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Active learning in higher education 2012-kassens-noor-9-21

  1. 1. Active Learning in Higher Education as a teaching practice to enhance active and informal learning in higher education: The case of sustainable tweets Eva Kassens-Noor Active Learning in Higher Education 2012 13: 9 DOI: 10.1177/1469787411429190 The online version of this article can be found at: Published by: Additional services and information for Active Learning in Higher Education can be found at: Email Alerts: Subscriptions: Reprints: Permissions: Citations: >> Version of Record - Feb 28, 2012 What is This? Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  2. 2. 4291902012 ALH13110.1177/1469787411429190Kassens-NoorActive Learning in Higher Education Article Active Learning in Higher Education Twitter as a teaching practice 13(1) 9­–21 © The Author(s) 2012 Reprints and permission: sagepub. to enhance active and informal DOI: 10.1177/1469787411429190 learning in higher education: The case of sustainable tweets Eva Kassens-Noor Michigan State University, USA Abstract With the rise of Web 2.0, a multitude of new possibilities on how to use these online technologies for active learning has intrigued researchers. While most instructors have used Twitter for in-class discussions, this study explores the teaching practice of Twitter as an active, informal, outside-of-class learning tool. Through a comparative experiment in a small classroom setting, this study asks whether the use of Twitter aids students in learning of a particular subject matter. And if so, in which learning contexts Twitter offers advantages over more traditional teaching methods. This exploratory study showed potential opportunities and pitfalls that Twitter could bring to the e-learning community in higher education. Keywords active learning, informal learning, sustainability, teaching practice, Twitter, Web 2.0 Twitter as a teaching practice The role of informal and active learning in higher education As a pioneer in education, Dewey (1938) posited that students’ experiences are a key factor in their learning process. Since then, remarkable educators have sought to invent, improve and implement teaching practices that engage students and connect classroom information with real-life experi- ences. In particular during the past two decades, instructors have applied active and informal learn- ing methods to enhance students’ interactions in peer-to-peer discussions in and outside of class (Chickering and Gamson, 1991; Conlon, 2004). Active learning is one of the key principles highlighted in Chickering and Gamson’s (1991) hallmark study on good practices in undergraduate education. Active learning involves a multitude of teaching practices, such as lively debates between instructor and students, peer-to-peer discus- sions, reflective writing and team work, all of which enable students to discover, process, and Corresponding author: Eva Kassens-Noor, School of Planning Design and Construction, Michigan State University, 201E Human Ecology, East Lansing, Michigan 48823, USA Email: Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  3. 3. 10 Active Learning in Higher Education 13(1)apply knowledge through engagement (Bonwell and Eison, 1991; McKinney and Heyl, 2008;Meyers and Jones, 1993). While students actively participate in multiple learning contexts, theirlearning evolves within formal and informal settings (Greenhow et al., 2009). Informal learning isa course-related activity outside the classroom that centers around students’ self-directed and inde-pendent learning activities including peer-to-peer interactions (Aspden and Thorpe, 2009;Jamieson, 2009). In particular, networking is considered an informal learning strategy (Marsickand Watkins, 1990). Based on empirical evidence from MBA students, Yang and Lu (2001) suggestthat informal learning ought to be an essential component in education, because it enhances aca-demic performance. As ‘non-classroom, disciplinary-based facilities’ (Jamieson, 2009: 20) forinformal student learning activities continue to decrease, Jamieson (2009) highlights the need tocreate outside-of-class options for students to interact. With the advent of Web 2.0 applications, cyberspace has offered new communication spaces forinformal and active learning activities and also altered how information is transmitted among stu-dents. Hicks and Graber (2010: 627) hypothesize that Web 2.0 might have created a different‘learning and information reality’ compared with the traditional reflective and collaborative dis-course. Therefore, they encourage research into these technologies in order to inform higher educa-tion teaching practices about how instructors can design and use these new web tools.A brief introduction to Twitter, microblogs and Web 2.0Web 2.0 refers to a variety of web-enabled applications built on open source and driven by user-generated and user-manipulated content. The most frequently used Web 2.0 applications includewikis (, podcasts (, blogs (, and social networking sites(, Especially in recent years, social networking sites have seen anexplosive growth as a way of communication (Fox et al., 2009). At the end of 2009, about 19% ofInternet users logged into social networking sites to bring their friends up to date or to keepinformed about their friends’ lives. Also in 2009, the number of users on social networking sitestripled (Fox et al., 2009). This explosive growth trend continued throughout 2010 (Borasky, 2010). As a free Web 2.0 application, Twitter has become a popular microblogging tool and socialnetworking website among younger generations (Java et al., 2007; McFedries, 2007). SinceTwitter’s inauguration in 2006, this online community has seen a steep rise in users, especiallythose under 34 years old (Fox et al., 2009). Through Twitter, people communicate by exchangingquick, frequent, and short messages of up to 140 characters in length. These are called tweets andbelong to the group of microblogs (Stevens, 2008). Twitter community members can post theirtweets directly on their own Twitter website via mobile phone, email, and instant messaging. At theend of 2009, 65 million people used Twitter around the globe, a 14-fold increase since early in2008 (ComScore, 2010). Most tweeters reside in North America, Europe, and Asia (Java et al.,2007). Usually, tweeters provide updates on their current status, as Twitter was designed to brieflyanswer the question: ‘What are you doing?’ (Twitter, 2010). Users can also post links to pictures,more expansive blogs, and other websites (Java et al., 2007).Twitter in higher educationHannay and Fretwell (2011) predict that Web 2.0 applications will soon be taken up by universi-ties and suggest these technologies will have implications for the academic workplace; studentswill demand that faculty members communicate digitally, via instant messaging, Twitter andother technologies. Similarly, companies will expect their recruits, our graduates, to be versed in Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  4. 4. Kassens-Noor 11social media technologies (Wankel, 2009). It is unsurprising, then, that we, as educators, are beingencouraged to use Twitter to enable interactivity, excite learners, and foster greater studentparticipation. Responding to this challenge, educators in higher education have started to experiment withTwitter in the hope students seize the opportunity to interact more frequently, engage more thought-fully, and foster learning inside and beyond the classroom (Grosseck and Holotescu, 2008; Juncoet al., 2011; Perez, 2009; Schroeder et al., 2010). Establishing five social media literacies, namelyattention, participation, collaboration, network awareness, and critical consumption, Rheingold(2010) emphasizes the need for Twitter to be a valuable communication tool, in contrast to Twitter’spotential pitfall of being a mere distraction (Wankel, 2009). Ultimately, Twitter can be a powerfulcollaboration tool (Corbeil and Corbeil, 2011; Rheingold, 2010). Summarizing, Reuben (2008)emphasizes the tremendous potential Twitter could play in education, but acknowledges that noone has found the right niche just yet.Twitter as an instant feedback tool during classMicroblogging as a way to enhance student learning has a substantial impact within class settings(Ebner, 2009; Ebner et al., 2010); accordingly faculty have primarily experimented with Twitter inclassrooms (Young, 2009). Most of these experiments have focused on Twitter as an in-class instantfeedback tool between teachers and students. For example, Dunlap and Lowenthal (2009) analyzedthe use of Twitter in online courses; DeCosta et al. (2010) looked at Twitter as a tool for student–teacher communication; Parry (2008) identified 13 ways in which Twitter can be used during class;and Croxall (2010) found that Twitter enables frequent class discussions. This ‘live-tweeting’encourages careful listening, paying close attention, gathering information, and multi-tasking(Wankel, 2009). Another form of using Twitter is for student–student communication outside the classroom yetwithin a formal class-setting. Twibes, entire classes that form Twitter groups, spread informationin real time; one example is field trips, during which participants tweeted classmates who remainedat the university (Richardson, 2009; Rogers-Estable, 2009). Within classroom settings, Twitter hasbeen primarily used as an instant feedback tool for student–teacher communication and is in theearly stages of exploration for student–student interaction.Twitter as a learning toolThe e-learning community increasingly has looked to social networks as tools for creating andsharing knowledge (Grosseck and Holotescu, 2008; Huberman et al., 2008). In particular, micro-blogging is a new form of communication that can support informal learning beyond classrooms(Ebner et al., 2010). Twitter can support students’ informal learning activities (Aspden and Thorpe,2009). It can also be an active learning tool (Cherney, 2008) that promotes connections with real-life learning, thereby encouraging critical reflection and fostering enhanced understanding(Bonwell and Eison, 1991). One of the few empirical studies exploring the effects of Twitter on college students was con-ducted by Junco et al. (2011) with 125 pre-health majors. Splitting the students into two sections,the researchers found that Twitter had a positive impact on both student engagement and grades.Owing to the use of Twitter, class conversations were extended beyond sessions, students moreeasily and more readily displayed openness about feelings and their own shortcomings, morecross-communication took place, and unlikely interpersonal relationships were forged based on Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  5. 5. 12 Active Learning in Higher Education 13(1)shared values and interests. In short, Twitter catalyzed connections more quickly than classroomdiscussions. Furthermore, instructor–student communication was improved when Twitter provideda comfortable platform for asking deeply probing questions.Purpose of the study and research questionsThis evolving stream of literature supports three conclusions about Twitter. First, all instructorswho have experimented with Twitter agree that it can have a positive impact on engagement.Second, studies have focused almost exclusively on Twitter used as an instant feedback tool insidethe classroom. Third, scholars suggest Twitter holds potential as a powerful learning tool that canreadily transmit knowledge, inform learners, and extend beyond individuals to their socialnetworks. Despite a multitude of websites suggesting the use of Twitter in academic settings and advisingon how to use the Web 2.0 tool (Parry, 2008; Perez, 2009; Reuben, 2008), there are very fewempirical studies that actually support this advice. In particular, studies have yet to examine quali-tatively the effect of using Twitter beyond the classroom as an active and informal learning toolfocused on peer-to-peer interactions. Therefore, the goal of this study is to stimulate scholarly discussion about Twitter as an active,informal, outside of class, peer-to-peer interaction tool that aids the in-class learning process. Thisstudy is an exploration of ways in which today’s students apply, create, and retain knowledge whenusing Twitter compared with more traditional approaches to learning. In this study, traditionalapproaches are defined as individual homework assignments and in-class discussion. The researchquestions that ultimately drive this study are ‘Does the use of Twitter aid students in learning aparticular subject matter? And, if so, in which learning contexts does Twitter offer advantages overmore traditional teaching methods?’MethodologyThis methodology section is divided into three sections. The first introduces the study participants.The second explains the study’s design and implementation procedure. The third elaborates onmeasures and analysis.ParticipantsThe Twitter experiment ran in a Midwestern research tier I university class, in which students grap-ple with how urban planners can create sustainable and climate-resilient cities. Between 25 March2010 and 22 April 2010 (Earth Day, a day during which people worldwide inspire awareness andlearn to protect the natural environment), 15 students participated in the study; eight were upper-level undergraduates and seven were graduate students. The students’ grade point average (GPA)was 3.58 and their age averaged at 23.65 years. As a cross-disciplinary class, the students majoredin urban planning, construction management, and environmental studies. Prior to the class, five students had used Twitter, three of them rarely and two on a weekly basis.Their reasons for using Twitter were primarily to receive news updates, to stay in touch withfriends, and to gather information about jobs. Furthermore, two students indicated their interest incelebrities. Prior to the start of the study, the experiment was deemed as expedited via the instructor’s insti-tutional review board (IRB). The IRB is an appointed committee acting independently and Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  6. 6. Kassens-Noor 13Table 1.  Group characteristicsStudent characteristics Twitter Traditional (diary and discussion)Active participants/Total  6/7  6/8Undergraduates/Graduates  4/2  4/2Average GPA  3.57  3.59Age 23.3 24Time spent on exercise 2 hours 1 hour 40 min + 30 min discussionethically to protect the rights and welfare of human research subjects. Fourteen students providedinformed consent to release the findings of this study. The student who did not want to participatein the study was excluded from the evaluation, and this student’s contributions to the study havebeen destroyed. In the course of the study, two students did not turn in their assignments. Henceboth were deemed as non-active participants and excluded from the evaluation of the study. Toensure confidentiality, the students who took part were asked to adopt code names for the exercise,such as ‘Captain Planet’, or ‘Earthability’, and keep their diaries and new Twitter accounts exclu-sively under these code names. Thereby, the collected data could not be associated with any onestudent and any potential teacher–student power relationship bias was eliminated. As part of the course, students were asked to identify unsustainable practices in cities and suggestremedies. Divided in groups, one group would use Twitter to create and exchange information, whilethe other group would keep a personal diary and discuss their entries once among the group memberstowards the end of the course (a third option, to write an individual essay, was not selected by any ofthe students). In the end, a quiz would indicate which group had retained more knowledge.Design and procedureStudents were offered three choices to complete their sustainability assignment: (1) the ‘Twittergroup’ would use Twitter as their only communication mechanism, (2) the ‘traditional group’would have one in-class discussion and keep individual diaries, (3) the ‘essay group’ would write5,000 words on unsustainable practices and their remedies. No student chose the third option. Theassignment was a for-credit exercise. To avoid the potential bias of a student–teacher power rela-tionship, the students received full credit for the exercise if either the Twitter assignment or thetraditional assignment was completed on time. The Twitter group and the traditional group show comparable group characteristics (Table 1).Active participants provided informed consent to make the results of this study public and regularlyproduced Twitter or diary entries. After the exclusion of the two non-active participants, each grouphad an equal number of students: four undergraduate and two graduate students. The average GPAsin the two groups were almost identical, and there was only a slight difference in their average ages. Data from five sources were collected during the experiment: surveys, tweets, diaries, a groupdiscussion, and a pop-quiz. The surveys were given to all students in-class before the study exer-cise began (14 January 2010), asking them to report whether they had used Twitter and, if so, forwhat purpose. After the study (22 April 2010), the Twitter group was required to hand in printoutsof all their tweets and re-tweets (answers to tweets) made during the study. On the same day, thetraditional group had to hand in their diaries and hold a team discussion about their diaries in class.This discussion was audio-recorded and the tape was transcribed by a third person, who did notknow the students. The 30-minute quiz was given to students on 27 April 2010. The in-class quiz Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  7. 7. 14 Active Learning in Higher Education 13(1)Table 2.  Extract from diary instruction sheet Date Unsustainable practice Remedy          first asked students about their demographics: which group they belonged to, their current under-graduate or graduate year, the time they had spent on the exercise, their GPA, and their age. Thesecond part of the quiz asked students to recall an unsustainable practice and potential remediesthey had explored in their respective groups. To avoid potential bias in this knowledge-retentionexercise, students were not informed about the quiz beforehand. The sustainability assignment was introduced to all students during an in-class presentation on18 March 2010; handouts further clarified instructions for the assignment to the two groups. Oneemail reminder to continue their diaries and to keep posting tweets was sent (1 April 2010) a weekafter the exercise started. Starting on 25 March 2010, the Twitter group was instructed to post a tweet whenever theyfound an unsustainable practice in daily life (for example, buying a paper cup) and suggest a rem-edy (for example, bringing their own reusable cup to buy coffee). Twitter rules •• Each new tweet has to briefly describe an unsustainable practice and suggest a remedy. •• Each answer to a tweet has to either add an additional remedy or refute that the previous tweet contains an unsustainable practice. •• Tweet daily (if possible multiple times – as soon as you identify a practice/remedy).The Twitter group members were not allowed to discuss their tweets outside the online forum. Forcommunication and evaluation purposes, each of the Twitter group participants joined the courseleader’s Twitter list called ‘the sustainable city’ under their code names. Prior to the start of theproject, the students were informed that the instructor would not interfere or add to the knowledgeapplication and creation exercise unless the students were posting inappropriate tweets. Also starting on 25 March 2010, the traditional group members were instructed to keep a dailydiary according to Table 2. The students discussed their diary entries within their ‘traditional group’ during class time on 22April 2010. A time slot of 30 minutes was allotted for discussion while the Twitter group left theclassroom.Measures and analysisAll collected material was tracked, examined, and evaluated. Knowledge application and creationwere qualitatively assessed through content analysis of four sources: tweets, diaries, surveys, andthe transcript of the team discussion among the diary-keeping students. Knowledge retention wasqualitatively assessed through content analysis of the in-class pop quiz. Scoring and coding were conducted after the end of the study with various cross-checks. First,the course leader coded the tweets by key words, pairing the unsustainable practices with theirremedies. Then, the instructor identified all students who noted the same unsustainable practice Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  8. 8. Kassens-Noor 15Table 3.  Traditional and Twitter participation Expected Total Average  Baseline Entries per day per person per person per dayDiary entries 174 131 4.5 21.8 0.75Tweets 174  88 3 14.7 0.5and the same remedies. The identical coding procedure was applied to the diary entries. Thereafter,the transcript was coded and cross-compared with the diary entries, marking similar and differentunsustainable practices and their remedies. Finally, the quiz was coded according to the same pro-cedure. A second coder independently applied the same methodology; discrepancies were dis-cussed and mutually agreed upon.ResultsThe results are split in two sections: the first reports on knowledge creation, the second reports onknowledge retention. The distinction between the two is important, because they measure differentoutcomes of the learning process. Whereas the former focuses on the communicative advantagesTwitter may offer as an instant tool and readily available database, the latter shows which teachingpractice has the potential for long-term recollection of the created and shared ideas. Before launch-ing into the results sections, a brief comparison between the two groups is necessary in regards toparticipation and knowledge comprehension. Both groups showed a good understanding of the content taught in class: the unsustainablepractices and their remedies. Throughout the exercise, the students applied the knowledge they hadlearned during class and applied it faultlessly via Twitter, diaries, and in the team discussion. Both groups frequently tweeted or kept their diaries, but both groups participated less thanexpected (Table 3). The baseline of 174 entries represents the minimum number of expected entries(29 days × 6 student entries) per group, in which all students had followed the instructions bytweeting at least daily or making at least one diary entry per day. Even though the traditional students made more entries than the Twitter students (Table 3), theTwitter students reported a higher amount of time spent on their entries than the traditional stu-dents; while students reported to have spent two hours on average on the Twitter exercise, the tra-ditional group reported 10 minutes more: 1 hour 40 minutes for their diary entries and the 30-minutediscussion.Knowledge creationThe Twitter group found more unsustainable practices and found more remedies per identifiedpractice. Overall, the Twitter students identified 64 unsustainable practices with 65 remediesthrough their tweets. In contrast, the traditional group found 10 fewer unsustainable practices, butgave a variety of remedies per identified practice, totaling 70 remedies. For example, the Twittergroup identified as an unsustainable practice that individuals drove cars, and suggested one rem-edy: riding a bike. In contrast, the traditional group found the same unsustainable practice (anindividual driving a car), but identified seven remedies to the identified unsustainable practice:car-sharing, transit (using public transport), using hybrid cars, collating trips by car, cycling, walk-ing, and using more energy-efficient air travel. Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  9. 9. 16 Active Learning in Higher Education 13(1) For the traditional group, the venue to share their individual work and discuss their diaries wasthe in-class meeting on 22 April 2010. During the discussion, the traditional group managed toanalyze 28 unsustainable practices (~55% of all unsustainable practices created by the entiregroup) including various remedies.Knowledge retentionThe traditional group reported on average 10 unsustainable practices including remedies during thepop quiz. On average, 70% of these practices were those created by themselves, which means thestudents had either reported those unsustainable practices and remedies in their own diaries orinvented new ones during the quiz. The other 30% of reported unsustainable practices and reme-dies were those discussed during the 30-minute in-class meeting. The Twitter students reported fewer unsustainable practices and remedies than the traditional group.On average, they reported 7.6 unsustainable practices with remedies during the quiz. In contrast withthe traditional group, the Twitter students remembered over 60% of the unsustainable practices andremedies that others had created on Twitter, while only 40% were from their own source of ideas.Discussion of Twitter and traditional group activityKnowledge creationThe following interpretations might explain why (1) the Twitter group found more unsustainablepractices with matching remedies than the traditional group and (2) why the traditional groupreported a variety of remedies per identified practice, but found overall fewer unsustainable prac-tices than the Twitter group. (1) The traditional group found fewer unsustainable practices, because no communication amongthe students took place during the collection of ideas. Consecutively, the same unsustainable practicewas identified multiple times by different members of the traditional group; in their diaries, theyreported 18 unsustainable practices at least twice. In contrast, the Twitter group only mentioned thesame unsustainable practice eight times. This interpretation supports the findings of Rheingold (2010)and Richardson (2009) that Twitter is a powerful collaboration tool between students. Additionally,the comparative nature of the study suggests that Twitter is better suited for creating and sharing largeamounts of information compared with traditional teaching methods. A further advantage Twitterprovides is tracking the tweets by time and date automatically; it ensured continuous participationthroughout the entire month, which may also have contributed to the greater number of unsustainablepractices identified. In contrast, the traditional students could have completed their diaries the daybefore their assignment was due or might have thought about the exercise only on a weekly basis.Because both groups presented information equivalent in quality, this suggests Twitter is also usefulfor informal out-of-classroom assignments, just like other microblogging tools (Ebner et al., 2010). (2) The traditional group created more remedies per identified practice, because there was nocharacter limit for diary entries. In contrast, the Twitter group had to adhere to the 140 charactersper tweet (Figure 1). For multiple remedies, students would have had to start a new tweet. Starting new tweets might have been a barrier for reflective thinking (no student tweeted twicewithin a short time frame or even within the same day). The multitude of remedies created by thediary-keeping students suggests that traditional teaching practices allowed for more in-depth think-ing and self-reflective learning because diaries did not create artificial writing barriers. WhileTwitter can be an active learning tool (Cherney, 2008), tweets seem to defeat an essential attributefor active learning, because tweeters do not have ‘space to think’. Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  10. 10. Kassens-Noor 17Figure 1.  Extract from the sustainably city Twitter site (Source: Twitter showed another pitfall in comparison with interactive face-to-face discussions. Duringthe traditional group meeting, students offered knowledge that was not part of the exercise per se.The student conversation shown in Table 4 exemplifies this finding. As this extract of the tran-scribed discussion meeting shows, because one student explained the reason for packaged food(sanitary purposes), all students in the traditional group knew about that reason after the discus-sion. While the same discussion came up in the Twitter group (fast food packaging) with the sameremedies (do not eat at all, or minimum packaging), none of the students explained why packag-ing was necessary.Knowledge retentionThe Twitter students reported a much higher percentage of team-created solutions than thetraditional group in the pop quiz. There are multiple explanations for the discrepancy inoutcomes. Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  11. 11. 18 Active Learning in Higher Education 13(1)Table 4.  Extract from traditional group discussionParticipant A: Another thing that really upsets me, if you ever go get fast food, everything is packaged. It comes in a bag. The food is wrapped.Participant B: YesParticipant A: The plastic straw is wrapped, the plastic fork is wrapped. It’s like it’s ridiculous. So, my remedy was to stop eating fast food, because it’s bad for you anyway.Participant C: But then, if we like, . . ., I’ll just ask them for stuff without the bag.Participant B: Will they give you that?Participant D: Yeah, well I kinda force them to. They’re like ‘are you sure?’ [laughter] Participant D: Yeah, I do the same thing in other food stores.Participant E: The one thing about the, sorry, real quick, about the fast food is like, I think they have to do that for sanitary purposes.Table 5.  Extracts from James Bond’s diaryDate Unsustainable practice Remedy25 Mar I drove my car to school today. Ride the bus or ride my bike.3 Apr I went to Cirque du Solei today Provide obvious recycle bins at the and there were hundreds of Breslin center. recyclable cups just getting thrown in the trash or left on the ground.12 Apr My roommate left the light on in Turn off the light when one leaves. the hallway all day while nobody was home. First, continuous tweeting fosters team communication and prolonged interactive engagement inthe learning process. This combination enhances the understanding of the team-created unsustainablepractices and remedies. Therefore, the tweeters remembered more solutions that were jointly createdon Twitter. This interpretation would support the findings of Aspen and Thorpe (2009), who posit thatTwitter can be a powerful active learning tool. Second, the diary format, as individual work, is intrinsically self-reflective (Table 5). Therefore,traditional students might have primarily recalled their own ideas. This interpretation would supportthe idea that self-reflection is encouraged more strongly in diaries than on Twitter. This outcome sup-ports evidence found during the knowledge creation exercise of this study: Twitter may be superiorin gathering the amount of information, but is less powerful at fostering self-reflective thinking. Third, because only half of the overall unsustainable practices identified were discussed duringthe traditional group meeting, the traditional students were more likely to report from their diaries.In contrast, through Twitter, gathering of information was more easily facilitated, as also suggestedby Wankel (2009). These three reasons, however, do not explain why traditional students seemed to have retainedoverall more knowledge about sustainable lifestyles than Twitter students (10 vs 7.6 unsustainablepractices including remedies identified in the test), especially given that the Twitter group coulddraw from a larger pool of existing ideas. This result, collapsed to a single assignment, is in con-trast to Junco et al.’s (2011) findings of Twitter’s positive impact on grades. One possible explana-tion is that the traditional group had the chance to share their knowledge shortly before the testduring their scheduled discussion session, whereas the Twitter group probably did not reread alltweets shortly before the quiz. Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  12. 12. Kassens-Noor 19ConclusionsThis exploratory study filled some knowledge gaps in the largely unexplored Twitter territory. Twitteras an active, informal learning tool has some distinct advantages and disadvantages over traditionalteam work. The advantages lie in that Twitter can foster the combined knowledge creation of a groupbetter than individuals’ diaries and discussion, because Twitter facilitates sharing of ideas beyond theclassroom via an online platform that allows readily available access at random times to continuesuch discussion. The disadvantages of Twitter lie in constraining critical thinking and self-reflectionbecause of the tweets’ character limit. As in previous studies (DeCosta et al., 2010; Dunlap andLowenthal, 2009), Twitter had a positive impact on student learning, because instantaneous peer-to-peer communication via Twitter enhanced understanding of unsustainable practices and remedies.Twitter, like other microblogging tools (Ebner et al., 2010), also supports informal learning. In con-trast to Junco et al. (2011), this study contradicts the finding that students using Twitter more easilyand more readily displayed openness about feelings and their own shortcomings. This study insteadsuggests that the diary-keeping students showed a stronger display of self-reflection: more studentsidentified their own flaws, whereas Twitter students only identified faults of others. This study has several limitations. First, the small sample size limits the generalizability ofresults. Having six students in each of the groups only allowed for a glimpse into the advantagesand disadvantages Twitter could provide to the learning community. Second, the ways in whichthis study measured knowledge application, creation, and retention are clearly limited. Allassessment methods contain obvious biases, because knowledge application, creation and reten-tion are not equivalent to writing in diaries or on Twitter nor to recalling facts in a quiz. As prox-ies though, the five sources combined offer important lessons on the value of using Twitter as anew teaching practice. Third, the study stretched only over one month. Given these limitations,future research should sample a larger study group, observe the students’ knowledge creationand application over longer periods of time, and comparatively apply both teaching practices toa variety of topics in order to provide further insights into the benefits and pitfalls of Twitter. While most researchers have argued that Twitter can encourage creativity and stimulate conver-sation and collaboration, research is still in its infant stages in exploring the ‘different approachesto teaching and learning . . . in order to take advantage of the potential of digital media and Web2.0 applications’ that Hicks and Graber (2010: 627) suggest exist. Despite the small sample size,this work offers valuable insights into the applicability and usability of Twitter as a teaching prac-tice. As an informal, active, outside the classroom tool, Twitter can be a powerful teaching practiceto relate theoretical concepts to practical applications in everyday life. As a first step, this study showed that the use of Twitter can display both sides of the coin as itdepends on the course content, the assignment task, and the instructor’s intent whether or notTwitter is the right tool for learning aspects of the subject matter. So, in some contexts Twitter willbetter aid students in learning a particular subject matter compared with more traditional teachingmethods, but in other contexts it would hinder them. If instructors intend to engage students on aparticular subject matter, bridging theory and practice while including real-world examples (linearapplicative learning), Twitter provides distinct advantages over the traditional individual home-work assignments and in-class discussions. Offering a 24/7 available communication platform,Twitter is a powerful tool in applying and creating ideas. In contrast, if the instructor intends tofoster critical, in-depth and self-reflective thinking among the students and their peers, this studysuggests Twitter is likely to be an unsuitable teaching practice for the class. Assuming continuous growth of the social network, Twitter may become a phenomenon thatcaptures our millennial student generation. If wisely introduced by educators this tool couldbecome a powerful medium that extends beyond classrooms. Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
  13. 13. 20 Active Learning in Higher Education 13(1)AcknowledgementsI would like to thank Professors Kathleen McKinney and Pat Crawford for their valuable feedback on earlierdrafts. I am also grateful to Professors Trixie Smith, Manuel Colunga, Janice Molloy, and Wen Li for helpingme think through the structure of this article. Furthermore, many thanks go to my students, without whom thisresearch would not have been possible.ReferencesAspden EJ and Thorpe LP (2009) Where do you learn? Tweeting to inform learning space develop- ment. Educause Quarterly 32(1). Available at: EDUCAUSEQuarterlyMagazineVolum/WhereDoYouLearnTweetingtoInfor/163852Bonwell CC and Eison JA (1991) Active Learning: Creating Excitement in the Classroom. ASHE-ERIC Higher Education Report No. 1. Washington, DC: George Washington University, School of Education and Human Development.Borasky ME (2010) A visual history of Twitter’s growth. Available at: (accessed 10 December 2010).Cherney ID (2008) The effects of active learning on students’ memories for course content. Active Learning in Higher Education 9(2): 152–71.Chickering AW and Gamson ZF, eds (1991) Applying the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Under­ graduate Education. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.ComScore (2010) Data passport – first half of 2010. Measuring the digital world. Available at: http:// (accessed 15 December 2010).Conlon TJ (2004) A review of informal learning literature, theory and implications for practice in developing global professional competence. Journal of European Industrial Training 28(2–4): 283–95.Corbeil JR and Corbeil ME (2011) The birth of a social networking phenomenon. In: Wankel C (ed.) Educating Educators with Social Media (Cutting-edge Technologies in Higher Education, Volume 1). Bingley: Emerald Group, pp. 13–32.Croxall B (2010) Reflections on teaching with social media. ‘ProfHacker’, Chronicle of Higher Education, 7 June 2010. Available at: (accessed 5 September 2010).DeCosta M, Clifton J and Roen D (2010) Collaboration and social interaction in English classrooms. English Journal (High school edition) 99(5): 14.Dewey J (1938) Experience and Education. New York, NY: Collier Books.Dunlap JC and Lowenthal PR (2009) Tweeting the night away: Using Twitter to enhance social presence. Journal of Information Systems Education 20(2): 129.Ebner M (2009) Introducing live microblogging: How single presentations can be enhanced by the mass. Journal of Research in Innovative Teaching 2(1): 108–19.Ebner M, Lienhardt C, Rohs M and Meyer I (2010) Microblogs in Higher Education – A chance to facilitate informal and process-oriented learning? Computers and Education 55: 92–100.Fox S, Zickuhr K and Smith A (2009) Twitter and status updating, fall 2009 – Report: Social Networking, Web 2.0. Available at: (accessed 10 January 2011).Greenhow C, Robelia B and Hughes J (2009) Learning, teaching, and scholarship in a digital age. Web 2.0 and classroom research: What path should we take now? Educational Researcher 38(4): 246–59.Grosseck G and Holotescu C (2008) Can we use Twitter for educational activities? Paper presented at the 4th International Scientific Conference eLSE: eLearning and Software for Education, Bucharest, Rumania, 17–18 AprilHannay M and Fretwell C (2011) The higher education workplace: Meeting the needs of multiple generations. Research in Higher Education Journal 10(March): 1–12.Hicks A and Graber A (2010) Shifting paradigms: Teaching, learning and Web 2.0. Reference Services Review 38(4): 621–33. Downloaded from at Universiti Teknologi MARA (UiTM) on May 19, 2012
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