An experiment into the use of social media has shown that Twitter, an online blogging service, can act as an exceptional communication tool within academia. The study, published by the Association for Learning Technology, discovered that 'tweeting' helped develop peer support among students - with activity rising just prior to assessment deadlines or during revision for examinations.
It also helped them arrange social meetings and develop personal learning networks: students used the network when they were preparing assessed work or revising for tests, often in situations when they were physically isolated from their peers.
The researchers found Twitter to be useful as a data collection tool for assessing and recording the student experience, with a wide range of free and increasingly sophisticated online analysis tools available.
Dr Alan Cann, of the department of biology at the University of Leicester who led the study, said: "The academic departments involved were so impressed with the affordances of Twitter they have continued to use it in their pedagogic academic practices and plan to work with other bodies in the university such as the Student's Union to promote the use of Twitter as a lightweight communication channel in the coming academic year."
The researchers set up a system where students in their first term would communicate by 'tweeting.'. Prior to this, all but one had never used Twitter before while by the end, about half of those involved continued to use it.
Cann said awareness of Twitter has changed hugely over a year: "One year ago, searches for mentions of our own university on Twitter revealed little of interest. Currently, similar searches show a growing volume of conversation between existing students, often across institutional boundaries, and from prospective students commenting on perceptions of the university and higher education in general."
The Leicester Tweets showed that students were eager to explore the benefits of Twitter and regularly updated their status, informing others about their activities: "I am in the library writing an essay for a module x ..." and "...is rather worried about the assessment tomorrow and is preparing herself for failure," using a unique hashtag code.
The tweets imply a sense of community between students. Other students following them would be able to relate to these outlooks, encouraging them to correspond with their peers.
As well as acting as a peer-support tool, Twitter was also used as a contact between students and staff. Cann said students frequently used Twitter in preference to alternative channels such as email to contact tutors to ask questions or arrange meetings.
While acknowledging that the general perception of Twitter was that it was "populated only by chattering celebrities", he found that Twitter was a "powerful personal research tool, populated by carefully selected individuals we have chosen to follow for their knowledge and insight".
Source: University World News, 22 November 2009, Issue: 102