Communicate with your students using Twitter

I’m always on the lookout for new and effective ways in my courses to enhance communication with and the engagement of my students. Increasingly, students and teachers alike are turning to electronic means to connect, as it allows communication to occur both asynchronously and over a distance, removing the “same time/same place” limitations of the classroom or office. While email has fulfilled that role for most of the last couple decades, many of today’s students are moving away from email as their main communication tool. I found this out to my dismay in October 2009, when there was an urgent need to communicate with my first-year chemistry class. I emailed 250 students using the email accounts obtained from our university system. One-third of those emails bounced back. I’ve since spent much time contemplating the best method to try to reach my students in an efficient and convenient manner, both for them and for me.

The conclusion I’ve come to, and the track I have since followed, is to use Twitter. Twitter is often named concurrently with Facebook under the rubric “social networking” but I’ve come to realize that Twitter is a much more effective and appropriate tool to connect with students, removing many of the pitfalls associated with that other social network. In fact, Twitter is really more of an information network and has distinct advantages for educators and students alike. Unfortunately, Twitter’s most commonly viewed role of following the rich and famous sometimes limits its potential.

What is Twitter? Twitter describes itself as follows (from “Twitter is a real-time information network that connects you to the latest stories, ideas, opinions and news about what you find interesting. Simply find the accounts you find most compelling and follow the conversations.”

The heart of Twitter is small bursts of information called tweets. Each tweet is limited to 140 characters in length, but don’t let the small size fool you — you can discover a lot in a little space. Tweets can contain photos, videos and conversations enabling you to follow the whole story at a glance, and all in one place. Twitter for SMS* is an instant infrastructure for mobile communications. Individuals, businesses and social causes can use Twitter for SMS ... to connect directly to anyone with a mobile phone.

The emphasis at the end is mine — I like the platform-independent nature of Twitter, especially the fact that any phone that can receive text messages can receive updates from Twitter. Every university student today has a cell phone — maybe not a smartphone, but at least a basic phone they can text with, even without an expensive data plan. And that’s all they need to “tweet” (send a Twitter message). As well, they can access Twitter through any web browser, and there are lots of special apps for smartphones, tablets and computers. But even with just a phone and the most basic cell phone plan, students have access. Most phone plans do not charge to “receive” text messages. It is truly accessible to all my students the minute they begin my course.

A Twitter screenshot showing a message directed at @uwchem254 and a photo of student’s handwritten work. At the bottom of the screenshot the option to Reply Retweet or Favourite are circled.Figure 1. Example of a tweet with a photo attachment showing a student’s rough work for an assignment. (The Twitter name has been omitted to protect his privacy.)

The student directed the tweet to @uwchem254 as a “mention” or a “reply” so now this tweet will be sent to all the followers of @uwchem254 (course Twitter account).

You can select these options for each tweet. As a professor, I would simply select reply and this response will show up on the Twitter stream.

(*SMS: Short Message Service is a form of text messaging communication on phones and mobile phones.)

Equally appealing is what Twitter isn’t. First off, it’s not Facebook. Twitter is not a social network (although it can be used that way). Since I only ask my students to follow the course Twitter stream, and I don’t follow them, I cannot access their other interactions on Twitter, and don’t want to! It’s also not email — it’s not private, but in fact very public, a point I emphasize to my students! It’s great for discussion, even for spectators, but it is not appropriate for counseling and advising. Email — or face-to-face meetings — are best for those types of interactions. Also the tweet is not restricted by its 140-character limit in its application to higher education — far from it! In fact, the ability to include a picture with a tweet — now most cell phones have cameras and a photo screen — means that the student’s derivation, structure, drawing, and so on, can be a part of their message. This function is especially useful for visually complex subjects like chemistry, with molecular structures, reaction diagrams, etc. — see figure 1, previous page.

Twitter is based on “following” and “followers”. To receive the course messages (“tweets”), the students must follow it — a simple click on the course web link adds them as a “follower”. Now any update I send out, they will automatically receive. I ask my students to follow the course twitter stream, but I DON’T FOLLOW THEM! They can still contact me through “mentions” or “replies” — tweets directed at the course twitter stream by starting their tweet with, e.g., @uwchem254 for my second-year chemistry course.

With another Twitter account, my personal account, I also follow my course twitter account but don’t share this information with students. It is a convenient way to check what is getting out to the class. All tweets are publicly available on the course twitter timeline. All students can follow the conversation, just like a class discussion, but now interaction is allowed to move outside of the class time and location.

Below is an actual dialogue of tweets between one of my course followers and me — the formatting has been left as it would be viewed in Twitter. For the sake of privacy, the student’s Twitter account name has been changed to Student A. All the course followers would be receiving these tweets and therefore benefit from the “back and forth” that Twitter allows. Student A begins the dialogue by selecting [Reply] to one of my tweets — automatically @uwchem254will start the tweet because it is a reply to the class Twitter account. Although not shown here for simplicity, the time of each tweet is given. The below dialogue was from 11:32 AM to 12:07 PM on a Sunday. So on a Sunday morning after approximately 40 minutes, we worked through this problem and all followers had access to this discussion.

Also each tweet has options — [Reply], [Delete] and [Favorite] — listed after each received tweet. Many Twitter apps have colour codes in the dialogue to help sort through clutter, for example @addresses are in red (sent) or blue (received).

A big advantage to Twitter is that, unlike email, this exchange is shared. I’ve had a few cases where the follow-up questions have been tweeted by other students, not from the original student who began the dialogue. And unlike discussion boards, there is no need for the students to log into a particular website, etc.; the tweets flow to them naturally and automatically, on whatever platforms they are using — whenever their Twitter account is on.

So Twitter, for the foreseeable future, will be an essential tool for my courses. I hope you take the time to find out more about it, or share what other tricks you have learned. You can reach me on Twitter with your own experience @powrtryp — follow me!

  • @uwchem254 for P6.4, part b, why is it wrong to use delta H of products – delta H of reactants to get delta H of reaction at 298 K?
    • @StudentA it is not wrong, it is just that you are asked to get it from the info given in the problem.
  • @uwchem254 How can I do that? I have the Kp from both 600K and 900K but I’m not sure how to use them since “delta HR is independent of T”
    • @StudentA can you get Delta G from Kp? Then can you use Gibbs Helmholtz to get Delta H?
  • @uwchem254 but what temperature should I use for T1 and T2? I have Kp both at 600 and 900 and they want the answer at 298K?
    • @StudentA but Delta H is independent of T so does it matter?
  • @uwchem254 So I could use either the values at 600 or 900 and then just use 298 K for T2??
    • @StudentA no – you need to use those T’s for Delta G – but Delta H you get will be independent of T.
  • @uwchem254 I don’t get what values of Kp to plug in to get the Delta G…
    • @StudentA you need both!
  • @uwchem254 Oh! Stick the equation for Kp into the Gibbs Helmholtz in place of G or T1 or T2? Like T1 is 600 and T2 is 900?
    • @StudentA yes