Using Twitter as a New Literacy Tool

Over the last decades, technology development provided unmatched opportunities for leaders in academia to invent devises and design applications that act as powerful interactive educational tools. With Literacy being so fundamental to such opportunities of learning, this research investigates whether Twitter can be used for academic purposes as a new literacy tool. It discusses how Twitter encourages students, especially graduate student, to work collaboratively. Nevertheless, it addresses the exclusive features that make Twitter a perfect tool for that purpose.51Z4qMj6QqL._SL500_AA300_

The number of Twitter’s users is going up exponentially. According to Greenhow, “There are now more than 200 million active users posting 175 million tweets a day”. Greenhow,p(465). Things such as ‘hashtags’ are making their way out to things outside of Twitter.  For instance, we all read a text message that has a hashtag in it, e.g. “#fail” or “#happy”. Common hashtags are used in order to find all related tweets. This paper study the class hashtag “#digcomp” (graduate student use of Twitter) by analyzing the class Tweets concentrating on how such technology is used by and can benefit students and teacher in an academic setting.


First and foremost, one of the most important features of Twitter is that there are many ways to post to your Twitter account and for readers to access your posts without interfacing with Twitter.  Figure 1 shows Twitter input and output (from the writing lap newsletter Nov/Dec, 2010)

While Twitter asks, “What are you doing?” it’s a lot more than that. There are ongoing conversations, exchange of ideas, and great opportunities to network. As Margaret Atwood says: “A lot of people on Twitter are dedicated readers. Twitter is like all of the other short forms that preceded it. It’s like the telegram. It’s like the smoke signal. It’s like writing on the washroom wall. It’s like carving your name on a tree. It’s a very short form and we use that very short form for very succinct purposes. There is a guy out there who is writing 140-character short stories — I just followed him today”.

Microblogging sites like Twitter is a new form of blogging, featuring very short posts such as short sentences, individual images, or video links where you can communicate with the whole world. “Microblogging is a variant of blogging which allow users to quickly post short updates, providing an innovative communication method that can be seen as a hybrid of blogging, instants messaging, social networking and status notification. The word’s origin suggests that it shares the majority of elements with blogging, therefore it can potentially be described using blogging’s three key concepts”.Welsh, et al, p(217). However, many microblogging sites, especially Twitter, combine “key characterstics from both social networking sites and blogging” Welsh, et al, p(217).

According to a study from Michigan State University exploring the use of Twitter in classrooms, Twitter will change the way people communicate in the classroom. Christine Greenhow, Assistant Professor of Education at MSU, conducted the research and says that students are much more engaged when they are actively tweeting with the teacher, classmates and others outside of class.  “Some of the time this engagement took the form of them tweeting out to the authors they were reading and sharing some insights on what they read.  So really deeply engaging with the things they were reading.” “Surprisingly”, she said, “many times the writers or authors tweet back – so it’s a very different experience than just reading something by yourself or in a class.”

To elaborate on this feature more, Pete Rorabaugh in her post Twitter Theory and the Public Scholar said: “The common thread between Twitter users is that they like to communicate and share media with each other. Sometimes these activities can seem inane to anyone unschooled in the benefits (and appropriate limits) of social media. Yet, Twitter presents a community at once open and contained — open in the sense that most Twitter activity is available for everyone to see and contained in the sense that following and search functionality allows users to cultivate a channel replete with discourse on their own broad or narrow areas of interest”.

Another study examined tweeting practices in a large undergraduate media studies course where instructors ought to integrate student opinion into the classroom discourse and increase their engagement with course themes. This study showed that the majority of students chose to tweet: about one quarter of the tweets were directed at a peer, and the average number of tweets per user was 14, or about one tweets per week. It says that using Twitter “deepened and extended the class’s potential for engagement with course themes” According to Greenhow, “These findings suggest that Twitter use in higher education may facilitate increased student engagement with course content and increased “student to student” or “student- instructor” interactions potentially leading to stronger positive relationships that improve learning and to the design of richer experiential or authentic learning experiences” Greenhow, p(469).

One important function of Twitter is the Hashtags. “Hashtags set up an attributive relationship between the tweet as a tagged token and the label as its type” Zappavigna, p(36). “The hashtag is a form of metadata that emerged through community use of Twitter”. In matter of fact, Hashtag is what makes Twitter different than other website such as facebook. This feature makes the search easy; you don’t need to check everyone’s page to read tweets related to a certain Hashtag.  For instance, “” could be used to look up our class’s hashtag “#digcomp”. By doing so, there will be a result of 203 Tweets; 156 are Tweets with links, 4 Tweets with photos and 9 Tweets with videos. However, not all the tweets were tweeted by my classmates. People outside our class’s community tweeted using the same hashtag, and others retweeted some of the the class tweets.

A Ph.D. student in English at York University, Toronto made some great observations on how Twitter users compile a simultaneously fixed and virtual identity on the web. The student published “Theorizing Twitter: Narratives and Identity” on his blog in 2008. Similarly, in his investigation of Twitter’s facility in turning short posts into personal narrative, Alang writes: “In this sense of writing oneself, there’s something to the disjointed, microscopic nature of Twitter, the fact that it is only a collection of tiny snippets, that allows its users to piece together stories over time about themselves and those they follow.” As a teacher you can easily understand the students’ personalities and interest from their Tweets. Teachers need to know what is interesting for students and participate with them. Twitter can help them do so by checking their bio, tweets, and who they are following. Additional, another study shows that Twitter can impact not only student engagement but also “ encourage faculty to be more active and participatory”. Lomicka, P(49). Not to mention that Twitter is a free service. This further encourages participation, collaborative learning. Twitter provides access to resources worldwide, access to a community of experts and quick answers for students’ questions.

      Through my Tweet analysis, Tweets were divided into different categories: comments or opinions(@mention), quotes, asking questions, sharing resources and links and a few retweeted Tweets. On a conference ‘Twitter Use By Digital Humanists’ C. Ross, M. Terras, C. Warwick and A. Welsh write in their article, Enabled Backchannel:
“It is possible to suggest that microblogging platforms may serve as foundations for building or enhancing a community of practice. A community of practice is formed by people within a shared domain who engage in a process of collective learning by interacting on an ongoing basis… Providing links to outside content is a central convention developed by users constrained by the 140- character limit. Posting links enables users to point other users to extended information on any given topic. Sharing resources is a central practice in Twitter as a whole, therefore the percentage of links posted in the data set should be high”.  This is parallel with what we found in our class’s Hashtag where most of the tweets were about sources and links, i.e. 156 out of 203. Most importantly, the ability to share links on Twitter is what makes this feature popular. In other words, I can write anything on Twitter and then directed people to it.  Just as Pete Rorabaugh said in her post “Twitter Theory and the Public Scholar”: “The most important benefit of Twitter is its open compatibility with the best web sharing practices. The ability to drop a link (especially shortened ones) into tweets means that Twitter’s 140-character limit is actually a fallacy. I can write a 2,448 page manifesto and direct people to it with one 10 character link built on We can attach an image to tweets that do not impact the character limit. (For example, my students sometimes take pictures of our notes on the board that can be tweeted to other class members.) Twitter users can quickly review the metadata of other users following or replying to them, and make decisions about whether to encourage or refuse interaction.” Paragraph (4).

Picture 7

Another function of twitter is ‘Retweeting’. “Retweeting allows members to relay or forward a tweet through their network” Zappavigna, p(35). Going back to our class’s hashtage, #digcomp, there were not a lot of retweets. Some of my Tweets Retweeted by friends who are not even in the United States. Here are some of the retweets:


@mention (comment on other’s Tweet):

According to the official Twitter Help Center a mention is “any Twitter update that contains “@username” anywhere in the body of the Tweet”. The @ sign acts as indication to users that this message is for them and it’s a tool that shows a conversation is occurring. One of the most important things about Twitter is that it enables ‘interacting with others’. This picture shows how many mentions every student got.

mention mention2

Twitter allows students to perform new practices that were not previously possible, such as allow them to communicate with people who are not in the same community, allows students to continue discussion even after the class, helping each other in finding a new resources and share additional materials such as links and videos and let people who were not in the classroom know what has happened. Therefore, Twitter encourages collaborative and dynamic learning approaches. Collaborative learning occurs when we stop relying on experts or teachers to transfer their knowledge to us and instead engage together in making sense and creating meanings for ourselves. Here is an example of Retweeted Tweet by the teacher of one of the student’s tweet.

Picture 8

As Pete Rorabaugh mentioned, “The essence of this practice is that knowledge is not ultimately valuable unless it is networked, engaged, and shared”.

On the other hand, some people argue that Twitter is a waste of time and do not consider what they read on Twitter as reading or writing. Gee note in his book, Language and Learning In The Digital Age: “What they really fear is not that reading and writing are actually dying, but some of our previously favored ways of reading and writing are dying or becoming much less prevalent. Reading and writing are, if anything, increasing in the digital age, but they are also changing” P (21). This argument is not unexpected. There always will be people who prefer ‘the traditional way’ and who are more resistance to a change.


Twitter limits you to express your thoughts within 140 characters. Based on that, it helps you to think how to use 140 characters to lead people to more information. However, while analyzing the tweets I observed that all the tweets written by the teacher were in formal language. On the other hand, most of the students’ tweets were written in informal language and they used the microblogging language. This could be because of the character limitation. Gee define language as “ language is a system of conventions about how to make meanings that can be expressed or delivered in different ways” p (15). In the digital world, meaning is more important than the language itself.  This might be one of the losses that Gee mentioned when he says:  “composition will be different, there will be gains and losses”.

To elaborate more, here are more examples:

lang lang2 lang3

This is a video that summarize a research that has been conducted on studying effects of Twitter on student’s engagement and their grades. This study provides experimental evidence that Twitter can be used as an educational tool to help engage students and to mobilize faculty to a more active and participatory role.


The National Education Association, the largest professional and labor organization in the U.S. representing teachers, recommends that “Twitter can be used to help student crystallizing thoughts, focus attention, and make connections”. Lomicka, P(49).

My results suggest that students were tweeting the most about:

URLs and resources.

- Tweet their questions or an answer to a question.

These finding offer insights into potential uses of twitter in our class, and have shown some example of what might work.

To conclude, although not all Twitter’s potentials are addressed in this article, it is undeniable that Twitter has a lot to offer. Both students and teachers are encouraged to take advantage of these great features to enhance their learning process. “Imagining and exploring how using new technologies can become part of making the world (more) different from how it presently is”. DeVoss, P(36). Although this article stresses more on graduate students, unquestionably using technologies, including Twitter, must be  emphasized to students of all levels, with teachers taking the leading burden. Aftermost, Twitter, if used purposely, will motivate a healthier educational environment, that has a finer interactive human communication, leading to a more effective literacy and a better quality of life.

Works cited

Alang, Navneet. “Theorizing Twitter: Narratives and Identity.” Blog at WordPress, web. may, 13, 2008.

DeVoss, D.N., Eidman-Aadahl, E., and Hicks, T. Because Digital Writing Matters. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2010. Print.

Gee, J.P., and Hayes, E.R. Language and Learning in the Digital Age . New York: Routledge, 2011. Print.

George, “#Twitteracy.” The principle of change, December 23, 2011.

Jewitt, Robert. “The Trouble With Twittering: Integrating Social Media Into Mainstream News.” International Journal Of Media And Cultural Politics 5.3 (2009): 233-240. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.

Lomicka, Lara, and Gillian Lord. “A Tale Of Tweets: Analyzing Microblogging Among Language Learners.” System: An International Journal Of Educational Technology And Applied Linguistics 40.1 (2012): 48-63. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.

McKinney, Jackie Grutsch. “Twitter.” Writing Lab Newsletter 35.3-4 (2010): 6-9. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.

Rorabaugh, Pete. “Twitter Theory and the Public Scholar.” HYBRID PEDAGOGY, march,23,2012. Topsy Labs, Inc., 2012. Web. Twitter, Inc., 2012. Web.

Welsh, et al. “Enabled Backchannel: Conference Twitter Use By Digital Humanists.” Journal Of Documentation 67.2 (2011): 214-237. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.

Zappavigna, Michele. “Ambient Affiliation: A Linguistic Perspective On Twitter.” New Media & Society 13.5 (2011): 788-806. MLA International Bibliography. Web. 6 Nov. 2012.

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