Mobile microblogging and the student experience: a study in 140 characters (or less) (ALT-C 2009)


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Presentation at ALT-C 2009, Manchester. Paper 0018, Wednesday 9 September 2009 at 13.55 in room 1.219.

Abstract: We investigated the use and implications of a mobile microblogging system for recording the student experience. iPod touch devices obtained through the JISC/TechDis HEAT3 scheme were used by two different cohorts of students. The first group were campus-based first year undergraduate science students, all 18-19 years old. The second group were campus-based postgraduate masters-level arts students who ranged in age from 21-41. Mobile devices score highly on flexibility but other than for video and audio are poor input devices, e.g. for large amounts of text, the use of a microblogging service enabled us to assess the flexibility of a limited text based system on these devices (maximum message of 140 characters). Participants were asked to use the Twitter microblogging system regularly to record short messages describing where and what they were studying, and request or respond to support needs. Participants were recruited by a combination of face to face and online contacts, and used the device for four weeks. Student messages were tracked by RSS from a designated tag which they added to their messages and the data aggregated centrally for analysis. Participating students were required to post messages ('tweet') at least four times per day. Data were analysed with content analysis and automated services such as to aggregate data relating to the interfaces used to access twitter and timelines of twitter activity by hour and day of the week. Outcomes of this work include the following:
1. The students' broadening of the affordances technology offered them.
2. The range of technology utilised to facilitate these affordances.
3. Other related benefits - for example, in the postgraduate group, a tutor used Twitter to communicate their availability to the group, offer additional links, etc.
4. Peer support emerged as a feature of the student generated network, with students using the service not just to report on their status but to arrange meetings, share resources, revise.
As a result, the potential for a wider rollout of the approach is high: we can already provide evidence for real benefits to student groups and tutors sharing a common subject/location.

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  • In the summer of 2008 we were awarded 10 iPod Touch devices through the JISC TechDis HEAT3 scheme ( to evaluate their potential as low-cost mobile gateways to microblogging services. The iPod Touch was chosen for its ease of use, multi-mode nature, wifi capabilities, and for its attraction as a device to students. Twitter was the chosen microblogging service.
  • Two cohorts of students participated in the study:1. campus-based first year undergraduate students in the School of Biological Sciences, all 18-19 years old, who were participating in their first semester of higher education. Four members of staff were involved in supporting and promoting the project: one academic, two learning technologists and one member of the central Student Support and Development Service.  2. campus-based postgraduate masters-level Museum Studies students who ranged in age from 21-41, participating as part of a Digital Culture module in their second semester of the course. Five members of staff were involved in supporting and promoting the project: two academic members of staff, one from each department involved, two e-learning technologists and one member of the central Student Support and Development Service.To incentivise recruitment, several students were selected at random to keep one of the iPod Touches at the end of the project. Participating students were required to tweet at least four times per day, reporting for example, "I am in the library writing an essay for module x". They were asked to include a unique ‘hashtag’ in their tweets.
  • Tweets from undergraduate and postgraduate students demonstrated the wide variety of uses of twitter. The hashtags were easily tracked using RSS and very little staff time was involved in generating a permanent record of the data stream. Tagged messages were collated and archived via the RSS feed from the hashtag using an RSS aggregator (Google Reader), since Twitter content does not remain on the system indefinitely.A short online questionnaire provided some additional feedback on the use of the iPod touch and students previous experiences of twitter.None of the students reported any difficulties in using the iPod Touches. Very little training was provided, the devices were very intuitive to use.Most of the students used the iPod Touch to listen to music, watch videos on YouTube and for many other purposes.None of the students reported that they were previous users of Twitter before starting the study, but all stated that they used Facebook regularly and a third used some other form of social networking sites. We also asked them about their impression of the iPod Touch.
  • Students used twitter for much more than we asked and on a wide variety of platforms, not just on the iPod Touch. The device was not the important factor in them using twitter, the service was more important.The average number of tagged messages per day varied from 1 to 10, with a group daily average of 5 for the undergraduates (1082 in total) and 2 for the postgraduates (699 in total). All of the study participants used more than one client to access the Twitter service, the average number of clients used being 4. Messages were sent from across the University of Leicester campus, student halls, cafes, bars, on busses and any other locations where students were working or networking, and the client used was the most convenient one at the time. 
  • Students used twitter to develop a strong sense of community, by testing each other online, sharing concerns over assessment (frequency of twittering increased around assessment deadlines), sharing links and discussing social arrangements.They frequently talked about where they were going to.
  • Network analysis of the undergraduate cohortAnalysis of the tagged Twitter data collected performed using the AGNA network analysis tool (Betna, M. (2005). Studying Communication Networks with AGNA 2.1. Cognition, Brain, Behaviour. Vol. IX(3), 567-574). All data has been anonymized the undergraduate cohort is indicated by a U prefix (e.g. U001)participating staff by S. This demonstrates the peer-centered network with participating staff less central and less highly connected than some of the students nodes. The number of @replies to other members totalled 9%, with the majority of the tagged messages being simple status updates.Peer support emerged as a key feature of the undergraduate student network, with activity rising just prior to assessment deadlines or during revision for exams. Evidence of personal learning networks emerging in this cohort, such as students using the network when they were preparing assessed work or revising for tests, often in situations when they were physically isolated from their peers. They frequently used the service to arrange social meetings in cafes, for lunch between classes or evening social events.Approximately half of the undergraduate cohort of students involved in the project have continued to use Twitter without the iPod Touch devices, demonstrating that this personal learning network, or emergent community of practice, has become established.
  • The postgraduate students used twitter to support their group work (in pre-established groups) and extensively use it to talk to and contact their tutor.
  • Postgraduate cohort network analysisAnalysis of the tagged Twitter data collected performed using the AGNA network analysis tool (Betna, M. (2005). Studying Communication Networks with AGNA 2.1. Cognition, Brain, Behaviour. Vol. IX(3), 567-574). All data has been anonymized to protect the identities of participating students. The undergraduate cohort is indicated by a U prefix (e.g. U001), the postgraduates by P and participating staff by S. This network was less active than the undergraduate cohort (individual daily average number of messages of 2 compared with 5)It is more tutor-centred than the undergraduates, with less online peer communication. The proportion of @replies to other participants was 21%, the majority of these directed at and from students and staff. Students met regularlyface to face. Some students continued to dicuss issues covered in the face to face meetings on twitter. The tutor-student interaction centred around administrative details of the course and arranging consultation meetings.
  • Final report for JISC TechDis : of this work will be published in the October 2009 edition of ALT-N ‘Twittering the Student Experience’ Cann, A. J and the network analysis forms part of a paper currently in submission to a peer review journal.
  • Mobile microblogging and the student experience: a study in 140 characters (or less) (ALT-C 2009)

    1. 1. Student Microblogging And Recording Timelines (SMART)Alan Cann, Jo Badge, Stuart Johnson, Alex Moseley<br /><br />
    2. 2. Two groups of students, two hashtags<br />Biological Sciences first yr undergraduates (7)<br />Museum studies postgraduates (8)<br />
    3. 3. Microblogging using Twitter<br />doing metabolism questions over msn, testing each other is a fab way to learn! If only I knew any answers.<br />is rather worried about the assessment tomorrow and is preparing herself for failure<br />Got up at 7 and look the black sky out of my window. Just browsing the website of National Sports Museum<br />Reading about kandinsky and art and music. How apt on an iPod<br />
    4. 4. Twitter was used in other ways<br />
    5. 5. Undergraduate tweets<br />
    6. 6. Networks<br />
    7. 7. Postgraduate tweets<br />
    8. 8. Networks<br />
    9. 9. Acknowledgements<br />This project was supported by<br />JISC TechDis Heat 3 scheme<br />