Teaching with Twitter (part one)

Dr Inger Mewburn is a Research Fellow in the School of Graduate Research, RMIT University. She co-ordinates the On Track generic research skill program at RMIT, teaches online as well as writing for and editing The Thesis Whisperer blog. The rest of the time she listens to research students who want to tell her their problems and writes on the subject of research education.
Being a Twitter enthusiast is a bit like being a cult member. Those who ‘get it’ are your instant friends, while those that don’t tend react with puzzlement – or pity. I can understand why Twitter divides people. It is absurdly easy to sign up and start tweeting, but it is quite difficult to work out how to use and enjoy it.

In this series of posts I am going to attempt to demystify Twitter and make some suggestions about how you can use it in your teaching. But I want to make you think about uses beyond the classroom too. Twitter can be used to help you build a ‘personal brand’ and connect with people who share your enthusiasm for certain subjects. If you are careful about how you work with Twitter, you can become a ‘trusted source’ and build a substantial follower base who will carry your words much further than you imagine. There is clear value, especially for sessional lecturers, in creating a recognisable brand presence in Twitter – you never know which future employers are listening!

The first step to successful tweeting is to understand how the platform works. For those of you who are yet to be acquainted with the mechanics of the platform, Twitter is a ‘micro blogging’ service where people post ‘tweets’ of up to 140 characters.  You can follow anyone (unless they block you) and arrange them into lists. You can be followed by anyone – unless you lock your account and force people to ‘knock on your door’ to enter. When you log in to Twitter your timeline shows the tweets of all the people you follow and anything they have re-tweeted (RT). The Tweets may be just plain text, or include web links and special searchable links called ‘hashtags’ (#).

I recommend you have an account that is set aside just for academic work (you can always have another, possibly locked, account to talk with your friends). Use your own name, or choose a name which will resonate with the topics you are teaching and researching. For example, I call myself @thesiswhisperer, which simultaneously publicises my blog and announces to anyone cruising by that my purpose is to help people to write a PhD or Masters thesis. Make your bio concise and signal the topics you are interested in talking about in 160 characters so that people can understand who you are. For example, this is how I describe myself:

Research Fellow @RMIT University. Does research on research ( yes – really), writes for and edits the Thesis Whisperer blog and thinks about stuff.

The main value of Twitter in teaching is the conversations it enables and the ability to harness the wisdom of the crowd to find useful information. But what puts many people off is that the more people you follow, the faster the tweets multiply in your timeline until there are literally too many to read. The first thing to do is relax – imagine Twitter as a rushing waterfall of information and noise. You can’t drink from the waterfall by sitting under it with your mouth open; you hold a cup under it.  Since you will only be able to catch a small amount of what is going by in your cup, you need to ensure you are catching more information than noise.

There are three different ways to ‘tune into’ Twitter and sort information from noise: be selective about whom you follow, use hashtags and compile lists. I’ll tackle each of these in turn.

Your students, and any other followers you attract, will look at who you follow to work out who you are and what you value. Use this opportunity to send the right signals by being careful about whom you include in your ‘waterfall’. If you are a teaching and researching politics you may follow politicians, political journalists and perhaps certain bloggers; if you are also interested in knitting you would include other knitters and perhaps supply shops and so on.

Don’t worry if you end up following lots of people; you can use lists to organise them. When you make a list you are essentially making an alternate timeline to view. The key advantage of a list is that the timeline can be viewed by others, so I like to think about myself as a curator of an art gallery here. I try to make lists of people that others will want to read.

Lists can be used to track and monitor your audience. I have over 2000 followers. If I followed everyone back I would have a really crowded timeline, but I am still interested in what they are saying, so I organise all my followers into different lists. The lists are broadly speaking organised into interests – sort of like online ‘birds of a feather’ groups. I can scan these alternative timelines when I have time and get a sense of what conversations are going on and pick out interesting links. To ease this process I feed all my lists into an aggregator (paper.li), but more on that another time.

Hashtags are a powerful way for a teacher to start to organise materials and discussion. A hastag placed before a word, or string of words with no spaces, turns the piece of text into a special sort of ‘search link’; when you click on it your timeline changes to show all the tweets containing that hashtag. Hashtags can be used to make informal, adhoc chat channels. A good example of this is #phdchat, which is used by many PhD students to find each other and share information. Every now and then the list convenor organises a real time chat with a topic.

I hope this post has given you some ideas on the way that Twitter can be used in your teaching practice. In the next post I will talk some more about the content of Tweets and how to craft more informative and compelling ones.

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