Social media websites have been developing since the early 00’s as a way to connect groups of people to communicate online. These sites are both professional (LinkedIn) and informal (MySpace, Facebook, Twitter.) Just as people have lots of theories of what people do when they communicate, the definition of social media is expansive. Dictionary.com defines social media as online communications used to “share information and to develop social and professional contacts.” But some definitions open to the term a bit more to hint at community rather than just contacts. Mashable.com asked users how they would define the term; user Christophe Debruyne, a researcher at VUB STARLab (information technologies) in Brussels, defined it as “a virtual framework consisting of tools which enable users with a common goal or interest to set up communities and exchange information.” Perhaps the best definition, from Mashable user corecorina, focuses on the “social” human aspect: “Social media is on-demand, real time interaction, that uses technology to enable genuine engagement with others around media vs simply sharing data with them.”
Whatever the definition, it is clear one purpose of social media sites is to share information. But social media sites are meant to be more than information dumpsters; they can also be used as spaces where information comes from meaning making. In this way, they can be transferred to the classroom.
Users choose who they follow on Twitter. This way, users create their own networks of people based on purpose; users choose people or groups whose words and information they are invested in following. Through these networks, users share and gather information. Taking this concept and applying it to student needs could lessen the amount of instructor-student communication. If students create a community online, they can share the information they have. They have the ability to make meaning from connections made outside of the classroom and the ability to do it without the instructor. This changes communication from personalized interaction (one student, one instructor) to a more social collection of knowledge that reaches an entire community that share similar stakes in that knowledge.
There was no pattern or planning to the tweeting done by the instructor. Often tweets that were not directed at communicating with a particular student contained homework reminders or announcements about class. Occasionally, tweets would link students to outside sources for help. These sources included sites like Purdue University’s online writing lab or FreePDFHosting.com so students could download writing guides I created in Microsoft Word.
The majority of class communication from instructor to the whole class was done on Twitter rather than through email. Students were not told that reminders or updates would be tweeted; it was the student’s job to sign on to see if anything was said.
Students also had the option to direct message the instructor, which would be a private communication much like email. The 140-character limit controlled both the private messages and the public messages.
Students were encouraged to ask each other questions about class before emailing or asking the instructor.
All students in class followed the instructor’s account and therefore could access the instructor’s tweet feed.
The instructor accessed Twitter with a computer and a smart phone.
Analysis and Conclusions
Tweeting as a form of communication is similar to sending an email but allows the communication to happen in a more public space, one that offers student-to-student interaction rather than solely instructor-to-student. Tweeting class reminders, updates, or homework encourages students to sign in to their class Twitter account and once there can access a variety of materials available related or unrelated to their original goal of signing on. This allows communication with the class to become a multi-person conversation rather than a one-email interaction. By tweeting instead of emailing, the students can ask questions and receive answers that can be viewed by the rest of the class as well. Students also have the chance to view other reminders or class-related tweets upon their visit to the site. For example, students who signed in to see the homework for the next class might also see a tweet from the instructor containing a grammar tip or a link on proper citation formatting.
Very few students used Twitter as a means for clarification. Sixty tweets mentioned the instructor’s handle directly, but only 18% of these tweets contained a question about class or the materials for class. The remaining 49 tweets contained the following: responses to free write prompts; thanking the instructor for a comment or answer to a question; send-off phrases like “sounds good!”; replying to a comment the instructor made to someone else; sharing a thesis statement during a thesis workshop; or to participate when class was held on Twitter. Perhaps the dearth of questions for the instructor was because students answered each other’s questions. Instead of directly asking the instructor, students would tweet a question addressed to no one in particular. Often other students in the class would respond to the question before the instructor. In this way, Twitter transcends traditional email because it creates a forum for student-to-student communication outside of class.
Likewise, this public forum allowed the instructor to condense the amount of communication sent by email. If multiple students had the same question or concern, they could be addressed in a single tweet rather than answering multiple emails. Asking the instructor a question on Twitter suggests students were comfortable making their question public and would therefore be comfortable receiving a public answer. One student was responded to with a direct message because the instructor did not want to make the student uncomfortable discussing the answer publicly. (The answer was regarding if the textbook could be shared with another student.) After this communication, in which the student did not respond, the instructor avoided starting contact via direct message in case students did not check their Twitter inboxes as much as their email inboxes.
Communication on Twitter was not ideal for personalized communication, serious or important individualized communication, or complicated messages. If the instructor needed to contact an individual student about something, the student was sent an email in order to keep the situation private and so it could be explained at length rather than confined to 140 characters. Two students sent the instructor direct messages. One was to alert the instructor that the student could not find sources. The instructor was able to send messages back privately to the student suggesting solutions. One student asked about the guidelines for an essay; this student received an email in response as the answer could not easily fit in 140 characters or even a few messages.
Thus, Twitter is used well to communicate impersonalized messages to an entire class, as long as they are signing in regularly to receive these messages. This means they would have to read through their feed to see if the instructor posted something earlier that had since been moved down on the timeline due to other students’ more recent tweets. Students can also receive multiple messages in their timeline to be received upon one sign-in. That is, students could find homework information, a link to an outside help source, a reminder of something class related, and a grammar or writing tip simply by reading through their feed. For some, this is a better alternative than receiving the equivalent of four emails.
However, Twitter cannot replace the privacy of email even with the utilization of direct messages. The 140-character limit is not conducive to complicated explanations, nor is it easy to attach documents. In order to attach a document in a direct message, you must link outside to a website that hosts documents. It was a particular problem in this composition classroom, where the majority of student writing was private and in the form of word documents. Even more, the instructor did not feel it was professional to discuss important matters on Twitter. The instructor thought it would be flippant to direct message a student that he was failing the class because of his lack of attendance. Outside of class, Twitter remained a space to communicate homework, reminders, and answering students’ questions.