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Teaching with Twitter

Andrea Phillott

Social media platforms, such as Twitter, are increasingly being used by scientists to share their ideas and findings with a global audience. Younger users, such as #undergraduate students, could benefit from engaging with these messages, in more than one ways. In this article, @AndreaPhillott, a Professor of #ConservationBiology at FLAME University, Pune, describes how her students benefitted from an assignment with Twitter.

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Social media sites, on which users create and share text, tags, images, and videos, are increasingly being used by scientists for professional purposes. The benefits of a social media presence are many – scientists can share their work with others in the research community (and potentially increase their citations), network with potential collaborators, keep up to date with research news and developments, live-tweet events (e.g., conferences), and engage with the public for science communication. Social media sites can also be used professionally in other ways; for example, in conservation science – my focus area – scientists can use social media data (e.g., user demographics, locations, post content and sentiment) during research, conservation planning, management, and marketing. Inspired by the many benefits of social media, I wanted to use it as an educational tool to enhance the learnings and skills of my undergraduate students in this discipline.

The social media site most often used by scientists is Twitter, a microblogging platform that allows users to interact in real-time with a global audience while posting self-generated knowledge and ideas, asking questions, and sharing content and links provided by others. Each post, or tweet’, comprises 280 characters or less, hence its categorisation as a microblog. Hashtags, a keyword or term beginning with the hash or pound sign (#), are searchable and allow users to identify tweets by topic. 

Only half of my students had a Twitter account, and those that did rarely tweeted. To familiarise students with Twitter as a tool for professional communication and networking and remaining informed about recent research and news, I designed an assignment in the course Conservation Biology’ and then surveyed students for their feelings before, during and after the activity and their learning gains.

I created a Twitter account for the course so that students were not required to have an individual presence on the site, and that allowed me to follow their tweets more easily. Students were randomly assigned a week during the course in which they were to tweet, at a minimum, two tweets to introduce themselves and 10 tweets including original content (not just re-tweets without comment), such as topics discussed in class, their conservation experiences and interests, conservation news and events, etc. Students were also asked to identify and follow five new users (e.g., individual conservationists or organisations). The assignment was graded at the end of the semester.

Despite being unfamiliar with or less active on the platform before the assignment, no one found the assignment to be too intimidating and all became confident by the end of the activity. 

Students were able to network with other conservation biologists and/​or conservation organisations through conversations and responding to questions about their Tweets, and following conservation biology news and events in real-time. Students also reported excellent learning gains, building disciplinary knowledge, relating course content to real situations, and making connections between conservation biology and other disciplines. Their understanding of the challenges in conservation biology and experiences of people working in the field was also enhanced. All agreed that this type of activity helped build skills of potential value in the future.

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Students made comments, such as: 

I find Twitter to be a really engaging platform and I like how people around the world interact. I think I would like to continue something similar [to] the assignment from my personal account and try to build a few connections with people and organizations. If nothing else, it’s a wonderful platform to stay updated.

It was great being able to tweet about issues that you were passionate about in a space where everyone is appreciative of it. This in turn made me appreciative about the kind of work they do and the effort and time that goes into it.”

Based on student feedback I have continued using the Twitter assignment for learning and assessment. The assignment format I used – tweets based on student interest – could be modified so that each student tweets about a specific topic of their own choice or one that is assigned to them based on course content. A longer assignment format for each student is also possible, as described in this course.

From a learning perspective, activities such as this assignment, that introduce student to the use of social media for networking, communication, and finding information, complement the knowledge and skills that students gain through lectures, class discussions, reading primary literature, field and laboratory experiences, data analysis and interpretation, and other learning opportunities. From a teaching perspective, faculty can also use Twitter to remind students about deadlines, identify challenging course concepts for review, as a tool for class discussions, and to increase student interactions during field experiences. An overview of the different potential uses for Twitter in education can be read here.

Written By

Andrea D. Phillott, Professor in Environmental Studies at FLAME University, conducts research in the field of marine biology, conservation and education. A voracious reader herself, Andrea uses popular literature to inspire and inform students about concepts and careers in ecology …