Twitter for educators and educational researchers

Katrina McChesney and Dianne Forbes, University of Waikato

As educators and educational researchers, we are always looking for opportunities to connect with others; stay up to date on new thinking, practice, and research; and get our own work into the hands of those who might make use of it or build further on it. The two of us were recently asked to share our experiences of using Twitter for these sorts of purposes as part of a Division of Education workshop series at the University of Waikato. We and other colleagues chatted about the different relationships we each have with Twitter, reflected on some of the issues and challenges associated with using Twitter, and shared strategies. This blog post brings together some of the points from our discussion. We wish to thank to our colleagues Dr Laura Gurney (@LauraGurney_PhD), Gurdeep Judge (@waikato social media manager), Dr Cathy Buntting (director of @WMIER_RESEARCH) and A/Prof Nicola Daly (@NicolaDaly18) for their contributions to the workshop session.

Twitter for educators: What, how and why?

What is Twitter?

Founded in 2006, Twitter is a microblogging platform, enabling people to connect via short messages (tweets) in order to share content, which can include text, images, video and links. Users choose who to follow, which entails subscribing to the updates of other users to generate a personalised feed that is continually refreshed as new content is tweeted, and reshared (retweeted). Strategic use of hashtags serves to organise and categorise topics and conversations of interest to the educator/researcher. Twitter can be used for chats in real-time or for asynchronous browsing and communication.

How do educators and educational researchers use Twitter?

In an educational context, Twitter has been used by educators and researchers for many years, as a site for research, a forum for educational news, and a learning network. For professional learning purposes, the potential of Twitter lies in connecting with a wide range of colleagues on a global basis and in the creation and sharing of original content for knowledge building purposes.

Educators and educational researchers generally begin to use Twitter by following and reading the content of others, including colleagues who are known in person, and relevant organisations and experts in the field. Sometimes contributing your own first tweet feels like a significant hurdle for a new user; sharing and responding to the content generated by other reputable users is a good starting point before moving on to creating and sharing your own original content. 

Why use Twitter in these ways?

Educators and educational researchers use Twitter for a range of reasons. Perhaps you want to grow your international network; increase readership/citations of your research; find potential collaborators; engage in free professional learning; tune into emerging thinking in your field; connect your students into both peer and global conversations; contribute to or develop a new community; document a professional learning journey; or just stay on top of breaking news in your local area. Understanding what you want to get out of Twitter can help you decide how best to engage.

Some considerations and cautions

Identity and eProfessionalism

You may like to carefully consider whether your Twitter profile will be for professional, personal, or mixed content. Ethical use of social media means adhering to professional standards, even outside of work contexts. Since social media involves public expression, standards apply regardless of whether an individual is working at the time of posting. Find out whether your institution has a social media policy, and be aware of codes of conduct. Be mindful of your professional online presence. In practical terms, when drafting a tweet ask yourself: How will this message reflect upon me as a teacher/professional if read by students, colleagues, and other stakeholders?

Being part of a community …

Twitter is fundamentally a social network – a communication platform designed to link people together online. You can of course choose to be a quiet observer, watching and reading conversations held by others. On one hand, this may seem ‘antisocial’, but seen in another light, this can be a form of legitimate peripheral participation in a community of interest. However, we find Twitter works best when participants are actively engaging in dialogue. This might mean tweeting your own original content as well as retweeting, commenting on, and liking others’ posts on top of reading what others have contributed. Give what you want to receive: For example, if you want others to read and share your work, read and share the work of others. 

… but not too narrow a community

While Twitter can function as an “affinity space” in which users interact around content of shared interest, it can also become an “echo chamber” where you are continually exposed to only users and material that aligns with a single viewpoint. This can reinforce confirmation bias and misinformation. Consider how you might actively ensure that you are exposed to diverse views through who you follow on Twitter. For example, follow a range of news media, political figures, and educators/researchers offering different perspectives.

Time

It’s also worth being mindful of the time you allow Twitter (or other online platforms) to occupy. Social media is known to be addictive, and if you’re using Twitter professionally, it’s easy to fall into the trap of telling yourself that endlessly scrolling through Twitter is a valid “work task”. It might indeed be work-related, but what other, more important work tasks are being squeezed out if Twitter fills up your day? Are you giving your best, clearest-thinking time to Twitter? Consider the best times of day to check Twitter and try muting the notifications the rest of the time.

Know the landscape: A public, unmoderated space

Posting on Twitter has been compared to “shouting at a bus stop” – it’s a fundamentally public space, and you have limited control over where a tweet or comment goes, who sees it, who responds, or how it might be used. Twitter is not actively moderated, and it takes a lot for content or users to be suspended (case in point: Donald Trump). In addition, what people post on Twitter is not formally peer-reviewed for accuracy or quality in the way that journal articles or other academic publications are. Information literacy and a critical eye are necessary, continually considering the provenance of what you are reading. 

Use with students

If you teach adults, you might consider the use of Twitter with students. In doing so, educators can model how to learn through social media, inviting students to follow experts in their own areas of study.  If you teach children, however, there are safer and more age-appropriate options for online learning. 

Boundaries, discernment and housekeeping

It is well-documented that cyberbullying, trolling, and other forms of problematic behaviour take place on social media platforms. To protect yourself as far as possible, you can customise your privacy and safety settings such as restricting who can view your tweets or can direct message you via Twitter. Every now and then, it is also a good idea to review the list of people who have followed your account. Watch out for possible bot accounts (although not all bots are bad!) as well as accounts that post content you are not comfortable with. There is a fine line between being open to provocation from people who hold different perspectives and offering an audience to disinformation, abuse, or other harmful messaging.

Always remember that you are not obliged to read the comments, respond to messages, or engage with others who might be behaving badly. If an interaction on Twitter gets severely out of control, you can block individual users; report the relevant comments on Twitter; contact your institution’s social media/communications team and/or NetSafe.

Possibilities for educators and educational researchers

Professional learning:

Identify individuals and groups who are relevant to your professional interests and follow them on Twitter. It may come as a surprise to new users of Twitter that well-known institutions and agencies – from government ministries to universities and social agencies – as well as thought leaders have established Twitter presences. It is particularly handy to use Twitter as a means of keeping up with what these institutions are posting elsewhere – on their websites for example, in terms of policy updates, media reports, upcoming events, and a host of new resources. Access to your favourite authors and experts, along with colleagues in order to share resources, information, and insights make Twitter a dynamic site for informal, self-directed and self-paced professional learning. Educators regularly share slides from presentations around the world, open access publications and resources.

Research dissemination:

As researchers, we have both used Twitter in the research process at various stages. For example, Twitter can help disseminate calls for papers for journal special issues, edited books, and conferences; it can also be a powerful tool to distribute calls for research participants (ensuring ethical approval is in place before using this strategy). When reviewing literature, asking a question on Twitter can lead to interesting recommendations of sources and other scholars you may not have come across. And when we have newly published work or project updates to share, Twitter is a great way to get the word out to wider audiences. Including relevant hashtags and/or tagging relevant accounts (without veering into ‘spam’ territory!) can help here, as well as providing your Twitter (and other social media) account handle to publishers when submitting manuscripts. If your project has a website or blog, including a Twitter widget can enable quick updates to a wider audience.

Collaboration and networking:

Twitter is a great platform to extend your network of fellow educators and/or educational researchers. This can lead to fresh perspectives, learning opportunities, and even opportunities to collaborate (as in the case of Katrina’s current project with @Shan_Mason, which emerged from an online conversation and a Tweet). 

We have found a snowballing approach can be effective to expand the Twitter accounts to follow – that is, when following a fellow educator, check their following and followers lists for other accounts to add to your network. When an educator you follow tweets content that is useful to you, take notice of the others who join the conversation, as further potential follows. When you hear of a new project or read a useful publication in your field, or when you attend a conference presentation that resonates with you, search and follow the sources on Twitter. You can also find others with related professional interests through events. Some events take place directly on Twitter, such as tweetchats (e.g. here or here). Some off-Twitter events actively encourage Twitter use, e.g. a conference may promote an associated hashtag such as #ULearn2022 or #AERA2022). And other events happen in a variety of settings including Twitter, e.g. #ShutUpAndWrite and #AcWriMo (academic writing month).

Final thoughts

It’s an interesting time to be writing this blog post given the uncertainty and change surrounding Elon Musk’s recent purchase of Twitter, his rapid removal of several of Twitter’s key executives, and his statements to date about his plans for the platform. We are aware of the shifts that have already taken place in the academic social media landscape since Musk’s takeover of Twitter, as well as the ways the post-Musk uncertainty seem to be triggering some broader reflection around online academic engagement.

As a component of an educator’s repertoire of communication tools, we have personally found merit in Twitter’s use, within professional boundaries. Twitter has enabled us each to cultivate a professional online presence, and a learning network, and these are capabilities we have shared with tertiary students and colleagues. We will all need to watch, wait, and make our own decisions around future use of Twitter as things unfold (and there is some excellent advice in this regard here). We invite you to consider whether Twitter – or alternative social media platforms offering some of the same opportunities for educators and educational researchers – might have a place in your research, learning, or networking plans.


Dr Katrina McChesney (@krmcchesney) is a senior lecturer in education at the University of Waikato with research interests in higher (particularly doctoral) education and teacher education. Her work centres people’s lived experiences in educational contexts with underpinning commitments to equity and social justice. Katrina is currently co-leading an international study and book project on students’ experiences of conducting doctoral research by distance, exploring both what ‘distance’ means post-COVID and how doctoral education can be effectively enacted away from campus sites.

Dr Dianne Forbes (@difo38) is a digital learning specialist at the University of Waikato with a background in teacher education and a particular interest in online (blended/hybrid) pedagogies in tertiary education. Her primary research interests are the human, social and relational dimensions of learning through digital technologies, including ethics and professionalism. She studies innovative pedagogies, from low-tech asynchronous forum discussions, to podcasts, video, social media and flipped/blended learning. A consistent focus of her work is the perspectives and experiences of students and teachers as participants in digital learning.

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