twitterThe popularity of micro-blogging is increasing rapidly, with a  stream of applications being launched on a regular basis. Twitter and Plurk are probably the most popular microblogs. Micro-bloggers are limited to using 140 characters, so it is a little like sms, but social. Twitter supports mobile devices, so one can use sms to blog directly to Twitter from a mobile and, in some countries, receive tweets from selected followers via sms.  Outgoing sms are charged at an overseas rate. Unfortunately, while one can post to Twitter in the UK, the latter service, receiving tweets on one’s mobile, depends on service providers.  iPhones (O2) have a number of applications which support Twitter and Vodafone provides the service for customers with ‘normal’ mobiles.

Initially, Twitter was regarded as somewhat peripheral, trivial and useless, a place for posting banal and self-indulgent messages. This perception is changing rapidly as we begin to see the accumulative power of  short messages  to create both community and meaning. Thompson (2007) points out that  “when I see that my friend Misha is ‘waiting at Genius Bar to send my MacBook to the shop,’ that’s not much information. But when I get such granular updates every day for a month, I know a lot more about her. And when my four closest friends and worldmates send me dozens of updates a week for five months, I begin to develop an almost telepathic awareness of the people most important to me.”

Like other social software applications, Twitter has been followed by a proliferation of supportive apps. Mashups include Twittervision, Twittermap and Twittearth. These allow one to see the location from which tweets are originating. Twitterpics provides an easy way to share pictures on Twitter and elsewhere, and Twitwall enables one to post extra long posts which supplement the original tweet. Other applications dedicated to Twitter include Tweetdeck, Twitteriffic asnd Nambu, amongst others.

hashtagA number of my virtual friends are attending a conference in Berlin at the moment. Some of them provide a stream of updates to their Twitter site while listening to keynote speeches which followers can see. However, I cannot see tweets from others who I do not know.  #Hashtags (Hashtags.org) provide a way for me and others to do this. A hashtag created especially for the event (in this case #oeb08) enables tweeters to send copies of their tweets to a special webpage identified by that hashtag. This provides a fuller and reasonably coherent ‘narrative’ about what is going on at the conference. Tweeters simply include the hashtag in their posts to have it automatically listed on the relevant page on the website.

Hashtags are becoming increasingly popular, especially for major events. Occurrences which were heavily ‘tweeted’ include the earthquake in China earlier in the year and the recent bombings in Mumbai.  The Berlin Online Educa Conference can be followed at http://www.hashtags.org/tag/oeb08Tweems provides a similar service.

Microblogging applications support the development of on-line communities. When joining Twitter, one ‘meets’ tweeters from a wide range of backgrounds. One then selects specific tweeters to follow, and like other social networking sites, this provides an introduction to others. The most powerful aspect of these communities is probably the sharing of information, using hyperlinks. These include links to new blog posts, photographs and breaking news and often include hashtags which provide an even richer source of information.

Different microblogging applications have their own unique features. Plurk, for instance, has a timeline and supports threaded conversations. The two communities are quite different with respect to the kinds of conversations occurring, with Plurk more chatty and visual. A lot of smileys are used. Twitter tends to be more serious. Both support sharing of ideas, resources and interests. TinyURL is used by many on Twitter, given that it shortens long urls considerably. Plurk goes one better, allowing one to create a hyperlink using simple brackets.  What is perhaps most interesting is that a reasonable number of people are active on both platforms.

The reasons for the growing popularity of microblogging are various. An obvious reason is that the short posts provide a fast and convenient mode of communication, supporting more frequent posts than regular blogs (Java, A. et al. 2007). Another it that it is easily done from a mobile. Twitter also works with social networking applications like Facebook, providing the facility whereby updates to Twitter are mirrored on the users Facebook profile. According to Witham (2008) Twitter is now being looked by the business community  as a cutting-edge collaboration and sharing tool. Wheeler (2009) provides a analysis how Twitter is used gleaned from an informal survey of educational users in the UK here and here.

Micro-blogging is also being used increasingly as a means of communication in educational institutions, both residential and distance based. Costa et al. (2008) looked at Twitter as a tool for enhancing learning. Their conclusions were that micro-blogging is well regarded as a tool for supporting both informal learning and networking, providing  “spontaneous and immediate communication” which helps “promote the sharing of ideas and prompt unplanned discussion about relevant topics” (7). Reynard (2008)  agrees, pointing out that  academics who use the technology to communicate directly with students highlight the fact that” they can receive responses in minutes rather than the hours it would take using e-mail or blogs.”  She adds that this kind of technology is now being integrated into course management systems. 

Grosseck and Holotescu (2008:5) provide a comprehensive list of positive uses for Twitter in the classroom. These include:

  • Classroom community
  • Exploring collaborative writing
  • Developing literacy skills
  • Providing opportunities for discussion and reflection
  • Collaboration across schools and countries
  • A tool for assessing opinion, examining consensus, looking for outlying ideas
  • Fostering interaction about a given topic
  • A viable platform for metacognition
  • Reference and research.

While research on the topic in academic journals remains limited, informal sources such as educational blogs provide examples of use.   Parry (2008) claims that students who used microblogging were more engaged and connected overall with his course and that he, as the instructor, knew more about their understanding and progress throughout the course than with those who did not use the technology. However, the extent to which this is a case of engaged students using technology rather that the technology leading to engaging students is not discussed. In the UK, Wheeler provides a useful list of  ten educational uses for Twitter in his Learning with ‘e’s blog.  Another list is provided in the Academ Hack blog.


Academ Hack. Twitter in Academia. 2008. Accessed 9/12/2008.

Akshay Java, Xiaodan Song, Tim Finin, and Belle Tseng (2007) Why We Twitter: Understanding Microblogging Usage and Communities. Procedings of the Joint 9th WEBKDD and 1st SNA-KDD Workshop 2007.

Costa, C., Beham, G., Wolfgang Reinhardt, W. & Sillaots, M. (2008) Microblogging In Technology Enhanced
Learning: A Use-Case Inspection of PPE Summer School 2008.

Grosseck, G. & Holotescu, C. (2008)    Can we use Twitter for Educational Purposes? Papers,The 4th International Scientific Conference eLSE eLearning and Software for Education, BUCHAREST, April 17-18. Accessed 8/12/2008.

Reynard, R. (2008) Microblogging and relevance. Campus Technology. Accessed 4/12/2008.

Thompson, C. (2007) How Twitter creates a social sixth sense. Wired Magazine 15(07). Accessed 9/12/2008.

Wheeler, S. (2009) Teaching with Twitter. Accessed 20/1/2009

Wheeler, S. (2009)  – Twittering about –  part 1. Acessed 20/1/2009

Wheeler S. (2009) Twittering about – part 2. Accessed 20/1/2009

Supplementary material.

Making it real BBC News | Hyperconnected generation rises BBC News | Twitter and the Chinese earthquake Rory Cellan-Jones, BBC dotLife blog | Interview with David Parry |

YouTube explanation of hashtags

Teaching with Twitter: Not for the fainthearted. Jeffrey R. Young, Chronicle of Higher Education, 23/11/2009

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