Who are those 20 million active monthly users of Twitter?
There are the politicians who proclaim positions, celebrities who try to justify their latest excesses and the sports stars who apologize for theirs. Also on Twitter are the millions of ordinary users who keep their friends abreast of their toils, travels and travails.
Then there are the educators. Although not widely touted as such, Twitter has lately been proving its worth as a significant aid to education at all levels. Teachers and students are finding new and creative ways to communicate and collaborate in 140-character increments every day. Education topics including #edfocus, #edreform and #edchat have been consistently popular.
Educators have shown a strong attachment to Twitter. In a survey by Drexel University researchers, 78 percent of teachers said they have been using Twitter for at least a year, while another 78 percent (not an identical subset) said they either run Twitter continuously or check it several times a day.
While 80 percent of Twitter users overall include personal information and status updates in their tweets, only 2.5 percent of the educators surveyed said they tweet personal information. This suggests Twitter is being viewed strongly as a tool for professional enhancement.
So: What are teachers and their students tweeting?
Tweeting together. Twitter can be a powerful collaborative tool and a way for students to come together outside the classroom. On a big campus, quick, shared notes can give students a way to get to know one another. Twitter apps allow users to set up groups for collaboration on specific projects. Rapid-fire conversations encourage brainstorming, while a shared forum may facilitate critique on the fly, allowing students to amend their ideas before they have gone too far down a given road.
Mix and match. For educators, no one form of social media needs to stand alone, and this is true with Twitter. For example, a teacher who puts up a blog post can cross-promote that post via Twitter. Students who follow their professor will get an immediate heads-up when new blogging is afoot.
Engage parents. Not everyone reads the notes sent home in the backpack. These days parents may be more apt to check their screens (phone, tablet, desktop, etc.) for the latest news on school activities. Twitter gives teachers a way to capitalize on parents' commitment to the new media, which in turn drives them to tweet news of school events, district policies, tomorrow's menu or this week's health alerts. Twitter may not stand alone as a means to convey such news, but it can be a powerful supplement, augmenting more traditional communication.
Wallflowers blooming. Not every student is ready and willing to speak up in class. Most teachers are familiar with the phenomenon of the shy student, the one who may have bright ideas and a meaningful contribution to make, but is reticent about speaking out. As students and teachers talk through classroom content via Twitter, these wallflowers may find it easier to step out into the light and join in the discussion. This greater participation may help the student to learn, and can bring a source of fresh ideas into the mix.
Find experts. Twitter belongs to the whole world. This includes scientists, historians, researchers, corporate leaders and more. For students engaged in research projects, the medium affords an unprecedented opportunity to go right to the source. By reaching out to authentic experts, students can find new levels of direction and depth in their studies.
Review, prepare. The National Education Association (NEA) highlights Twitter as a means for reviewing lessons, and for giving students forewarning of the next day's subject matter. Teachers may tweet out review questions, link to relevant websites, and respond to students' follow-up questions. 'Twitter is a great way to keep your students thinking after class,' said Chris O'Neal, an instructional technology coordinator in Charlottesville, Va.
'You can tweet a quick provocative question about a social studies lesson, for example, that will keep their brains active,' O'Neal told NEA Today.
As with any social medium these days, Twitter has the potential to be yet another digital distraction, a time-waster pulling students away from their work. As teachers incorporate Twitter as a way to engage and inform their students, they take hold of this potential interruption and turn it into a powerful classroom ally.