Twitter is apparently being used less than one might expect in the context of university studies, and students and higher education teachers do not use the microblogging platform in exactly the same way.

Much research has been carried out into the social media. Research into Twitter use has so far focused in particular on the relationships which an interchange of tweets can create. However a recent study from the UK looked at the interaction between different publics using the platform. Two senior lecturers at Edge Hill University, Charles Knight and Linda Kaye, quizzed 180 students and staff via an online questionnaire which set out to compare Twitter use by academics and students and gain an understanding of the apparent general reluctance to make the platform a pedagogical medium in its own right. Knight and Kaye conclude that the reasons why academics on the one hand and students on the other use Twitter differ too widely to make it a genuine learning channel. In fact most Twitter subscribers are passive users and the students polled during the survey fall into this category. Faculty members on the other hand seem to have taken Twitter on board as a personal communication medium. As Twitter is an open network, it provides them with a means of enhancing their own reputations beyond the confines of the university. However, while several of the university teachers surveyed sometimes use Facebook for group work, they tend not to use Twitter for class purposes.

Twitter as a ‘complementary’ pedagogical tool

Olivier Ertzscheid, a researcher and senior lecturer in Information and Communication Science at the University of Nantes in western France, sees Twitter as “one piece of the puzzle” among a range of tools that can be used as part of the Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) approach. At the present time Twitter use as a pedagogical tool depends on the particular type of learning, one example being for a class on the sociology of networks. However the two British researchers are more interested in the use that might be made of Twitter during actual class work. Meanwhile Olivier Ertzscheid points out that as the number of higher education students in France using Twitter has grown, academics who up to now have been using the platform anonymously and privately have had to adjust their tweets to suit their new audience. Half of the academic staff who responded to the Edge Hill survey said they use Twitter to communicate about an event in which they have taken part. Less than 10% of the students said the same thing. It seems that the academics are basically seeking ways to expand their audience among the general public and are much less interested in using the platform in a superfluous way with their own classes. However, they may find themselves caught in the ‘celebrity trap’, as their students follow well-known personalities far more than their teachers do – 65% as opposed to 15%.

Overall Twitter use differs according to the user

The researchers asked the Edge Hill students what they use Twitter for in the university context and discovered that they find Twitter useful for different reasons than the staff. Asked to rank the various purposes for which the university administration used Twitter, they revealed some controversy as regards the role the platform might play. The vast majority of students wanted to receive practical information on their classes via Twitter, a purpose for which the university administration was not yet using this channel. On the other hand, events at the university were being widely publicised on Twitter, despite the lack of interest on the part of the students in receiving this type of information. In France too, points out Oliver Ertzscheid, universities have over the last year or so tended to create hashtags for every event. Moreover French university ‘corporate’ communication departments have got to grips with Twitter fairly quickly and have now made the microblogging site a central plank in their institutional communication.  However if we want to gain a better understanding of the links that may be forged between faculty members and their students, we need to differentiate students according to their academic involvement and the level they are currently at in their studies. Olivier Ertzscheid argues that only after taking a first degree does a student begin to use the network on a par with his/her lecturers, communicating with them on a peer-to-peer basis. This also happens in seminars which are run and coordinated by postgraduate students, who interact with academics on an equal footing. Nevertheless it seems that there is still some way to go before Twitter becomes accepted as a pedagogical tool in its own right.

By Simon Guigue