Using Twitter to Teach

Last semester Haydn and I did a workshop on “Using Twitter to Teach” which was both experimental and interesting.  Today I ran across an excellent study on the effects of using Twitter in academically significant manners, and its findings are that Twitter both increases student engagement and improves student GPAs.  The way I ran across the study, however, tells a tale about our information culture.

I found the study in a typically circuitous—if not serendipitous—route so familiar to all Internet users.  I read a blog post in one of the (hundreds) of blogs I follow, Mashable, that contained an interesting video on the social media “revolution.”  The video was made by a guy named Erik Qualman, so I followed the link to his blog called “Socialnomics.”  The blog is clearly a entrepreneurial hub centered on social networking.  In the banner of the blog I noticed a banner, among other rotating banners (that turned out to be ads in slender disguise).  The banner ad’s come on was “College Students: Is Twitter Hurting Your Grades?”  Clicking the banner ad led to a blog post by Qualman comprised mainly of an infographic created apparently (since the infographic is “brought to you by”) MASTER-DEGREE-ONLINE.COM.  Here is the infographic, embedded with the code supplied at the master-degree-online web site.


I don’t mean to suggest that there is anything wrong with any of this.  Academics tend to get queasy, with good reason, with these sorts of entrepreneurial forays into traditionally academic areas, but bear with me.

As I say, there is actually a reputable study behind this infographic published by Junco, Heibergert and Loken in The Journal of Computer Assisted Learning.  If I am interpreting Dr. Junco’s comments correctly in his blog post related to this infographic, he did not have anything to do with its creation.  It simply uses some of the data and the conclusions from the study.  After reading the study, and viewing Dr. Junco’s presentation at the Harvard Berkman Center for Internet & Society, I would have to agree that the infographic represents the study fairly as far as it goes, but not completely, and certainly not completely in spirit.  Dr. Junco says as much in his post:

“What I’d really love to see is an infographic that summarizes an academic paper– that is, not only represents the interesting findings, but also the limitations. There’s only one way to do that: by teaming the artist up with the researcher” (“‘Is Twitter Hurting Your Grades?’ Infographic”).

I’m not at all sure this is possible.  You have to dig to find limitations.  Infographics and in-depth analysis simply cannot coexist.  A picture may be worth a thousand words, but an infographic excludes thousands of words.  It’s like the wildly popular “For Dummies” series of books.  There are some topics not for dummies.

For example, the infographic lifts the chart from the paper (and makes it visually appealing) showing that the incidence of Twitter usage increased in the course of the semester.  Actually it spikes in the last four weeks of the semester.  But that is because, as the paper carefully points out, “Students in all experimental group sections had four required Twitter assignments during the final 4 weeks of the semester…”.  It is as all teachers know: If you don’t make it a for-credit assignment, students are unlikely to do it.  The infographic fails to qualify their caption “The Tweets became active as the semester progressed.”

The paper by Junco, Heibergert and Loken does not seem to have anything to do with the organization that presents the infographic, and certainly not with obtaining master’s degrees online.  The infographic blends suggestion (the squib at the top does NOT appear in the study: “Everyday,  social media sites like Twitter…”) with solid data from the study.  The study is a careful comparison of classroom students, an experimental group of students who used Twitter with their professors with another, studying the same topics, who did not.  We may well wonder if the infographic is inviting us to believe, by extension, that by studying online we will be more engaged and do better by the use of social media tools?

Certainly I think we have to assume that the purpose of publishing the infographic at all is to drive traffic to the web site.  Is this a sort of bait-and-switch advertisement?  Not really.  For all I know the institutions mentioned at the site use Twitter academically.  They certainly use it to promote themselves.

If you bothered to watch the Qualman video I referenced above—and I think you should—you will be struck by one of the factoids presented near the end: 90% of consumers trust peer reviews, 14% trust advertisements.  Since the authors of this careful study of the uses of Twitter in a strictly controlled academic environment are associated by the infographic with an online educational marketing  channel, one might make mistaken assumptions.  Nothing false is being said, but an impression is being created by juxtaposing serious data and what appears to be a commercial link.  I want to stress, there is nothing, so far as I can tell, false or wrong with this.  It is just that you have to be discerning in separating the academically serious from the commercial.  It may well be that I am the only person who magnified the tiny type referencing the study source and consulted it, and my concerns are overblown.

What ares the morals of the story?  You have to dig to get at the facts, and have to be selective in separating the commercial, which favors the sensational, from the serious, which is detailed and often difficult.  It is possible to be led far afield by the loosely articulated nature of Internet links.  Rather than regret it, however, I think it is a great opportunity for teaching critical thinking skills.