social media, particularly Twitter, to engage younger voters and win both of his presidential elections.  As such, it is important when teaching about policy to ensure that students know how to skillfully navigate Twitter in order to advocate and engage with their elected representatives and increase their civic participation.   This review will present research on the use of Twitter in educational settings, particularly at the higher education level. It has guided my work as I seek to establish the integration of social media into my instruction.


Twitter is a social networking website and microblogging platform that connects people and organizations to each other through the use of short messages, called tweets, which are a maximum of 140 characters.  Connections are made through following other Twitter users, tagging users, and using hashtags.   Twitter was launched in 2006, and the concept was simple. Keep a message to 140 characters or less.  By 2007, the hashtag was born as a suggestion from a Twitter user.  In 2009, when the US Airways plane crashed into the Hudson River, Twitter was the first to carry images and word of the crash, even before traditional news outlets. There are currently over 271 million active users worldwide sending 500 million tweets per day.  Potential educational uses for Twitter show up as early as April 2008 in an international conference for elearning.

Faculty Use of Social Media

Faculty use of social media has been of particular importance to researchers, particularly in trying to understand the types and ways of social media used (Chen & Bryer, 2012; Lewis & Rush, 2013; Moran, Seaman, & Tinti-Kane, 2011), differentiating professional and personal uses (Veletsianos, 2012; Veletsianos & Kimmons, 2013), concerns about using social media (Chen & Bryer; Veletsianos & Kimmons), and how they incorporate social media into their courses (Chen & Bryer; Moran et al.).  The most common social media site used by the participants is Facebook (Chen & Bryer, Moran et al.), although other sites are used as well including LinkedIn, YouTube, Blackboard, Blogger, Elluminate, SecondLife, and Twitter.

Faculty members discussed concerns around maintaining privacy, establishing boundaries, considering intersections between online and offline professional identities, and considering the ethics of using social media (Chen & Bryer; Veletsianos; Veletsianos & Kimmons), and, in the case of the participants in Veletsianos and Kimmons’ study, preferred to maintain social media for personal use.

Despite these hesitations, some faculty members do find usefulness in building online communities via Twitter (Lewis & Rush, 2013; Velestianos, 2012).  Veletsianos explored the ways in which scholars use social networking sites professionally, specifically Twitter.  Forty-five scholars from various disciplines who actively tweet were included in the sample.  After analyzing the most recent 100 tweets of these scholars, seven themes emerged: sharing information and resources, expanding learning beyond the classroom, requesting assistance, sharing life activities, managing digital identities, connecting and networking, and highlighting social presence on other networks.  Findings indicate that scholars use Twitter in complex and multi-faceted ways, and there is a blurring of professional and personal lives.

Finally, Moran, Seaman, and Tinti-Kane (2011) found that social media use is not limited to professional networking.  Approximately 68% of faculty they surveyed reported using social media in their classes.  Online videos, podcasts, and blogs are the most commonly used social media used in classes.  Facebook and Twitter are rarely used as part of a course.

Student Perceptions

Gikas and Grant (2013) examined the perspectives of undergraduate  students on their experiences using mobile devices for educational purposes.  They found that students discussed the advantages of quick information access, constant connectivity, multiple learning paths, and situated learning as advantages to using mobile devices.  Specifically, students shared that posting comments to Twitter was easier than logging back in to the course discussion board, as they were already using Twitter. Integration of the course content with social media was more natural. Students also shared that Twitter provided opportunities to interact with their professors and other researchers informally.  Students also discussed three disadvantages: anti-technology instructors, device challenges, and device-as-distraction.

On the other hand, when Ebner, Lienhardt, Rohs, and Meyer (2010) studied social media use in graduate students, they found students initially resistant to posting private information, and thus changed their directives to focus on course only work.  Despite this reluctance, they found that the students increased their level of non-course communication throughout the study.

Instructional Use.

Perhaps this last Ebner et al. (2010) finding is related to how the instructor establishes the use of social media in the classroom.  For example, Junco, Elavsky, and Heiberger (2013) found that when faculty members engaged with students on Twitter, student engagement with the course also increased.  This suggests that the ways in which faculty implement social media have an impact on the outcomes.  Additionally, when Twitter was a required part of the course, course engagement online also increased (Ebner et al., 2010; Junco, Heiberger, & Loken, 2011; Junco et al., 2013).

When Twitter is a required part of the course, then the frequency of tweets by students is a data point of interest.  Ebner et al. (2010) found that the number of entries and discussion about course content increased over time, but both Junco et al. (2011 & 2013) found relatively flat engagement until required assignments were coming due.  At that point, the number of tweets increased dramatically.  None of these studies set a limit on the minimum number of tweets students were expected to send.  However Kassens-Noors (2012) did establish a baseline for the number of tweets expected, and she found that students did not meet the expectation.  No rationale was offered for why this occurred.

Influence on Engagement and Learning Outcomes

The influence of Twitter use on student engagement and learning outcomes is mixed.  Ebner et al. (2010) found that using Twitter resulted in higher student engagement in course content and in more informal learning.  Junco et al. (2013) conducted two studies and had mixed results.  In the first study, they found that students required to use Twitter had higher engagement and collaboration than students required to use Ning.  Additionally, the students using Twitter had significantly higher grades at the end of the semester.  (Incidentally, these results align with a previous study by Junco et al. (2011).)  However, the second study indicated that, when given a choice, students opting to use Twitter did not have significant differences in engagement or grades.

Kassens-Noor (2012) had three main findings related to using Twitter in one course.  Tweeting fostered prolonged interactive engagement and encouraged continual communication with team members.  In this way, it worked as an active learning tool.  However, due to the constant barrage of messages, it did not support self-reflection as much as personal journals (the control group) did.  Finally, since the group using Twitter had ongoing interactive discussions, they were more likely to use responses supplied by others in the group than the group using journals.  That group had more time to reflect on their own thinking and writing and less interactive dialogue, thus their responses were more self-generated.


Faculty engagement with social media for personal and professional purposes is increasing (Ebner et al., 2010). As faculty become more comfortable with the possibilities opened by social media, particularly Twitter, they are beginning to use it in their instruction.  In all of these studies, it appears that Twitter has mixed results regarding usefulness for promoting student engagement with course content and supporting higher achievement (see Ebner et al.; Junco et al., 2011; 2013).  Success may stem from how the instructor structures the use of Twitter in the course, but since the literature is young, the results are inconclusive at this time. However, the literature does highlight variations in how Twitter is is applied in academic contexts, from a group tool to an optional tool to an actual assignment.

In none of these situations was civic engagement a goal of the study, so it can only be extrapolated that Twitter will be useful in increasing the civic engagement of graduate students.  Since the basis of Twitter is that it is an interactive platform that relies on user-generated and peer-to-peer content, it is a natural bridge to promoting interactions with politicians and other civic leaders.


Chen, B. & Bryer, T. (2012). Investigating instructional strategies for using social media in formal and informal learning. The International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, 3(1). Retrieved from:

Ebner, M., Lienhardt, C., Rohs, M., & Meyer, I. (2010). Microblogs in higher education – a chance to facilitate informal and process-oriented learning? Computers & Education, 55, 91-100. doi:10.1016/j.compedu.2009.12.006

Gikas, J. & Grant, M. M. (2013). Mobile computing devices in higher education: Student perspectives on learning with cellphones, smartphones & social media. The Internet and Higher Education, 19, 18-26. DOI: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2013.06.002

Junco, R., Elavsky, C.M., & Heiberger, G. (2013). Putting twitter to the test: Assessing outcomes for student collaboration, engagement, and success. British Journal of Educational Technology, 44(2), 273-287. Doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8535.2012.01284x

Junco, R., Heiberger, G., & Loken, E. (2011). The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27, 119-132. doi: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2010.00387.x

Kassens-Noor, E. (2012) Twitter as a teaching practice to enhance active and informal learning in higher education: the case of sustainable tweets. Active Learning in Higher Education, 13(1), 9-21.  DOI: 10.1177/1469787411429190

Lewis, B. & Rush, D. (2013). Experience of developing Twitter-based communities of practice in higher education. Research in Learning Technology, 21, 18598. doi:

Moran, M., Seaman, J., & Tinti-Kane, H. (2011). Teaching, learning, and sharing: How today’s higher education faculty use social media. Retrieved from:

Veletsianos, G. (2012). Higher education scholars’ participation and practices on Twitter. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 28(4), 336-349. DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2729.2011.00449.x

Veletsianos, G. & Kimmons, R. (2013). Scholars and faculty members’ lived experiences in online social networks. The Internet and Higher Education, (16), 43-50. DOI: 10.1016/j.iheduc.2012.01.004


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