Twitter in learning and teaching – literature review

Twitter literature review

As background for a project researching the use of Twitter in the teaching of Physiotherapy students at the University of Nottingham, we wrote a literature review of published research on the use of this social communication platform in teaching and learning.  We would like to thank Roger Kerry (@RogerKerry1) for funding this work and also letting us share this review here. Please feel free to mention any pieces of literature we have missed in the post comments… thanks!

Tweed project literature review

Tony & Rachael Lowe
24th May 2012

Brief background

Launched in July 2006 Twitter is a microblogging service that allows its users to publish short text messages (Wikipedia 2012). Twitter has been staggeringly successful with the site now one of the ten most popular on the internet (Alexa 2012). The prompt presented to users has changed over time to reflect developments in the nature of the use of the service. Initially this prompt asked “What are you doing?” This became “What’s happening?” in November 2009. The twitter interface now prompts you to “Compose new tweet” in May 2012. This reflects the move from comments on personal activities to a very wide range of message types and usage behaviours (Dybwad 2009). The widespread use of twitter clients to author and monitor tweets means many users are not now exposed to twitter’s own website or prompts (Sysomos 2009).

The twitter experience curve

New Twitter users commonly describe an experience curve that travels from scepticism, trial participation, conversion (getting it), dramatically increasing usage and connections (Levine 2007, Stevens 2008, Seimens 2008, Shepherd 2009) through to potential overload (Sierra 2007). According to these authors and others (e.g. Clay 2008), the experience of “getting” twitter involves establishing a network, following these people developing a sense of who they really are and realising you can call on them for almost instantaneous help at any time. Cann (2009) goes as far as to suggest that Twitter is akin to a semantic web that directs people to relevant information more effectively than Google searches.

History of twitter use in education

Educators were quick to recognise the potential offered by the Twitter platform. Educause’s briefing on Twitter in 2007 identifies at an early point some of the potential benefits of using Twitter in an education setting (Educause 2007). Nancy White (White 2007) set up a wiki page for sharing various stories about twitter use which include several education applications. An early innovative application is highlighted by Carvin (2007) who describes a teacher setting a collaborative story writing task for his students using twitter, an approach he termed “twittories”.

By 2008 authors have identified Twitter as particularly appropriate for language learning (Dickens 2008) and a service offering language learning quizzes via Twitter had been established (TwitterLearn 2008). Educators in other disciplines are by 2008 documenting benefits and ideas for using Twitter (Parry 2008). Other authors continue to expand on the potential educational uses, identify drawbacks and offer tips (Grosseck & Holotescu 2008) and Alsac (2008) provides a presentation that illustrates typical educator and student uses of twitter with annotated screenshots from applications at a college.

In 2009 Twitter is being presented and discussed at elearning conferences with best uses and practices being identified (Wheeler 2009) and mainstream media widely reported on Monica Rankin’s Twitter Experiment (2009a & 2009b) in which Twitter is used to support the teaching of history.

2010 saw the launch of an on-line platform for running courses based almost entirely on tweets and status updates (Hootcourse 2010) and adoption and experimentation continues to grow. It’s not until 2011 and 2012 that more rigorous scientific studies are reported that seek to evaluate the impact that Twitter has on learning outcomes (Junco, Heiberger & Loken 2011 and Junco, Elavsky & Heiberger 2012) and to propose best practices based on quantitative evidence.

Characteristics of Twitter and how these relate to educational use

140 character limit – probably the key characteristic of Twitter is the limit on the length of each Tweet. Several authors have argued that rather than this being a drawback, this characteristic offers benefits for learning. Educause (2007) suggests this helps develop skills “in thinking clearly and communicating effectively”. Rankin (2009a & 2009b) notes that this forces students to focus on a central point. Dunlap & Lowenthal (2009) argue that communicating in this style is a “professionally useful skill for students to develop”.
Dickens (2008) identifies how this limit is particularly useful for language learning and Jenkins (2009) showed how this limit can even be applied to philosophical arguments. However this aspect of Twitter, SMS messaging, Facebook updates has also been blamed by academics for contributing to declining english writing skills (Kelley 2010) although Parry (2008) argues the opposite is true and it can be used to develop these same skills.

Public and widely used – generally Tweets are published completely openly and so the nature of what could be written by students is sometimes a cause for concern. The contrasting experiences of Pound-Woods (2012) and Hepburn (2011) illustrate that inappropriate tweeting is not universally a problem. This is also educationally beneficial as noted by Dunlap & Lowenthal (2009) who describe that the awareness of writing for an audience other than their tutors and peers “helped our students learn to be sensitive to their audience, and make professional decisions about what perspectives and ideas they should publicly contribute and what perspectives and ideas should remain private.” Dunlap & Lowenthal (2009) also note that getting students to use twitter and connect with other twitter users within their domain encourages “enculturation into the professional community of practice”.

Almost instantaneous – Twitter unlike email and discussion forums is a communication tool that anticipates participation and response within very short time frames. Dunlap & Lowenthal (2009) observed that students are aware of this and primarily used twitter for time-sensitive matters (e.g. raising issues, clarifying assignments, reporting emergencies).

Unstructured – unlike discussion forums and emails, Twitter streams do not have an imposed structure. It is up to users to embed agreed hashtags within their tweets or to direct replies to other users, if they want to associate their contributions with an ongoing activity or conversation. Costa, Benham, Reinhardt & Sillaots (2008) note that this lack of a structure is a serious problem for some students. Advanced twitter clients such as Tweetdeck and Hootsuite are utilised by some users to impose structure on complex Twitter streams and Honeycutt & Herring (2009) argue that these tools are important in using Twitter for conversation and collaboration.

Particularly suited to mobile participation – the relatively simple interface required to read and write Tweets means there are many tools available on mobile devices. This means users can participate in their Twitter stream from nearly any location and at any time.

Twitter in context with other social media

Twitter is one of a number of social media platforms available. Different platforms suit different sorts of interactions and appeal to different sections of society and expert users will seek to integrate their activity across a selection of these platforms (e.g. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and a personal blog). Hepburn (2011) describes a similar approach to integrating the use of a selection of social media platforms to support a course. Another example of integration is offered by Mollett, Moran & Dunleavy (2011) who suggest the use a widget to display tweets within their VLE.

Since the arrival of widely used social media platforms (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter etc) they have had a significant influence on educator and academic activity. For example, Mandavilli (2011) describes the impact social media is having on the academic peer review process which is now increasingly taking place in public once articles are published. In many cases these impacts are leading to problems. Freidberg (2010) highlights the issue of teachers’ confusion about appropriate ways to use social media and in separating their personal and professional lives on-line. Students, pupils and parents also have issues with appropriate use of social media with many examples of cyber bullying directed at teachers reported (NASUWT survey reported by Mulholland 2012).

The clear separation between personal and professional use of these platforms by educators (as observed by Young 2011) is not necessarily the most appropriate response. Studies have shown that college students who accessed the Facebook profile of a teacher with high self-disclosure anticipated higher levels of motivation and a more positive classroom climate (Mazer, Murphy & Simonds 2007). Studies by Weider (2011) and Johnson (2011) draw similar conclusions for open disclosure in educator Twitter use.

The personal ownership of accounts and profiles on social media platforms challenges the approach taken by traditional top-down education policies. Professor Gaunt-Palmer who identifies a problem of academics infantilising students states “one way in which tutors could improve the relationship with their students was to embrace the ideals of social media” through telling the truth and communicating with students as equals (Cunnane 2011).

There are significant issues and concerns about using these platforms to support teaching. Walker, Dziuban & Moskal (2012) report that studies “conclude that students compartmentalize their communication tools into social tools for social engagement and work tools for work time. Rarely do they cross boundaries, as student motivations are perceived differently with each communication tool.” This is likely to be more of an issue for using Facebook in teaching which is widely used for socialising, than twitter which is not currently widely used by healthcare students socially or otherwise (Giordano 2011).

There are those who see fundamental problems with using these tools to support teaching.
Friesen & Lowe (2012) argue that the philosophies embodied in the functionality provided by commercial social media platforms will only ever poorly support educational discourse because they actively discourage division and dissent. This issue may become more significant for Twitter as it seeks to develop a sustainable business model and as this is likely to involve changes to the functionality and behaviour of the platform (Barnett 2012).

Social Media Fatigue

Another negative theme developing around social media use is the concept of social media fatigue. Apart from the overwhelming volume of interactions and the related potential for distraction, overload or social media fatigue reflects a recognition that the sharing of information on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter does not create knowledge. Seimens (2011) states that “Social media is about flow, not substance”. Shepherd (2010) worries that “we’re all becoming very good at passing interesting information on from one to another, but not actually reading and reflecting on any of it.”

Clay (2009) identifies ten reasons why twitter will eventually fall from grace such as spam posts, fake followers and changes in on-line fashion. This may already be the case with Indvik (2012) reporting that the newer service of Pinterest is gaining ground on Twitter.

Examples of Twitter use in education

There are numerous documented examples of Twitter being used in education. In one of the highest profile examples, Rankin (2009a & 2009b) describes use of twitter to facilitate in class discussions for a large group of students. She highlights that Twitter had limitations when it came to discussions as it is “difficult for students to reply to each other, and the discussion stream tended to wander. By the time a comment was posted and students had a chance to respond to it, several other tweets had gone up and new ideas had been introduced”. This is an issue with Twitter also noted by Costa, Benham, Reinhardt & Sillaots (2008) who report some students “felt quite overwhelmed by its rather chaotic structure, as Twitter and Twemes do not allow threaded discussions and organisation of content into topical areas” and Shepherd (2010) who suggests that “Twitter seems to have very limited usefulness as a vehicle for discussion. Once a dialogue extends beyond a few tweets, there’s simply too much traffic”.

There are numerous guides and sets of tips available to help educators seeking to use Twitter in their teaching (e.g. Edudemic 2012). Not all of this advice is consistent. A selection are summarised below:

Hawks (2012) recommends that:
Use a separate Twitter account for each class,
Let students make the first move rather force participation,
Bring the feed into the classroom illustrate its significance

Mollett, Moran & Dunleavy (2011) provide an educators’ guide to Twitter that recommends use of separate class Twitter accounts, the adoption of a conversational style and providing positive feedback via Tweets. Hepburn (2011) report that tutor re-tweeting student Tweets is an effective form of positive feedback.

Wicks, Via & Rhode (2011a & 2011b) provide an on-line course and video on teaching with twitter. Tan (2012) paraphrases the teaching strategies offered by Wicks, Via & Rhode (2011a & b) to:

  • Make Twitter use compulsory by grading it
  • Do not assume students know how to tweet effectively (provide training and set expectations)
  • Provide opportunities for meaningful tweeting, e.g., getting ideas or resources, connecting with classmates
  • Do not use Twitter just to disseminate information in a teacher-centred way
  • Allow Twitter use to stew: Give it time and monitor it

Tan (2012) goes on to argue against grading student twitter use “Twitter use can be enforced by holding a grade over students’ heads, but I doubt that the energy in such a use will ever get near that of personal learning networks that emerge naturally and over time.”

Young (2009) offers a review of using twitter as a live back channel during a conventional face-to-face teaching course identifying problems that occurred and appropriate strategies adopted by the educator. Related to this approach, Hengstler (2009) identifies the concept of a “twitter jockey” to manage the back channel for the educator and suggests this is a role that can be fulfilled by a student in the class.

There are numerous other documented examples of Twitter use in education. A selection are summarised below:

  • KQED Do Now (2012) weekly activities designed to encourage students to explore current issues in media using twitter or blog comments in response to a topical questions e.g. “Should same-sex couples in the U.S. be allowed to marry? Why or why not?”
  • Media students are encouraged to use twitter during lectures (Pound-Woods 2012) and examples of constructive and unconstructive use are observed.
  • Tobin (2011) reports on a weekly scheduled twitter based meeting that provides a teacher-to-teacher peer support network.

Markham & Belkasim (2011) describe using Twitter for international collaboration as part of a course.
Stiege & Burger (2010) describe the use of Twitter as a platform for ongoing course evaluation.

Twitter in healthcare education

Healthcare related schools and educators were early adopters of Twitter (Hewett 2009 lists 9 medical schools with twitter accounts). However, a survey in 2011 (Giordano 2011) surveyed social media use amongst health professional students (including physiotherapy) in the US and found that while Facebook was widely used while “very few were using Twitter”.

Terry (2009) and Bauman (2009) propose many potential uses of Twitter in healthcare. One innovative example being practiced is using twitter to encourage healthier lifestyles in young people (Young 2010).

Anne Marie Cunningham (Cunningham 2012) is very active in reviewing and thinking about the growing use of social media platforms within healthcare. She (Cunningham 2010a) encourages the use of all social media to communicate health information to the public but warns against using these platforms for direct communication between health professionals and their clients. An example of her work to promote the use of Twitter as a tool for CPD is a screenshare tutorial illustrating using twitter to get answers from your network (Cunningham 2010b).

Two example ongoing Twitter based healthcare education projects are:

  • Gasclass (2012) which provides a blog and twitter stream which posts weekly anaethesia scenarios and resources for discussion via twitter hash tag.
  • Twitter Journal Club (2012) meets fortnightly to critique medical papers.

Twitter and social media related research

There is a relatively small amount of published research that considers the use of Twitter in education. The majority of this research offers limited quantitative evidence of the impact on outcomes, focusing instead on qualitative analysis of tweet content and the responses to the experience by participants gathered in surveys. Below are a selection of studies summarised in chronological order:

Costa, Benham, Reinhardt & Sillaots (2008) describe how twitter was used to support a summer school. The analysis of tweet content utilised a Wordle word cloud ( to identify themes. The authors describe how voluntary participation grew virally through a desire “to be where the action is”.

Ebner & Schiefner (2008) report on a survey of users experiences following the use of micro-blogging to support their research subject.

Cann, Badge, Johnson & Moseley (2009) describe a project where iPod touch devices were distributed to students studying biological sciences and were required to tweet as part of their studies. The impact was measured using a survey and an analysis of the networks formed and tweets sent. It is reported that students formed informal peer-support networks using the twitter platform.

Dunlap & Lowenthal (2009) offer a limited review of twitter in education and present 5 guidelines for use:

  • Establish Relevance for Students
  • Define Clear Expectations for Participation
  • Model Effective Twitter Use
  • Build Twitter-derived Results into Assessment
  • Continue to Actively Participate in Twitter

Borau, Ullrich, Feng & Shen (2009) study the use of twitter in language teaching. They analysed student tweets for patterns and development in language use and used a questionnaire to investigate usage behaviours and its impact on students’ perceptions of their ability to communicate.

Ebner, Lienhardt, Rohs & Meyer (2010) analyse the use of twitter over a period of 70 days of a course within a programme on supply chain management. Based on the levels of use observed the authors argue that “it is highly probable that learning took place” and this learning is process oriented and informal.

A study of discussion forum use reviewed by Dixon (2012) offers parallel implications for moderating Twitter use for learning:
model conversation and collaboration in twitter stream rather than just make a series of statements
try to draw in all participants

Probably the most rigorous research studies into the effectiveness of Twitter in higher education and best practices in its use are by Junco, Heiberger & Loken (2011) and Junco, Elavsky & Heiberger (2012).

Junco, Heiberger & Loken (2011) compared engagement and grades for groups of students that did and did not use Twitter. A positive impact was identified through analysis of variance using ANOVA models and content analyses of samples of Twitter exchanges were used to investigate how Twitter use may have had this impact.

Junco, Elavsky & Heiberger (2012) compared required twitter use with voluntary use and concluded that for improved engagement and grades twitter must be used in an appropriate way:

  • Professors must participate
  • Twitter use must be structured – “Twitter should be integrated into the course in educationally relevant ways… …having a theoretical reason to use Twitter and implementing that reason into the course pedagogy will maximize the benefits achieved.”
  • Twitter use must be required


Both research and anecdotal evidence appears to suggest that appropriate use of Twitter offers significant potential for improving education outcomes. There are many different ways Twitter can be used within teaching and its is not clear at this stage if any one approach is better than others. Junco, Elavsky & Heiberger (2012) offer the only guidance in this area supported by empirical evidence, however the requirement that Twitter use is compulsory appears to conflict with the opinion and anecdotal evidence offered by some other educators.

Based on our own reflections and experiences, there appear to be two aims to be considered in the development of a protocol for use of Twitter in physiotherapy education:

  • Maximising the positive outcomes for the module/course being studied.
  • Encouraging appropriate practices in using Twitter to support the students’ development and management of a personal long term professional support network.


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