What Twitter offers teachers: The evidence

By Kathryn Holmes

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.

3 thoughts on “What Twitter offers teachers: The evidence

  1. Andrew Calvert says:

    Well argued and moved me a long way towards the “pro” view. But I’m still undecided.

    Two reasons probably. One: I am physically surrounded by pretty engaged people that give me good ideas that are teaching the exact same units at the same time to the same students.

    Two: I’ve gotten a lot of these tweets sent in emails from a few people who don’t teach the same units and aren’t currently classroom teachers. Not every idea is transferable and robustly useful. When all you get is a “this is interesting/great” and a link each and every link COULD lead to something useful but the time it would take to verify this leaves you with a very dire cost/benefit analysis to do. I’ve clicked and read at least 20 of these tweets and gotten literally nothing I’ve used from it. 0/20 is bad odds no matter how you look at it. This may be because of my first point – I get a lot of good ideas from co-workers.

  2. Clare says:

    This pretty much reflects the results of my masters dissertation last year. Although I would say that there are some sustained interactions on Twitter related professional development.

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