Making a Learning Tool out of Twitter

Second year in a row that I am using Twitter as a learning tool and, as the old adage says “You live and learn”. Despite the countless articles and posts I had read that inspired me to get started, it wasn’t -and still isn’t- that easy. And that’s why I decided to write this post. Partly, to share my own experience if it can be of any help to anyone, but also to learn from other teachers who have already integrated it into their classroom routine.

Really, there is no big deal in setting up the account, even less when you are a regular twitter user and you know a few things about how it works. But that is nothing but the beginning. While the youngest students might find it really cool to have a classroom account, and, in that sense, will build up a lot of initial motivation, transforming it into an meaningful learning opportinunity is something quite different, and that is where the challenge was for me.

Why set up a twitter account for class?

As a twitter user myself, I quickly realised how useful it could become for my students: they’d increase their exposure to language by engaging more in reading and writing. Besides, they would have the chance to connect and easily keep updated with what was going on in class.

But what really urged me to set it up was that learners had a chance to start building their own personal language learning networks; and given the right support and training, they could gain a immensely valuable tool for their journey as lifelong leaners. Yep. That was the key. Anyone who is serious about learning a language should know that there is a long way to go, with plenty ups and downs.  I’m always telling my students that the best thing they can do for themselves is to acquire a habit of learning. And, without a doubt, nowadays it has become relatively simple to do so and tailor-make their own language learning routine: there are so many resources and media they can learn from on their own. But they will need help, and more importantly, a strategy.

My strategy

Before I explain my experience with more detail, you might need to know how I feel nowadays concerning social media for learning. I still have many doubts about making it compulsory for students to have their own accounts. Even when the context may be fine for it and there is a social media policy, I’m not sure I would go for the big plan of everyone tweeting and interacting as an obligation. I have had a couple of experiences as a learner in training courses where one of the first requirements was to create a social media profile, and much as I understand the underlying reason (to make people familiar with the tool and gain confidence through practice?) I’m not sure anyone should be told to create a social media profile, unless they wished to. We all know it is fundamental that students become aware of their digital footprint, and so I think it is somewhat contradictory to make it compulsory. Anyone, young or old, should make a conscious decision to create whatever social media profile.

Having said this, my plan this year was to create the classroom account for it to become our social media “headquarters” and to model their own possible present or future experience. They were encouraged to check it out regularly and were informed about the benefits and the basics of using social media for learing purposes. They were also invited to follow and/or interact. But that is optional.

What outcomes you should expect

  • Facilitating the students’ access to the tremendous amount of resources and media that is posted on twitter for EFL learners. Besides, being the administrator of the account, you will be filtering and selecting content for tweeting and retweeting. In other words, adapting the tremendous amount of available posts or activities to the precise learning stage you are in.
  • As the class account administrator you are also indirectly modelling how to use twitter for learning purposes (what hashtags to follow, how to suscribe to a list, or even help them create one themselves…). In a way, it is like having our own classroom PLN. They can even see it working in real time by showing them the timeline and checking out who we’re following, or sifting through the tweets posted on a twitter list.
  • Sharing some of the media, activities and fun stuff done in class. Students can see it later and even engage, reply and continue the discussion. One of the activities I have been most successful with in the last year and a half were the twitter chats: I post an open question about the topic dealt with in class so students can reply and post links to interesting articles and media, or share their own views using 140 characters, which is a fabulous writing exercise for language learners.
  • Building a sense of community among peers, and expanding their leaning experiences in class beyond the classroom walls and practise English in a digital, but undoubtedly real and ever more present, context.

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What you have to be prepared for

My experience is far from perfect. I have had to face various challenges, many of which are directly related to the strategy I chose to use and the context I teach in.

  • Many adult learners are reluctant to engage and are strongly prejudiced against it. The ones who have little or no experience whatsoever with social networks hear the phrase “social network” and straightaway associate it with some social club you join to get addicted to and start cursing and posting selfies. Others are rather sceptical about the impact it will have in their learning. So, it is hard to get them on board and go beyond reading the tweets when they are displayed in class. However, I must say that those who have engaged and have become regular users have expressed on many occasions that it was definitely worth their time (sigh of relief!).
  • Time. Or better said, the lack of it. I often feel there is a ghost of a ticking clock casting its shadow over the class the very minute I step into the classroom the first day. It is a major issue for any teacher to use classroom time wisely and plan to provide enough practice and training in language learning. So, most times I can’t really afford to spend much time explaining the ins and outs of social media interaction, its benefits, etc.
  • Workload. I am one of those people who have a love-hate relationship with twitter. The jolly good things I have already mentioned in previous posts and, obviously, if I didn’t see the potential of it I wouldn’t have even started. But using twitter entails a lot of distraction, and if you don’t draw the line it can be quite exhausting, too. If I have ever felt this myself, why should I think my students won’t? I want learners to use it as an actual learning tool, but I wouldn’t like their workload to increase irrationally. In my class the twitter account is only our social media profile, but we work primarily with a textbook and an LMS, so it is my responsibility to tally up the activities and prioritize carefully to make sure they are not feeling more workload than they really need to learn the language successfully.

What I recommend

  • Create an account for the class. Your personal account may be fine for testing over a period of time, which is what I did last year with a group of highly motivated students. But, if you are serious about tweeting with the class, I think it is a far better option to set one up for the class.
  • Create a classroom hashtag. This is particularly helpful for threads of discussion or stories. But be careful with the hashtag you suggest and take your time to find out it is not being used already.
  • Spend the necessary time for learners to feel comfortable with the tool. As I mentioned above, you may not have much time to do so in class so, how about giving them some quick feedback when you notice their activity is lacking some training? Send them a DM or reply.
  • Outline the rules and inform learners about the basic rules of etiqutte and how to perform the basic actions on twitter (mentioning, tweeting, RT, using hashtags).
  • Be a confident social media user yourself and try to keep up to date with information concerning privacy issues, online safety and other threats. When it comes to this kind of information, the more, the better, as it will enable you to advise your students better.
  • Make students aware of what it means to have a social media profile. If they decided to set up an account or use one they already had I would make sure they are conscious of their activity and the choices they have(private or public) I usually encourage them to have an account for learning purposes alone.
  • Create a list and/or suscribe to lists created by other ELT teachers. It is extremely time-saving for you and them as you might come across some interesting content more easily for them to access, which is relevant for the language point they are learning.
  • In the context of my classroom it may not be a good idea to have a very intense tweeting activity in order to avoid increasing and insensible workload.

As I mentioned at the beginning of this post, I would welcome comments and ideas from other teachers who have used twitter in the context of a foreign language classroom, because there are many aspects I am not totally comfortable with, and it would be great to have your insight. 🙂