Best practices and tips for Twitter in the higher-ed classroom

College students have become used to instant communication. Many professors complain that technology has given their students short attention spans and poor study skills. Others bewail the end of civilization, as they see their students reading Facebook during class instead of taking notes.

In reality, students are adapting to a new information environment. The cues that guided young academics to new ideas a generation ago were subtle, steeped in unwritten formalities, and exclusionary. Today, the best students are using social networks, feeds, and blogs to forage for the information that matters to them. But others will inevitably take advantage of the social buffet to browse away from your course's content.

What to do?

Try taking the reins, to meet your students at the information smorgasbord. Getting your students to interact with each other outside of class is one of the best ways to deepen their educational experience.

Twitter is a tool that can enable ad hoc conversations and interactions among your students, in ways that you can track and foster. Your students may not all be familiar with Twitter, but its simplicity and availability, much like text messages on a phone, has a broad appeal.

Curious about how to apply Twitter in your classroom? Or maybe you've tried it in the past but had only partial success. My list of suggestions outlines some of the most common questions and hangups encountered with Twitter among groups of students.

I use Twitter in large undergraduate lecture courses, where participation is voluntary and happens in conjunction with other modes of communication. I have spoken to many who use it in smaller courses and who require students to use Twitter in certain assignments. These applications all have their distinctive features, but there are many commonalities that emerge in today's diverse student communities. Here are some of them:

Learn to work in 140 characters.

The absolute greatest thing about Twitter: It forces concision. If you're a blathering, droning lecturer who won't shut up, Twitter will show you the smackdown.

Brevity runs a risk. Your course syllabus has bloated to include 3 pages of small print in legalese for a reason. After years of teaching, you've seen students misinterpret every clear statement in every conceivable way. Every tweet is like a grenade waiting to explode with mistaken misinterpretations.

Solution: Edit, edit, edit. The key to effective tweets is setting them aside for awhile before sending. Make sure every word counts.

If 140 characters seems like being chained in a box, try to find the freedom in brevity. When you read a great story, you can forward it to your students in a flash with no regrets and little explanation. Salt your tweetstream with items from your feeds in the morning. Let your students take the pulse of how a real expert forages for information. Or set up a list with some of the best tweeps in your field of study, and encourage your students to follow it. Leverage the power of the Twitterverse.

Make the course hashtag part of the syllabus.

As cool as you are, your students may not want to follow you. Besides, as cool as you are, most of your tweets have nothing to do with your class! Besides, Twitter isn't about your students following you, it's about enabling them to find information from each other. You need a hashtag for your course. A student who keeps a search on the hashtag will see every tweet, including those by other students. This keeps the conversation open because any student can chime in anytime.

Picking a hashtag is easy. It should include the course number and something memorable or distinctive. For example, my Principles of Biological Anthropology course at the University of Wisconsin-Madison has the hashtag #uw105. Put it on the syllabus and show students how to use it on the first day. Give them a little handholding.

Above all, when you've thought of the most awesome gangbusters hashtag, check first to make sure someone else isn't already using it. The last thing you want is to have your students confused because Unlimited Wrestling is using your hashtag for their 105-lb weight class.

Students always have the option to reply to you or other students without the hashtag, taking the conversation to a more private sphere.

Bring the feed into the classroom.

The main problem with Twitter as part of a course: Most students may already have accounts, but don't use them. My first semester, I had only two dozen active tweeps out of a class of 240.

Fortunately, there are many ways to leverage a small amount of initial engagement into a bigger interactive presence. Make an informal assignment to devise a 140-character answer to a question, and promote the best answers in class. When your students tweet a useful link, retweet it to your followers. Use the class hashtag to send informal study questions on the current readings, or preview the next day's discussion.

One way to encourage greater uptake is to use Storify. Students can compile their tweets into a record of notes for the class session, or can use Twitter to put together a study guide for an exam. Because Storify stories are accessible from the web without Twitter, they also provide a way to show non-tweeps the value of Twitter in your classroom.

Maybe the gutsiest use of Twitter is a live twitterfall next to your lecture slides. Giving your class a backchannel gives the students a voice even when they are listening to your lecture. My students have made great use of the backchannel during certain lectures, asking questions about the content that I can answer right during class. If you have a teaching assistant, you can task him to handle Twitter during lectures and alert you to questions; or you can watch the tweetstream yourself. But there's a risk: After all, when you give students a voice, some of them will use it to complain. Be ready to respond to questions, confusions, and complaints with good humor.

Reward the students who are participating with attention. A daily pick of the top tweet, or a weekly top five, may be a real morale booster for certain students. Retweets are the currency of the Twitterverse, so use them liberally. Put your students into contact with other professional tweeps by mentioning them together in the same tweet.

Be professional.

If you spend a lot of time answering student e-mails, moving some of those questions Twitter can be a huge relief. An answer in 140 characters approaches the simplicity of handling questions in person at the end of class. But even though a tweet can be brief (or maybe especially because of brevity) you need to be conscious of your professional role in your class.

All the usual advice about electronic communication applies to Twitter, too. Don't try too hard to be funny: Humor can easily go wrong in a diverse classroom, and in an electronic setting is often misinterpreted. Especially when the 140-character limit makes you omit words from the punchline.

Twitter can help to level barriers in your classroom, but don't be too casual. You may be able to run your class effectively without formalities, but you are part of a college or department where not every instructor has your abilities. Don't unwittingly undermine your friends and colleagues.

Don't assume your students are hanging on your every tweet, but be aware that some will cling to the barest scrap. A breezy tweet may mean little to you after you've written a dozen of them, but be conscious that a student may read those 140 characters just as they've spent most of the night studying for your next exam. Students may appreciate your quick and open communication style, but they are conscious of your power over their grades.

Students in the U.S. are protected by FERPA, which limits the ways that coursework can be released to the public. That doesn't mean you can't assign graded exercises on Twitter, but you should be ready to justify your pedagogical goals: Is Twitter giving your students an additional way to communicate and synthesize content in the course, or do you expect that public communication is a skill they must master to be effective in your field? Anticipating possible outcomes for students is part of designing effective courses, and in this respect Twitter is adding a new twist to an old theme.

Be prepared for abuse.

Twitter is a public channel. Anyone who has tweeted much will have encountered spammers. Fortunately, bots and spammers usually don't tweet with hashtags, so they're unlikely to show up for students keeping a search on your course hashtag. But if you retweet your students' tweets, you should be prepared for the possibility that spammers find their usernames more than they would otherwise have done.

Twitter makes it easy to report spam and block users. Making quick use of these facilities is often the most effective way to keep your students' timelines relatively uncluttered with spam. When you introduce Twitter to your course, you should always mention and highlight the ways that the service enables blocking other users.

Because it's a public channel, one of your students may believe anonymity will protect him if he decides to be abusive. It's very easy to sign up for an anonymous Twitter account and a student can throw bombs into other students' timelines by including the course hashtag. An instructor needs to be concerned about the potential for cyberstalking or harassment, also.

Fortunately, like other uses of technology in the classroom, your students' interactions on Twitter probably fall under your institution's electronic use guidelines. That means you have help from your IT department and college administration if you have a student creating a disruption. Don't think that an abusive student is solely a problem for your class: Electronic abuse and harassment are antithetical to a college's mission to teach students.

A simple warning may be enough to let students know that anonymity will not protect bad behavior. Make it clear that electronic abuse is as serious or more serious than plagiarism. If you face a case of abuse that you suspect is caused by a student, inside or outside your classroom, make it clear to the entire class that the case will be dealt with by your institution's academic affairs personnel.

A Twitter glossary:

Tweet: The basic message, much like a text message on a phone. It's limited to 140 characters in length.

Timeline: A series of tweets from people and lists that a user follows.

Follow: By following another user or list, their tweets show up in your timeline.

Tweeps: 6-character slang for followers and Twitter friends.

List: A timeline can quickly become unmanageable if you're following hundreds of users. Including a set of related users in a list allows you to focus on content.

Link shortener: Services like bit.ly or goo.gl take a long URL and give an equivalent that is 20 characters or less, making it possible to comment on links in a single tweet. Each of these services is essentially a huge database linking long URLs to short, customized ones.

TweetDeck: Many users rely only on twitter.com or dedicated mobile apps for Twitter. Others use one of several software applications that manage Twitter content. Apps like TweetDeck automate certain tasks, like link shortening, and enable fast switching between concurrent searches.

Hashtag: Any text string preceded by the hash (#) sign. Tagging a tweet with a hashtag helps to group tweets by subject. Searching by hashtag enables people to follow tweets from a course or meeting even if they don't know which users may be there.

@: @ is a special character that let's Twitter know a username is coming (e.g., @johnhawks).

Mention: A tweet that includes a user's @username. This shows up in the user's @mentions timeline.

Reply: Clicking "reply" will compose a tweet that begins with a @username. This shows up in the user's @mentions timeline, but will not show up in your follower's timelines unless they also follow the @user you reference. Appending anything to the beginning of the tweet (like a '.') will make it appear in your followers' timelines, too.

D: Twitter's private message option. If a user follows you, you can send them a direct message by D username. This will not show up in timelines of any of your followers.

RT: The retweet. A basic way of relaying other people's tweets to your followers.

MT: The "modified tweet". You can add a comment and edit other people's tweets to stay under 140 characters, and it's good form to include an "MT" to show that you've changed the original.

Storify: A service (from Storify.com) that enables you to categorize a series of tweets and compile them with additional content into a narrative of an event.

Other resources

People are integrating Twitter into their classes all over the world, in many different academic settings, and they are sharing their ideas. Here are a few:

"Professor Encourages Students to Pass Notes During Class via Twitter": Jeffrey Young reported in the Chronicle of Higher Education about Cole Camplese, one of the first to use a live twitterwall alongside his lecture slides.

"A Professor's Tips for Using Twitter in the Classroom": An even earlier article from Young, about David Perry's use of Twitter in an electronic communications class.

"Twitter in the Classroom (this replaces those)": David Silver notes that Twitter replaces listserv, e-mail announcements, and serves as a way for students to share online assignments in other formats.

"Twitter for Academia": Tips from AcademHack that go beyond the classroom and includes some ways that Twitter can actually promote good writing habits.

"5 Unique Uses of Twitter in the Classroom": US News gave some interesting advice in their last higher education edition, focusing on ways that Twitter may benefit students beyond the classroom, and some very creative exercises.