Twittering the student experience
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
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.
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.
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.
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).
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
Table 1: Analysis of Twitter use by
Average tweets per day
Number of Twitter clients used
% of @ tweets
Following : Followers
54 : 27
13 : 12
60 : 29
20 : 14
23 : 28
28 : 23
40 : 24
34 : 22
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.
Figure 1: Graphs to show the pattern
of hashtag usage on Twitter by the participants.
Some typical examples of messages posted during the project:
metabolism questions over msn, testing each other is a fab way to learn! If
only I knew any answers".
words 'russian bride' written on his hand, and can't remember much of last
night.... Now for chemistry revision".
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.
Figure 2: Word cloud generated from
tagged messages sent by the participants during the four week project period.
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.
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).
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.
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.
School of Biological Sciences
Course Design and Development Unit
We are grateful to JISC TechDis (www.techdis.ac.uk) for their support under
the HEAT3 scheme.
Boyd D (2009) Twitter is for friends; Facebook is everybody. Available at
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]
Nielsen News. (2009) Twitter's Tweet Smell Of Success. Available at
Sysomos Inc. (2009) Inside Twitter - An In-Depth Look Inside the Twitter
World. Available at www.sysomos.com/insidetwitter [Accessed 20/7/09]