"Where Do You Learn?": Tweeting to Inform Learning Space Development

min read
  • Emerging technologies and applications can extend traditional approaches to data generation and can be used effectively in institutional planning.
  • Having participants provide real-time information offers valuable behavioral insights in context, rather than relying on information recall.
  • Using a method where data is shared and emerging — as opposed to controlled and presented summatively — enables informed decisions about ongoing projects and developments.

Learning environment development has been a key part of the Academic Innovation Team’s remit for a number of years at Sheffield Hallam University (see About Us). Beginning with our research into the impact of e-learning on the student experience in 2002 — and recognizing the way e-learning influenced students’ views of physical spaces — we started to look more closely at the ways in which our students and faculty use on-campus spaces, and at ways in which our environments needed to evolve. A recurring theme that emerged was the importance of serendipitous meetings and the ad hoc use of those "in between" times: in between taught sessions, in between focused study, in between study and home.

Student Use of Informal Spaces

By 2007–8 a particular focus of ours was students’ use of informal learning spaces. We set out to develop an understanding of different patterns of informal learning and to examine how we can support these through effective provision of space, resources, and integrated online and face-to-face activities.

Informal learning isn’t a new phenomenon, but its importance is being more widely recognized across various sectors. There is little agreement about the exact definition of informal learning, however. For Cross it is the "unofficial, unscheduled, impromptu way most people learn to do their jobs" but is nevertheless intentional learning. It is distinct from formal learning in that it takes place in "learnscapes" rather than formal classrooms.1 A 2004 Futurelab report2 looked at informal learning with technology outside school settings and took into account the wider "ecology" of learning and how information and communication technologies are used to support this. For the purposes of our work, we chose to define informal learning as:

The activities that take place in students’ self-directed and independent learning time, where the learning is taking place to support a formal program of study, but outside the formally planned and tutor-directed activities.

Tweet, Tweet: What Are You Doing?

In early 2008 we were looking for an innovative data-generation method to support our work. Earlier learning environment efforts had seen us use reflective learning activity diaries (document-based), photo diaries, and digital photo stories. We were keen to build on the richness of the data that these methods offered but also to exploit something relevant to today’s lifestyle.

At the time, one of the authors was using Twitter3 as part of an established and active network; the other had just started experimenting with it and was on the verge of abandoning it. After all, there’s a limit to the number of times you can update (or tweet) "sat at my desk…" to an audience of people in the same office and still believe that there’s a point! It was registering her phone to enable short message service (SMS) updates on the go that convinced her to think about the possibility of harnessing this succinct, mobile, always on technology as a sort of micro-diary. What if we could take Twitter’s "What are you doing?" prompt and instead ask "Where are you learning?" Could we get students to send tweets that would offer insights into their learning patterns, activities, and environmental triggers?

We recruited 15 students to take part in a two-week study. During this time — in exchange for a token payment of Amazon vouchers — we asked each participant to:

  • Register for a Twitter account and tweet an average of three times per day about their learning activities and the spaces they were using;
  • Provide three longer summaries per week offering additional information on points of interest selected by us (for example, "You mention working in x location — what is it about this space that works for you?"); and
  • Take part in a final reflective interview at the end of the fortnight.

Only one participant had used Twitter before, but with a five-minute introduction to the application, all the students managed to use it successfully and easily. Most chose to register their phones to allow SMS tweets and used a combination of PC- and phone-based updates. Using a dedicated project account (@learningspaces), we were able to track and collate the tweets of our participants.

We did feel it necessary on this occasion to offer students a token payment in exchange for their time and commitment. However, as Green et al. state in their discussion of research-diary methodology, engagement may be secured by nonmonetary means by "creating an environment in which participants truly play a participatory role in the research project, and feel invested in the outcomes of the study."4 Certainly, those students who expressed an interest in participating mentioned specific benefits as contributing to their willingness to take part:

  • Benefits for themselves: "Taking part would encourage me to open my eyes more of what I do day to day to learn!"
  • Benefits for their programs of study: "I feel that it would benefit me within my field of study."
  • Benefits for on-campus spaces: "Me and my friends are always complaining about where we can study, so this could improve the spaces available to us."

It would be interesting to explore students’ commitment to a similar study without the monetary incentive.

Benefits of Twitter for Data Collection

The benefits of using Twitter over more traditional diary-based data includes the ability for participants to update anytime, almost anywhere, and through a variety of devices that are integral to their lives (cell phones, laptops, desktop PCs). This negates the difficulties associated with information recall and minimizes the risk of not having the appropriate equipment to record key events. Users can also send spontaneous updates, which offer insights into the triggers that prompt recognition of:

  • Their environment: "I’m in collegiate learning centre doing group work in the main part downstairs! It’s quite distracting and it’s really hot in here!"
  • The resources they are using: "In Adsetts quiet area revising. Just books, not computer."
  • The sorts of activities they are involved with: "Tuesday evening, muddled study at home, cooking, sorting out car to menders, family, laptop runs in conservatory and gets picked at."

The limited length of tweets — 140 characters — meant that updates were concise and focused on the key question. This also encouraged participants to be selective in capturing the most significant aspects to share.

The use of Twitter as the collection tool contributed an additional dimension to the diary-based data by making the data visible to the community in real time. This provided a powerful contribution to ongoing institutional initiatives such as the Redevelopment of the Learning Centres, which at the time was reaching a critical phase of decision making. (For images of one space developed during this time, see our Flickr photos.) We were able to use concrete, recent examples to illustrate broader points and involve key stakeholders in conversations about the data and what it meant.

Using an emergent technology based on community and sharing to gather research data also changed the nature of the relationship between the participants, the researcher, and the wider community. Rather than having to wait until the data have been analyzed and interpreted, anyone interested in the study could observe the raw data, use it, and add to it for the benefit of all. This openness meant that anyone could ask a question of the participants, either for clarification or to broaden the discussion. Also, the students involved could see what other participants were doing and build on their points.

On occasion, the participants and researcher used the direct-message facility on Twitter to send private communications, although most of the time e-mail was used as a back channel for queries, instructions, or follow-up requests. For future studies, we recommend making more use of the integrated features of Twitter and less use of additional channels, as it would help keep the conversation going in one place.

As Twitter use becomes more embedded in everyday life (with companies and charities using it as an active marketing and community building tool, and high-profile celebrities and politicians pushing its use into the public consciousness), some interesting conversational models are emerging. Consequently, we expect that researchers and participants alike would feel more comfortable using Twitter in this way than we did in early 2008.

Stories to Help Decision Making

To aid longer term planning and decision making, we created a set of 10 personal stories based on the data collected from the individuals involved in the study.

To view Angela’s story, Billy’s story, and all the rest, see:

We are using these stories internally to initiate and frame dialogue with key decision makers, drawing upon students’ rich personal experiences to inform the facilities, services, and opportunities we offer to learners. The @learningspaces account is continuing its life as an alternative communications channel.

Twitter proved to be a valuable tool for data generation, particularly when combined with the slightly longer summaries. To further enrich the data, it would be interesting to look at using the text-based information with photos (which can be integrated with Twitter streams using emerging applications such as SnapTweet or TwitPic, both of which can generate automatic tweets of recently uploaded photos).

Using Web 2.0 for Evaluation on Your Campus?

For institutions considering using Twitter or other Web 2.0 applications for evaluation, we recommend thinking through the following issues:

  1. Would my institution accept data generated using Web 2.0 applications (Twitter, Flickr) as valid or useful? What barriers to acceptance might there be? What steps might I need to take to encourage acceptance?
  2. How many participants would I need? What kind of support might they need? What criteria might I use to select participants? How might I encourage participation? How long would the study last?
  3. Could I use Twitter to generate data about institutional priorities other than learning spaces? Could I encourage the use of related applications (Twitpics, Snaptweet) to enrich the data set? How might I share emerging findings within my own institution?

As for our experience — overall, Twitter exceeded our expectations for this work. Although the depth and style of our participants’ tweets varied greatly, most offered us much more than we had hoped for by providing lighthearted but insightful information about how their university, home, and social lives blended together. Above all, we were able to take a nonthreatening and decidedly nontraditional activity to engage students in university-wide planning and development.

About Us

Image of SHU Building

The Academic Innovation Team is based within Sheffield Hallam University’s instructional design unit, the Learning and Teaching Institute. It engages in a wide range of activities that aim to enhance the student learning experience by the creative application of technology, information, and pedagogy. Recently the emphasis has been on:

  • Practical implementation of large-scale technology-enhanced learning
  • Exploration of new and emerging technologies in learning
  • Promotion of digital fluency as a graduate attribute
  • Evolution of innovative learning spaces, both formal and informal

One of the largest regional universities, Sheffield Hallam has approximately 30,000 students and 3,000 faculty. We run approximately 610 different programs of study (undergraduate, postgraduate, full-time, and part-time) across a range of vocational and liberal arts subjects. We are committed to the employability of our graduates, with 89 percent in work or further study within six months of completing their course. Whilst many of our students are from the local community, we also welcome over 3,500 international students from more than 120 countries.

  1. Jay Cross, Informal Learning: Rediscovering the Natural Pathways That Inspire Innovation and Performance (San Francisco: Pfeiffer, 2007).
  2. Julian Sefton-Green, "Informal Learning with Technology Outside School," Futurelab, March 2004.
  3. Twitter (http://twitter.com) is a microblogging site that allows users to update their status via text message or online. Twitter has a large number of active users — around the time of this study, a TechCrunch report estimated more than one million registered users worldwide, with about three million tweets per day. See Michael Arrington, "End of Speculation: Real Twitter Usage Numbers," TechCrunch, April 29, 2008.
  4. Arnie S. Green, Eshkol Rafaeli, Niall Bolger, Patrick E. Shrout, and Harry T. Reis, "Paper or Plastic? Data Equivalence in Paper and Electronic Diaries," Psychological Methods, vol. 11, no. 1 (March 2006), pp. 87–105.

Elizabeth J. Aspden ([email protected]) is a Senior Lecturer, Curriculum Innovation (Learning Environments), Learning and Teaching Institute, Sheffield Hallam University.

Louise P. Thorpe ([email protected]) is Head of Academic Innovation, Learning and Teaching Institute, Sheffield Hallam University.