Sammy Garey, a recent graduate of Burlingame High School in Burlingame, Calif., is a devoted user of Twitter. She's used the website with her classmates for online book discussions for her AP English class, in which they post and share feedback, analysis, and questions about novels such as Crime and Punishment. Garey also turns to the website to check breaking news and feed her interest in science by following the tweets of specialized Twitter accounts such as MedUpdates and DrugInfo.
"It's the new frontier," she says. "This is the direction the world is heading in, and there's no better place to start than in the classroom."
Twitter, the Web service that lets people post and share messages of 140 characters or fewer, is enjoying a popularity surge in general. But on the education front in particular, some forward-thinking college professors are embracing it and finding ways to include it in courses, and teachers at the K-12 level are also experimenting with the social networking website. Using Twitter in a classroom setting can bring challenges, but some educators and students think it's a tool that can boost the learning process.
Delainia Haug, an English teacher at Roosevelt High School in Minneapolis, says that taking the online social networking applications that teenagers depend on outside of school—such as Twitter, Facebook, and MySpace—and bringing them into an academic space is critical for student engagement.
But other educators aren't so sure. William Kist, who teaches in the college of education at Kent State University in Ohio, says that using technologies like Twitter in the classroom—especially at the K-12 level—could be risky because the sites might expose students to Internet predators. He keeps a Twitter account, but he uses it solely as a "digital faculty lounge" where he can network with other professors. He is hesitant to follow the Twitter accounts of any of his students—given the typically personal nature of their updates—and is not aware of many students who follow his.
"I'm very nervous about students following professors such as myself," he says. "That could put us in a compromising position."
Other educators feel that if anyone uses the site for nefarious purposes, it's going to be the students themselves. Bob Alexander, a language arts consultant at the North Carolina Department of Public Instruction, says today's kids aren't just digital natives—they're "digital savages" and "digital cannibals." They master technology at an alarming rate, he says, and they find ways to adapt it to practices other than what was originally intended. And they cheat.
"Even the good students are looking for an edge," he says. "This already happens with texting, so it would follow suit that somewhere along the line, it could be applied to Twitter."
You're not likely to find much cheating at Roosevelt High, whose student body comprises mostly lower-income students and English language learners, and where Haug and Dean of Students Damien Poling spearheaded a program that uses digital media like blogs, wikis, audio, and video to give students a chance to work with computer technologies.
It doesn't use Twitter, but the Digital Media Studies program, otherwise known as DigME, has helped to bridge a gap in digital literacy among students at the school. Such progress lies at the heart of what many educators say is the thorniest issue regarding digital media technologies in schools: fair access and equity. A majority of teachers, especially those who teach in low-income areas, feel that bringing online technologies into a class setting is problematic when students might not have the resources to access the digital tools outside of class.
But Jim Burke, an English teacher at California's Burlingame High, says the fact that some students might not have access to broadband Internet outside of school is the very reason why teachers should be focusing on bringing those technologies into school.
"If a kid doesn't have the means to set up an account on one of these services and to learn how to use it, then he's losing out on these emerging forms of literacy," he says.
So if you're a teacher and thinking about the best way to incorporate Twitter into your lessons or if you're a student, what do you need to know? Here are some things to keep in mind: