short but tweet: does twitter offer anything to higher education?

by Liz Aspden, Academic Innovation

You could be forgiven for thinking that the whole world is a twitter right now. After a couple of years of relative obscurity, being used by only geeks and those with very short attention spans (guilty as charged!) some recent high profile users have catapulted it into the spotlight. After some serious bandwaggon-jumping it now seems that everyone wants the world to know what they’re doing…140 characters at a time. So it’s perhaps inevitable that a growing group of academics and learning technologists are looking at what Twitter can offer them in Higher Education, with recent articles such as “50 ways to use Twitter in the college classroom”  adding to numerous blog posts and conference presentations on the topic. But what exactly lies behind the hype? Should you care? More to the point, could it offer you something useful? 


What is Twitter?

Twitter is, at its basic level, a communication tool. Any registered user can post an unlimited number of short messages (or “tweets” as they’re rather affectionately called) to share with the world. Alternatively, you can choose to protect your updates, which means only people you trust can read them. These appear on your home page in chronological order, like this:


twitter screen shot

So anyone who goes directly to your homepage (in the above case, will see what you tweeted about, and when (unless of course you’ve protected your updates, in which case only people you want to share them with will see what you’re saying).

You can also choose to follow other users who interest you – this means that their tweets are automatically fed through to your timeline so you can see whatever snippets they choose to tweet, as soon as they tweet them. Again, these appear in chronological order, so you’ll see them appearing like this:

twitter screen shot

 How do you tweet?

You can feed your own bits of information to your account from a PC or any device with an internet connection, or by sending text messages from your phone. On a personal note this, for me, is the beauty of it – you can update from pretty much anywhere at the point that something interests you, making it a spontaneous form of communication. It was realising that I could update from my phone that convinced me to persevere with Twitter when I was on the point of abandoning it – I’ll admit to being pretty depressed at repeatedly tweeting “sat at my desk…again!” or “just leaving my desk…” – so the ability to update on the go was a big win for me. I’m fairly certain that my tweets haven’t got any  more interesting, but it’s nice to think that if anything interesting does ever happen, I’ll be able to share it with followers around the world there and then (which seems like a peculiarly 21st Century concern!).

Why would you want to tweet?

If you’re particularly egotistical, you can use Twitter purely as a broadcast mechanism. Most users – whether individuals or organisations – recognise that its true value comes from being part of a community, however, and encourage interaction with others by asking questions, or responding to other users’ tweets. So for quick opinion polls (“what do you think of…?”) or advice (eg, “what’s the best way of…?” or “can you recommend a…?”) it can offer a useful way of getting feedback. 

What might Twitter offer to Higher Education?

People are approaching Twitter use in Higher Education in a number of ways. Some of these are purely social – and it’s probably worth pointing out here that if you’re not interested in hearing about people’s day-to-day obsessions such as food, sport, politics, etc, then you’ll need to filter the people you follow carefully! There’s something about the brevity of the updates that encourages even the most earnest of users to adopt a light hearted social tone every now and again. Beyond this, universities are starting to look at its use as a marketing tool – as a way of broadcasting information to Twitter users, as well as finding out what other people are saying that might be relevant to them. If this is something that interests you, have a look at this recent article from University Business: “10 Twitter Tips for Higher Education”.

Beyond this application, there is a strong – and expanding – community of users who tweet about issues relating to learning, teaching, assessment and research, offering an interesting way of finding out about new ideas, opportunities and resources in a very social environment (again, often with a healthy dose of non-work chat sprinkled in for good measure). Twitter also offers an interesting back-channel of communication for conference attendees, and a quick and easy way of sharing relevant resources (services such as help condense lengthy urls to 25 characters, making them easier to share within your 140 character limit).

At Sheffield Hallam specifically, we’re aware of a number of staff who use Twitter to support work-related and personal conversations in the above ways. Additionally, in 2008 it was used very successfully as part of a project evaluating students’ use of informal learning spaces, where it allowed us to get real-time contextualised updates from participants (see our recent publication: “Where do you learn?: tweeting to inform learning space development”  for additional information about this project).

Where next?

Hopefully, this post has offered you an insight into what lies behind the Twitter hype. We’ll return to the topic in a future post with some examples of how university staff are tapping into the potential of Twitter – so if you have a story you’re willing to share, know of something interesting happening, or have any recommended people to follow, please get in touch! You can either leave us a comment below, or e-mail us at:

In the meantime, you might be interested in checking out the following education-related tweets:


Guardian Education –

Times Higher –

Educause Learning Initiative –


4 responses to “short but tweet: does twitter offer anything to higher education?

  1. I think another way of considering twitter is in recognising how it demonstates that not all academic thinking needs to be represented in texts of several thousand words. It’s interesting you talk about informal learning spaces as a context for this post; whether it’s audio notes, blogging reflective notes or twitter notes, 21st century technologies allow us to capture some of the otherwise transient thinking (independent and social) that goes on. So, some of the ‘informal thinking spaces’ actually exist online these days, and as with other physical spaces, warrant more serious consideration.

  2. thanks andrew – interesting thoughts, and i like the focus on capturing ‘transient thinking’.

    just stumbled across the following, which looks interesting (though i haven’t looked at it fully yet) – 6 examples of using twitter in the classroom:

    and before you ask, yes, i did find out about it on twitter 🙂

  3. another interesting resource via twitter: twitter in the classroom (presentation)

    a lot of the ideas in this presentation are aimed at school-level education – nevertheless, there are some interesting ideas to build on. from simply gathering real-world data (#1) from your network; or using the 140 characters creatively to produce succinct summaries of an event (#3); to collating students’ views on a particular topic (#5); creating a real-time record of a trip (eg, #23, #16); or getting students to take part in a scavenger hunt (#22).

    the best thing for me about the above presentation is how it introduces the idea of linking twitter with other services/sites/applications (eg, google earth, twiddeo) – though i do feel uneasy about the tips that involve creating multiple new accounts for short-lived activities. for example, there are only so many variations of @janeeyre, so while the exercise itself may be valuable, i can’t help thinking that there’s a fairer way of doing this. maybe that’s just me, though?

  4. Just returned from eLearning 2.0 conference (#elearn2.0) at Brunel where a large proportion of the sessions discussed the educational use of twitter. This may be an indication that it is the hyped flavour of the month, but as your comment mentions Liz, there are plenty of interesting applications for using twitter in the informal, semi formal, non-formal and formal (yes all of these!) learning environment.

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