At the University of Texas-Dallas, history professor Monica Rankin's 90-person lecture hall was too big for back-and-forth conversation, and she needed a way to get students more involved. She turned to Twitter, the online micro-blogging service that lets people send 140-character messages, or "tweets," out for anyone to see. With some help from students in the school's emerging media program, she had class members set up accounts and use the technology to post messages and ask questions that could be displayed on a screen during class. Rankin found the experiment encouraged participation by students who otherwise would not have joined in.
Twitter might be a couple of rungs below Facebook in terms of popularity among college students. But a growing number of professors are embracing it as a way to introduce students to a different kind of communication. At Champlain College in Vermont, for example, marketing and online business professor Elaine Young discusses it as a way for business and marketing students to build networks in the professional world. Compared to other social networking sites, "Twitter is more about creating connections with others who may not be your real friends," she says. As part of their assignments working with local companies, her students have made recommendations on whether the firms should use services like Twitter, blogs, or E-mail newsletters. This year, students were instrumental in helping the local Magic Hat Brewing Co. implement a "Twitter pub crawl" as a promotion; participants received tweeted hints on their next destination.
Play-by-play. Young even had several of her students tweeting a play-by-play from their BlackBerrys and cellphones during commencement. Other members of the audience, as well as those watching online and on the local public-access TV channel, found the Twitter feed and posted their own tweets. "It's all right in the moment," Young says.
David Parry, a professor of emerging media at UT-Dallas, uses Twitter to keep students engaged in course content beyond the classroom walls. He has them create Twitter profiles and follow his updates, along with those of friends and others outside the university. Often, they go a step further and use the service to alert classmates to world events or issues that are relevant to the course.
"One thing that has changed about higher education is the idea that people come and sit in a dorm and after class, they share ideas," says Parry. "A lot of that is gone now, because students work two jobs, they don't live in dorms. But Twitter is making up for it, in a way." A former student of Parry's, who now works in the news and publications office at the UT Southwestern Medical Center, made history last year when she helped provide the first Twitter log of a kidney transplant. Family members were able to view timely updates of the six-hour procedure as they were posted.
Howard Rheingold, who teaches in the school of information and the sociology department at the University of California-Berkeley and in the communication department at Stanford University, often turns to his personal network of sources on the site to find answers to teaching questions. He explains to his digital journalism students how to establish their own network and how to entice those sources to follow the students' tweets. In his social media course, he has his students employ Twitter for a kind of group contact that he describes as "student-to-teacher-to-student ambient office hours," during which he shares information not on the syllabus, such as videos or reading notes.
Bringing a service like Twitter into an academic environment is a teaching approach that has garnered a fair share of criticism. Some educators say that restricting users to 140-character blurbs plays havoc with students' writing skills and destroys their attention spans. William Kist, who teaches in the college of education at Kent State University in Ohio, uses Twitter solely as a "digital faculty lounge" where he can network with other professors. But Rheingold maintains that Twitter's usefulness depends on the individual. "If you want to share information in small bites with a group of people who share your interest," he says, "that's what it's for."