Twitter for teachers

Why teachers and academics should use Facebook and Twitter

University students and most secondary school students today carry connected devices with them at all times. They constantly inhabit various forms of social media, which seem to be continually evolving. I want to share with you how I have used this to engage my pre-service education students.

I believe social media provides a suite of tools to teachers and academics that are powerful additions to their usual teaching methods. Social media demonstrates that “the medium is the message”, as philosopher Marshall McLuhan told us fifty years ago.

It is all about using social media to teach about social media, its potential and its limitations.

The ‘T’ in STEM

There is much in the media and technical education space at the moment related to STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) education. In the USA and Australia there are claims that 75% of all jobs in the future will be in STEM so all students need to “do” STEM.

The T in STEM relates often to digital technologies, also known as computing. We have politicians calling for compulsory computing in schools, for example Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull declared coding to be as “fundamental as reading and writing’’ in an “agile, innovative and creative Australia’’.

In Australia, the new national curriculum, to start next year, will introduce coding in primary school.

President Obama in the USA announced his intention to offer “every student the hands-on computer science and math classes that make them job-ready on day one”. And earlier this month in Japan a new policy was announced to make “computer programming compulsory at all public elementary schools from 2020”.

We can use all of this interest and hype around digital technologies to help educate pre-service teachers about social media.

Why use social media?

I have long encouraged teachers and pre-service teachers to actively engage with their students in social media. It helps teachers create another level of engagement as well as side-by-side learning with their students. It also enables a soft entry into digital technology applications in the classroom. (I will disclose, however, that I don’t embrace the call for all students to learn coding.)

By using social media, teachers and academics can provide opportunities for public global dialogue, continuous discussions in the online space beyond the four walls of a physical classrooms, and greater interactions between individuals and collective groups.

What I did with my students

In 2006 my students approached me about setting up a Facebook group for our Women in Computing club. I listened. I was initially reluctant (well it was ten years ago) mainly related to what I had read about privacy issues in social media.

However, I soon realized (and was shown by my tech-savvy students) that privacy and security can easily be managed. I was not new to Facebook, and had a personal page that I maintained for with family, friends and computing colleagues who I had met at conferences around the world. I knew that friendships and networks could be maintained in the virtual space, even if you only met face to face, in real-time once every couple of years.

In this instance I managed my privacy by setting up a professional Facebook profile, it is not hard to do. I linked this to my university email account, not my personal email, to ensure that my personal privacy was maintained.

Our Women in Computing closed Facebook group soon provided a medium for generating a strong sense of community and the students embraced it professionally. Events were promoted and publicized, professional development opportunities were advertised and polls were conducted to determine which social events should be planned and delivered. This was all done with minimal effort and oversight.

What happened on the Facebook page

I watched student engagement grow on the site. The students shared advice, technical and otherwise. New students interacted with senior students as equals. And as the years went by alumni stayed connected and interacted with current students regularly. The social media site enabled me to connect with a wide range of students in a more personalized manner, many shared photos of themselves on the site and if I saw them when walking around campus I knew them.

Since moving from a Faculty of Computing to a School of Education I have used closed Facebook groups when taking students overseas for international professional placements. It provides an immediate and social communication tool that allows the group to share information and celebrate successes.

Many schools today are using closed Facebook or Edmodo groups ( a Facebook type application specially for teachers) for communication with students and their parents. In fact it is a strong part of the communication in the international schools we visit in Malaysia.

Use Twitter too

I also embraced Twitter, another social media tool where it is easy to maintain privacy. You can be alerted to who is following your tweets, and of course, can decide when and however you want to post. Twitter provides a broadcast medium, rather than a closed community tool allowing you to share resources, news clippings and blogs with your classes.

Twitter can be used to generate discussion between students using a subject specific hashtag (e.g. #EDU1PAL) and to follow commentators and bloggers in specific disciplines. It enables students to be active in researching useful commentators in the subject they are studying.

My tweets at @Clang13 are less prolific, sometimes political, and hashtagged to suit events I attend e.g. (#atea2016). I am a strong believer in being a co-learner in student directed learning environments.

I am still surprised when I meet teachers and academics who are not on Facebook or Twitter. It is such an easy way to manage the message you want to provide.

Facebook is an excellent medium to present the spark (a photo), response and then reflect pedagogy. Twitter provides a summary of recent media publications on related topics.

I encourage you to find what you are comfortable with and explore with your students. Try a new activity or medium each semester, see if it works or not.

Catherine Lang

Catherine Lang

Catherine Lang is Associate Professor, Director, Engagement and Professional Partnerships at the College of Arts, Social Sciences and Commerce Education at La Trobe University. Her research initially focused on the under-representation of women in ICT, an area which was also the focus of her PhD. She was a Chief investigator in the ARC Funded research project “Digital Divas”, developing and implementing a curriculum initiative for secondary school girls. This research has led her to focus on teacher and pre-service teacher technical self-efficacy, pre service teacher professional experience models, and their development of intercultural competencies through international professional placements.


What Twitter offers teachers: The evidence

Twitter is a revolutionary new tool for many teachers. They use it to drive their professional development and to connect with other educators.

However not everyone is so enthusiastic, others see Twitter as a tedious waste of time and are not tempted to give it a go. Of course many teachers may also describe face to face professional development sessions as a waste of time.

In order to convince teachers of the possible benefits of using a new technology, such as Twitter, we decided to look for evidence of its qualities. What in particular, does Twitter offer educators? Is it worth getting involved?

We identified 30 leading educators (with an interest in educational technology) who are currently using Twitter and analysed samples of their tweets in order to determine their purpose and the possible benefits of the tweets to their followers.

We also examined a sample of tweets from the twitter streams of two popular educational hashtags: #edchat and #edtech, in order to determine what ‘followers’ may gain.

As we are associating Twitter with teacher professional development it should be noted, professional development is most effective when it :-

  • is sustained over a period of time
  • is practical and contextual and directly related to student learning
  • is collaborative and involves the sharing of knowledge and
  • is devolved so that the participants have some element of control and ownership.


There is also a growing body of evidence that points to the effectiveness of professional development which is initiated and controlled personally, in the form of  personal learning networks.

What we found

Twitter is a filter for educational content
The biggest category, 34% of all tweets in the sample, contained links to other educationally focussed websites or blogs. In this sense the users of Twitter are acting as a filter for educational content that is available on the internet.

Twitter facilitates positive, supportive, contact between teachers but not sustained educational conversations
The second highest ranking category was that of a personal reply to another Twitter user (25%). In many cases these replies were personal thanks to another user for a previous tweet which was deemed particularly useful.  Almost invariably tweets in this category were of a positive supportive nature, this support, could potentially be a significant boost for teachers who find themselves isolated either geographically or professionally from their colleagues.

In most cases however the replies did not have an education focus, with only 1% of all tweets in the sample falling into this category.  This finding may indicate the unsuitability of this microblogging medium for fostering sustained educational conversations; as such interactions would generally require more space and time so that developed arguments can be fully explained. 

Educator tweeters are not prone to tweeting inane meaningless comments
Only 9% of the 600 tweets examined consisted of personal comments, unrelated to educational topics. These comments were usually in relation to the user’s location or were descriptive about their activities for the day. This finding is of note, given that an oft-repeated, anecdotal criticism of Twitter is that it consists only of inane, meaningless and somewhat narcissistic personal comments. 

The majority of hashtag posts contain educational links
The use of hashtags within tweets is one way that users can collate posts under common streams of interest. The majority of hashtag posts (70%) contain links to educational websites or blogs. The remaining posts were either links to educational newspaper articles (19%), comments of an educational nature (10%) or in one case, an invitation to join a group of educators in another online.

Hashtags enable access to a wide variety of web-based resources and news without the need to interact with others or to sift through the personal communications between others.
Depending on an individual’s professional learning needs, this flexibility could be an important factor to be highlighted when introducing this medium to educators.

Twitter offers connections with a network of like-minded educators
Any teacher signing up to Twitter and following the leading educators is potentially exposed to a rich, interconnected network of other like-minded educators and is directed to a wide variety of up-to-date and relevant educational material. The collaborative and public nature of the Twitter medium allows for networks of participants to form naturally in response to common interests. Individuals can actively participate by posting their own tweets or can simply follow others to gain links to current educational resources and news

Twitter gives a user total control over the level of interaction and focus
Unlike a stand-alone professional development session, Twitter has the advantage that it can be tapped into on any day at any time, leaving open the possibility that it may lead to learning over a sustained period of time, which can be accessed at the most optimal time for each user. The medium also allows for each participant to focus on the particular educational issues that concern them at the time. In this way the Twitter medium does afford the individual user with total control over the level of interaction and the nature of the learning that occurs as a result.

The key characteristics of effective professional development could be accomplished through the use of Twitter.
Twitter can be used to establish teacher networks and facilitate access to new resources and information. Such online communities of learning could also potentially provide links between pre-service teachers and experienced educators. In this sense, the initial ‘education’ of teachers, could be enriched through participation in multiple online professional learning communities with practitioners in the field, allowing meaningful interactions beyond the traditional practicum.

Twitter is but one mechanism for online collaboration and communication among a growing number of social media sites, however, its current and growing popularity ensures that a critical mass of educators will be available for networking opportunities. These online interactions don’t replace the significance of face to face collaborations and discussions with colleagues, but the findings from this study indicate that they can be a valuable alternate means of professional self-development.

(Further research is needed to evaluate the tangible impact of teacher engagement with social media for professional development. While this study has confirmed the potential of the medium, and while there are plenty of Twitter champions encouraging wider participation, the eventual impact on learning in the classroom is untested.)

Kath HolmesDr Kathryn Holmes is a Senior Lecturer in Mathematics Education in the School of Education at the University of Newcastle. She is currently the Deputy Head of School for Research.

Find the full paper ‘Follow’ Me: Networked Professional Learning for Teachers by Kathryn Holmes, Greg Preston, Kylie Shaw and Rachel Buchanan, University of Newcastle HERE.