Thinking About Twitter-acy

by Jim Parsons

Recently I read an online interview with Rey Junco, associate professor at Purdue University and a faculty associate at the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University. The interview led me to think further about how we might use Twitter in classrooms.

In this little “thinking about,” I hope to both engage those new to Twitter and those experienced with it. For those who know little about Twitter, what is it? How is it used? What does research say about its connection with literacy? For those experienced with Twitter, how can we use it educationally? In short, this “thinking about” is an invitation to share ideas about how Twitter might be used in classrooms?

What is Twitter?

Twitter is a social media/micro-blogging service that limits users to messaging using 140 characters or less - tweets. Twitter is based upon the logic that Twitter users can be involved in a “daylong brainstorming session.”

Should Twitter be a concern for teachers? Or, can twitter help students develop social and academic skills? First, one must understand that Twitter is one of many social media, and social media are transforming traditional literacies in ways we don’t yet understand. For example, in addition to the traditional literacy skills of creating and deciphering text, information literacy calls us to increase our abilities to locate, evaluate, and use information – all increasingly important as we rely more heavily on social media. All of us, including educators, rely on the Internet for our day-to-day information needs –buying and selling, gathering news and weather information, or communicating with friends and family. Social media allow users to gain and share information quickly.

But, there is also a dark side. Social media can be used for evil – for bullying or to spreading false information or rumor. False (and potentially dangerous) information is an obviously concern for educators and parents; and, we have seen its ugliness. Yet, as an educator who uses the Internet daily and relies on its accuracy, I have not felt threatened by false, or dangerous information. But, I don’t “play in the traffic;” that is, I typically only engage sites I find trustworthy.

It seems a no-brainer to suggest that today’s learners – and that includes all of us – must develop skills to help us evaluate newer media. Sadly, this is an area we often ignore in school, which leaves students learning new literacies informally outside of schools. Such learning, because it doesn't happen in schools, seems to run counter to school-based learning and children are left alone to learn and to shape their identities. As a parent, this seems risky.

Further, many academics wonder if condensed speech or “creative” spelling impedes learning or erodes literacy skills? Interestingly, however, research suggests that learning to use shortened text-speak actually might help develop stronger reading and writing skills. At issue is how we learn to process language. Research suggests that cognitive processing occurs whether one engages formal first languages (English or French) or text-speak (like Twitter). Becoming fluent in any language seems to enrich cognitive processes.

As well, some argue that using 140 characters or less must decrease students’ reading and thinking attention spans. Specifically, if children always receive information in little blips and clips, will they be ready for fuller information – let alone Shakespeare? Yet, despite concerns that Twitter impedes language development, evidence suggests that social media can enhance reading and writing. Most research suggests that students actually increase skills by shaping ideas into a 140-character template and that this template helps students become concise and thoughtful about what they write.

Here is where we must be realistic. For better or worse, we have been thinking in sound (or word) bytes for a long time. Television commercials or contemporary music are cases in point. Even teachers have become to believe they need to gain attention early by attracting listeners. For example, young teachers learn to use a “hook” with every lesson plan. What “hook” will help me gain the attention of my students? Children are also already engaged in patterns of shortened language, and we have come to accept such patterns as normal and as part of how we think of learning. Certainly, social media are not the sole culprits.

The Challenge

How should caring teachers respond to Twitter in ways that might help students build literacy skills? Obviously, although there is early research on these newer social media, we have not yet engaged Twitter in powerful, educationally relevant ways that might further our educational goals. Perhaps it is time educators begin to creatively explore Twitter and build ideas that embrace Twitter more fully.

So, we ask. Who among Canadian teachers uses Twitter to build literacy? What ideas do you have for embracing social media in educationally relevant ways? What is it like to use Twitter, and how can we introduce Twitter into classrooms so we might work with students in ways that explicitly build their literacy skills?

Plus, we need more research. How does informal learning shape students’ work? What do students learn by engaging and interacting with others on Twitter? What happens to students who use Twitter? What do they think of Twitter? How do they shape their tweets? Why do they post? What’s “in it” for them?

For teachers of literacy – and that is probably all of us – the question is how to bring students’ informal learning into formal school settings? And, when we do, how do we know our work helps? For us, this question is both educational and social – as if those two aspects can be separated. What do our students learn? How can they be better students? How can they become better friends by learning and interacting on Twitter?


Can Twitter Boost Literacy? (August 19, 2013). Assessed at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=213500923