March 16, 2018

Using Twitter for Academic and Educational Purposes

This text was initially published by Profweb under a CC BY-NC-ND 4.0 International licence, before Eductive was launched.

Using Twitter in one of my courses was an idea that simmered for a while. Being a Twitter user myself, I have always been fascinated by the many opportunities that this social networking service offers.

Social networks are ubiquitous. Politicians, academics, businessmen/women, scientists, etc. use them extensively. While some may argue against such a use, social networks play an important role in one’s everyday life, and especially in one’s academic and professional life. Indeed, news, research articles, and statistics are abundant on Twitter.

Teachers know how challenging it is to find texts that most of their students will like. Indeed, our students have different interests and are in different fields. I wanted to come up with a project that would involve the use of a technology and that would overcome this difficulty. Twitter was the solution. The network was perfect for an ESL (English as a Second Language) course called Academic Reading II.

The primary objective of this project is to instill in my students a desire to read and write in English and to think critically. As English is the lingua franca, communication in English is abundant on Twitter. For the project, students have to follow different people and institutions connected to their field of study and interact with them 5 times throughout the semester. To do so, they have to tweet, retweet (with comment), or comment on a tweet relevant to their program of studies, using at least 2 complete, grammatically correct sentences. For instance, a student in Natural Science can follow a doctor, an engineer, an astronaut, a biologist, and the Minister of Science.

The goal of this exercise is for them to read in English and to be aware of what is being done in their field of study, what is happening in the world, etc.

In order to be evaluated, they need to follow me on Twitter. This allows me to follow them back, and I can then see what they have done and evaluate their tweets. I evaluate the project using the following grid (from my colleague Rachel Tunnicliffe):

Evaluation grid
Grade Evaluation Criteria
10/9 Project complete. Well thought out. Well written. Respectful. No or almost no errors.
8/7 Project complete. Thought out. Well written. Respectful. A few minor errors.
6/5 Project complete. On the right track. Respectful. Some errors but do not hinder understanding.
4/3 Project complete. May not be well thought out. Elements may be missing. Respectful. Many errors.
2/1 Project complete. Problems in executing the tasks. Respectful. Difficult to understand.
0 Project incomplete; not done; or completed, but disrespectful.

Concerning the language acquisition goal of this project, I believe that reading on Twitter is totally different than from, let’s say, reading a chapter in a book. Given the variety of topics on Twitter, the exposure to vocabulary is broader. If a student reads an article on the fentanyl crisis, he or she is likely to learn new words related to science and health care. If an article discusses the U.S. presidential election of 2016, he or she is likely to look up new nouns and verbs related to politics, sociology, and history.This reading comprehension exercise also differs from traditional reading activities. By choosing the articles they want to read, students necessarily have an interest in the topic discussed in the article, which is a crucial motivational factor.

As teachers and readers, we are all aware that engaging with a text requires motivation, and that is precisely why I wanted to give students some control over their readings.

Another important aspect of this project is the use of technology. Although my students are extremely familiar with social networks, they are not always aware that social networks can also have educational purposes. The project allows them to see that they can use social networks for their studies and for their future career. With this comes an important responsibility. They need to make sure that they can identify the source of the text. In other words, if they want to use articles and texts from Twitter, they have to rely on credible sources.

Rachel Tunnicliffe, one of my colleagues at Mérici, is also using the Twitter project this semester in Academic Reading II. Here is what she had to say about the project, The ‘information superhighway’ seems to be like an express train constantly gathering speed, and yet it’s surprising how many of our students don’t necessarily use or even know all of the different tools out there. When Félix and I decided to collaborate over a Twitter project, I really didn’t realise how few of my students would know how it worked. It’s been a learning curve for us all (as I am also new to Twitter), but having read some of the retweets of my students, I think it’s well worth it: it’s encouraging them to find out more about what’s going on in the world, while practising their second language at the same time.

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