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Twittering the student experience
by Alan Cann, Jo Badge, Stuart Johnson and Alex Moseley


Introduction
If all you knew about Twitter was what you heard in the media, you might think it was populated only by chattering celebrities. While intellectually barren corners of Twitter may exist, for us, Twitter is a powerful personal research tool, populated by carefully selected individuals whom we have chosen to 'follow' for their knowledge and insight. Twitter (twitter.com) is a free online service that allows users to post short messages ('tweets') of up to 140 characters describing their current status, and allows them to 'follow' the updates of other selected users. Unlike a Google search, which will only suggest links related to the terms searched, a question posted via Twitter usually yields a range of replies, from shortened URLs containing answers to the question to more intelligent responses. For example, when Professor Martin Weller asked on Twitter "What are the key components of a viral idea?", he received a wide range of replies (summarized here: tinyurl.com/kkqfs6).  Similarly, a tweeted remark I made during a seminar on creativity turned into an online discussion on the subject (summarized in this video: vimeo.com/1362359). These examples are hardly characteristic of trivial thought processes, yet when we try to persuade colleagues of the value of building a personal network via Twitter, the most common response is, 'Why do I want to know what someone else had for breakfast?'.

While the largest age group on Twitter is the 35-49 range (Nielsen News, 2009), the service is rapidly growing in popularity among younger users. The most recent data (based on self-disclosed age) suggests that 65% of Twitter users are under the age of 25 (Sysomos Inc, 2009). There is also anecdotal evidence that younger users are sophisticated in switching between social networks (Boyd 2009). One year ago, a Twitter search for 'University of Leicester' revealed little of interest. More recent searches reveal a growing volume of conversation between existing students, often across institutional boundaries, and also from prospective students, commenting on perceptions of the University and Higher Education (HE)in general.

Background
Based on our personal experience of Twitter, we were interested in examining what use students would make of the service and to what extent it could be used as a support channel.  In the summer of 2008 we were awarded 10 iPod Touch devices through the JISC TechDis HEAT3 scheme (www.techdis.ac.uk) to evaluate their potential as low-cost mobile gateways to microblogging services.  The iPod Touch was chosen for its superior accessibility over other mobile devices (such as regular mobile phones), ease of use, multi-mode nature, wifi capabilities, and for its attraction as a device to students (helping to encourage participation in the project). We selected Twitter as the sector-leading microblogging service. The benefits of using Twitter for data collection have previously been described (Aspden and Thorpe 2009). These authors found that Twitter could provide light-hearted but insightful information about how students' university, home, and social lives blend together.  There are many free Twitter clients available for the iPodTouch; the service is also available via a simple web page and via mobile phones through SMS.

Study participants were campus-based first year undergraduate students in the School of Biological Sciences, all 18-19 years old, who were participating in their first semester of higher education. Four members of staff were involved in supporting and promoting the project: one academic, two learning technologists and one member of the central Student Support and Development Service.

Participants were provided with an iPod Touch, although they were free to 'tweet' via other devices. To incentivise recruitment, several students were selected at random to keep one of the iPod Touches at the end of the project. Participating students were required to tweet at least four times per day, reporting for example, "I am in the library writing an essay for module x". They were also encouraged to label their tweets with a unique 'hashtag' (a community-driven convention for adding metadata to tweets). Participants were enthusiastic about using the devices and were rigorous about using hashtags in their messages. This provided a powerful means of tracking a stream of information for later analysis. The hashtags were easily tracked using RSS and very little staff time was involved in generating a permanent record of the data stream. Tagged messages were collated and archived via the RSS feed from the hashtag using an RSS aggregator (Google Reader), since Twitter content does not remain on the system indefinitely. Tweetstats (www.tweetstats.com) was used to further analyse the number of messages per day, Twitter clients used, and the percentage of @tweets (i.e. replies to other Twitter users). A measure of the student networks was made by counting the number of followers and following accounts listed on their profile pages. The evidence collected online was supported with a short online survey that asked the participants about their previous experience of Twitter and their impressions of using it on this project.

In addition to this direct evaluation of the online data, we also ran a short online. None of the students reported that they were previous users of Twitter before starting the study, but all stated that they used Facebook regularly and a third used some other form of social networking sites. When asked about observation of their messages by staff, students responded positively. None chose the response "I didn't like the fact the our tutor was watching what we tweeted". Almost half of the respondents chose "I thought carefully about the subject/wording of my tweets before posting" and the same number responded that they "liked the academic feel [the tutor's presence] gave to our group". We also asked them about their impression of the iPod Touch. In addition to use as a Twitter/internet device, most of the students also used it to listen to music, watch videos on YouTube and for many other purposes (e.g. maps, calendar, notes).

Findings
All of the study participants were new to Twitter and had not previously used it or any similar microblogging service. We provided the participants with online training materials about Twitter and the iPod Touch via a project wiki (walls.wetpaint.com) but the iPod Touch devices proved to be very intuitive and very little instruction was needed beyond the initial face-to-face set up meeting.

Student

Average tweets per day

Number of Twitter clients used

% of @ tweets

Following : Followers

004

15

6

61

54 : 27

010

5

3

12

13 : 12

020

11

4

55

60 : 29

024

6

6

19

20 : 14

083

8

7

30

23 : 28

106

9

5

40

28 : 23

316

8

4

32

40 : 24

Average:

9

5

36

34 : 22

Table 1: Analysis of Twitter use by participants.

All of the participants used multiple interfaces to access Twitter, including some not available on the mobile devices (Table 1).

In a relatively short period of time, the participants formed quite sophisticated peer networks, following up to 60 accounts with the ratio of following:followers at 1.5. Although many messages posted consisted of simple status updates carrying the designated hashtag, participants were also highly conversational in their use of Twitter, with over a third of their messages being @replies to other people (Figures 1 and 2). Messages were sent from across the University of Leicester campus, student halls, cafes, bars, on buses and any other locations where students were working or networking.

1-twitter-1

Figure 1: Graphs to show the pattern of hashtag usage on Twitter by the participants.

Some typical examples of messages posted during the project:

"Doing metabolism questions over msn, testing each other is a fab way to learn! If only I knew any answers".

"Has the words 'russian bride' written on his hand, and can't remember much of last night.... Now for chemistry revision".

"Is rather worried about the assessment tomorrow and is preparing herself for failure".

Participants were very open in their Twitter postings and a strong community soon grew. Nevertheless, students were conscious that their messages were public and exercised mature self-editing in their online behaviour, with no incidences of inappropriate content being posted during the project. Although students were aware that their messages were being monitored by academic staff, in survey responses they stated that they did not regard this as an intrusion, and indeed frequently used Twitter in preference to alternative channels such as email to contact tutors to ask questions or arrange meetings. Approximately half of the students involved in the project have continued to use Twitter without the iPod Touch devices.

1-twitter-2
Figure 2: Word cloud generated from tagged messages sent by the participants during the four week project period.

Emergence of Peer-Support
Peer support became a key feature of this student network, with activity rising just prior to assessment deadlines or during revision for exams. Content analysis of the messages indicated clear evidence of the emergence of personal learning networks. Students used these networks when preparing assessed work or revising for tests, often in situations when they were physically isolated from their peers. However, they also frequently used the service to arrange social meetings in cafes, for lunch between classes or evening social events. There were no incidences of students using the service to collude on answers for assessments, in part because assessments had been designed to preclude the possibility of cheating by simple answer sharing.

Summary and Future Plans
As a relatively low cost mobile device, the iPod Touch is an easy to use device that does not require much training or support and allows a wide range of applications. However, the data during this work shows that Twitter was the main attraction, with students accessing the service via a range of devices and continuing to do so when the iPod Touch devices were no longer available.

Twitter is also very attractive as a data collection tool for assessing and recording the student experience, with a wide range of free and increasingly sophisticated online analysis tools available. Very little work is required to collect and analyse data aggregated via the RSS feed of a hashtag yet this approach provides a surprisingly revealing insight into students' lives. Use of an optional hashtag also allows students to opt out of data collection by simply choosing not to tag messages they do not wish to be aggregated (in addition to other channels such as private direct messages).

The academic departments involved in the study were so impressed with the affordances of Twitter that they have continued to use it in their pedagogic academic practices and plan to work with other bodies in the University such as the Students' Union to promote the use of Twitter as a lightweight communication channel in the coming academic year.

Alan Cann
Department of Biology

Jo Badge
School of Biological Sciences

Stuart Johnson
Student Development

Alex Moseley
Course Design and Development Unit

University of Leicester

alan.cann@leicester.ac.uk

Acknowledgements

We are grateful to JISC TechDis (www.techdis.ac.uk) for their support under the HEAT3 scheme.

References:
Aspden EJ and Thorpe LP (2009) Where Do You Learn? Tweeting to Inform Learning Space Development. EDUCAUSE Quarterly 32(1). Available at www.educause.edu/EDUCAUSE+Quarterly/EDUCAUSEQuarterlyMagazineVolum/WhereDoYouLearnTweetingtoInfor/163852  [Accessed 20/7/09]

Boyd D (2009) Twitter is for friends; Facebook is everybody. Available at www.zephoria.org/thoughts/archives/2009/06/11/twitter_is_for.html [Accessed 20/7/09]

Nielsen News. (2009) Twitter's Tweet Smell Of Success. Available at blog.nielsen.com/nielsenwire/online_mobile/twitters-tweet-smell-of-success [Accessed 20/7/09]

Sysomos Inc. (2009) Inside Twitter - An In-Depth Look Inside the Twitter World. Available at www.sysomos.com/insidetwitter  [Accessed 20/7/09]
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