If You Twitter, Will They Come?

Key Takeaways

  • Despite the widespread popularity of online social networking services such as Facebook and Twitter, many students exhibit a reluctance to include faculty in their social networks.
  • Given these personal preferences, how do social networks and education intersect?
  • A pilot using Twitter to communicate important information about lab hours and support services yielded minimal student response.
  • Academic researchers and those creating course management systems should keep a close eye on the elements that have attracted so many users to social networks, but merging education into social networks might not be the solution to reaching students online.

In the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High, student Jeff Spicoli (played by Sean Penn) is surprised to have a visitor arrive at his home just as he is about to leave for the graduation dance. His history teacher, Mr. Hand (portrayed by Ray Walston), came to discuss history topics to make up for time Spicoli wasted during class. Spicoli's reaction is one of shock and disbelief. His teacher has arrived in an environment — his home — that until that point was private, personal, and social.

Many societal changes have taken place since 1982, but the reluctance of students to include faculty in their personal lives persists despite the advent of increasingly popular online social networks of the Facebook and Twitter variety. My focus here is the intersection of these social networks and education. Books have been written about e-learning and social networking, such as Robin Mason and Frank Rennie's E-Learning and Social Networking Handbook.1 Joanna Dunlap and Patrick Lowenthal published a chapter on using Twitter in an educational context in The CU Online Handbook.2 Dunlap and Lowenthal mostly discuss the benefits of using Twitter in education, but also posit that a possible drawback of using such tools is that "faculty and students alike might prefer not to be a part of each other's social network."3 This possibility receives some credibility with a pilot project I conducted in 2008 at Virginia Tech, a large, state-supported university in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States.

The Advanced Technology Learning Center, commonly known as the Math Emporium, is the central support facility for several mathematics courses offered using what Carol Twigg4 describes as an emporium model. The lab was open to any university student with a valid student identification card. Approximately 6,200 students were enrolled in courses that utilized the lab the semester the pilot was conducted. The intervention pilot described here focused on the students in the emporium-style courses, but any student choosing to use the lab could have taken advantage of the information provided about lab hours and availability of support services.

Communicating Lab Availability

The emporium-style courses offered at this university do not require face-to-face class meetings except for an initial orientation meeting the first week of classes. Students access all learning materials online and do all of their graded work in the form of multiple-choice quizzes and tests. Human helpers are available in the lab for several hours each week to assist students with questions they may have about the math content. Most courses offer regularly scheduled problem sessions a few times per week, which involve the course facilitator being available to work out solutions to specific math problems, but those help sessions are seriously underutilized.

Course facilitators and administrators working in the lab during the summer of 2008 debated how to distribute basic lab availability information to students. In the past, information had been delivered via simple web postings and physical signs, but those modes of delivery were not perceived as effective. Students would claim to have no knowledge of problem sessions or hours when help was available to them. A subscription or push-type of delivery was thus an attractive option.

Based on the amount of attention the social networking service Twitter was receiving at the time in the popular press and news media, we decided to use Twitter to announce general lab and course-related information to students, promoting it to students as an easily accessed resource. Twitter was selected not only because of its perceived popular appeal but also because it could easily be automated to supply information in a just-in-time fashion.

A Twitter account was established for the lab. The Twitter method of information dissemination was explained to all staff members working in the lab, and an announcement about the Twitter service was placed on the common screen seen by all lab visitors who logged into a computer. Faculty facilitating courses that utilized the lab were asked to announce the service in their face-to-face course orientation meetings and also in e-mail notes to their students.

Throughout the semester approximately 400 messages were delivered using Twitter, beginning on the first day of classes. The content of the messages included opening and closing hours of the lab, hours that tutoring was available, and times that special face-to-face activities were scheduled for certain courses.

During the first few weeks of the semester lab administrators observed just a small reaction to the service in terms of the number of subscribers, or followers, to the Twitter-based information: only 65 students had subscribed to the Twitter lab updates by the end of the semester. On the other hand, lab observations indicated that a high percentage of students visiting the lab were using Facebook regularly. Therefore, instructions for how to receive the information disseminated with Twitter via Facebook were communicated through course e-mail announcements and postings to the lab website. An end-of-semester online survey made available to all followers of the Twitter lab updates received only 18 survey responses.

Results of Survey on Twitter Lab Updates

Three of the 18 respondents were student employees working in the lab, 12 were students in the targeted courses, and three were neither student employees nor taking the targeted courses. Most respondents were male (56 percent), and most (67 percent) received the updates via Twitter.com, but other services were used that linked into Twitter.com. Only one student indicated that he/she attended a course tutoring session as a result of a message delivered with Twitter.

Results were mixed on the usefulness of the type of information disseminated during this pilot intervention. All 18 respondents indicated using Facebook regularly, with instant messaging and Twitter the next most popular services (78 percent of respondents). The majority of respondents (89 percent) indicated that they use social networking to communicate with classmates about academics, but respondents were divided about welcoming faculty (44 percent against) and administrators (50 percent against) into their online social networks. Table 1 summarizes the results.

Table 1. Survey Results of Lab Updates via Twitter*

Received lab updates via Twitter.com 12 (67%)
Attended a tutoring session based on Twitter messages 1 (6%)
Used social networking to discuss academics with peers 16 (89%)
Would not welcome faculty participation in online social networks 8 (44%)
Would not welcome administrators in online social networks 9 (50%)

* N = 18

Despite the perceived popular appeal of Twitter at the time, it appears that using Facebook to disseminate information might have met the students' needs better, given that all survey respondents used Facebook regularly. (Twitter demographics in 2009 showed greatest use among adults, not younger social media users.5)

The experiment ended after the fall 2008 pilot period, and no similar notification service has been pursued. A detailed analysis of online services used by students will need to be conducted before alternative interventions are attempted. Even if a more popular online service (such as Facebook) had been used for this pilot, the student responses regarding welcoming university faculty and administrators into their online social networks might indicate that this type of intervention is not worth the effort needed to implement it and promote it to students. This raises a significant question: If faculty offer instruction in these online social networking environments, will students go to those spaces to experience it? Paraphrasing Reid Bates and Samer Khasawneh,6 when course activities are built around technologies, students have little choice about whether to participate. Based on our pilot, it appears that many students might react to teachers entering their social networks the same way that Spicoli looked at Mr. Hand when he showed up the night of the dance. We certainly had no great success using Twitter to communicate academic information to students, despite the value to them in effectively using the lab's services. Based on the admittedly small survey results, introducing academic information into online social networking sites certainly has no guarantee of success, although many colleges and universities have a Facebook presence.7

The mass appeal and pervasiveness of social networks should not be ignored, however. The features available in the popular social networking services have attracted millions of users. Academic researchers and those in the business of creating course management systems should keep a close eye on the elements that have attracted all of these users, but merging education into the online social networks might be going too far.

  1. Robin Mason and Frank Rennie, E-Learning and Social Networking Handbook: Resources for Higher Education (New York: Routledge, 2008).
  2. Joanna C. Dunlap and Patrick R. Lowenthal, "Instructional Uses of Twitter," in The CU Online Handbook — Teach Differently: Create and Collaborate, Patrick R. Lowenthal, David Thomas, Anna Thai, and Brian Yuhnke, Eds. (Denver, CO: University of Colorado, 2009), pp. 45-50.
  3. Ibid., p. 48.
  4. Carol A. Twigg, "Improving Learning and Reducing Costs: New Models for Online Learning," EDUCAUSE Review, vol. 38, no. 5 (September/October) (2003), pp. 28-38.
  5. For some of the commentary on the demographic trends among Twitter users see the July 30, 2009, NielsenWire report by David Martin and Sue MacDonald, "Teens Don't Tweet; Twitter's Growth Not Fueled by Youth"; the February 11, 2010, posting by Jay Yarrow in Business Insider, "Chart of the Day: Kids Don't Hate Twitter Anymore!"; and the Pew Internet report "Twitter and Status Updating, Fall 2009," by Susannah Fox, Kathryn Zikuhr, and Aaron Smith.
  6. Reid Bates and Samer Khasawneh, "Self-Efficacy and College Students' Perceptions and Use of Online Learning Systems," Computers in Human Behavior, vol. 23, no. 1 (January 2007), pp. 175-191; see p. 176.
  7. In her blog, Campus Overload, education reporter Jenna Johnson of the Washington Post provided a list May 1, 2010, of the most popular higher education institutions on Facebook, which has a Colleges and Universities group.