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Social Media in Higher Education: Twitter

December 20, 2011 | 3 Minute Read

This is the first in a three-part series on the use of social media tools in higher education. This post will focus on a study published in August of 2010 by Junco, Heiberger, and Loken who conducted research on whether or not Twitter was a useful tool for inspiring student engagement in an academic setting. Pdf of the article.

The phenomenom of social media is not a technological fad. It is an indicator that a sea-change is occuring in how we communicate in the public sphere, the private sphere, and in academia. Social media tools, such as Facebook and Twitter, allow people to engage and interact in a way that could dramatically change student-to-student and student-to-faculty communication. Research suggests that one reason for this is because social media tools allow participants to be "co-producer(s) of social content rather than passive information consumers" (Li, Helou, & Gillet, 2011). Does this mean that in being co-producers of social content students are no longer seeking knowledge from the experts (i.e., faculty)? Not at all. What it does mean is that there are now new ways for students and faculty to become actively engaged in the learning process. Yet while social media tools have the potential to remove some of the old impediments that have burdened educational institutions (for example, the time restriction of having one hour for both students and faculty to discuss a particular topic), there are important questions that need to be addressed, such as how does one apply these tools in an educational setting and what, if any, are the tangible benefits?

Junco, Heiberger, and Loken conducted a research study on the use of Twitter among a sample of American university students to address these questions (Junco, Heiberger, & Loken. [2010]).  Focusing their work around student engagement, the researchers used Chickering and Gamson's (1987) "seven principles for good practice in undergaduate education" (p. 2). All seven of these principles (student faculty interaction, student cooperation, active engagement, fast and appropriate feedback, efficient time management, and honoring diversity) are in someway a reflection of student engagement.

Junco et al. had two primary research questions related to Twitter usuage: What effect does encouraging Twitter usage have on student engagement and does this encouragement have any bearing on student grades? The researchers drew their sample from seven different sections of a seminar course for health professionals in which four sections were assigned to an experimental group and the remaining three were assigned to a control group. After teaching students how to use Twitter, researchers then gave students instructions for how Twitter should be used within the frame of the class (i.e., extending class discussion, asking questions, discussion of reading materials, etc.). Additionally, students were also given an opportunity to use Twitter to complete two homework assignments.

Results indicated that using Twitter in a conversational way allowed faculty and students to extend discusions beyond the classroom and also afforded students an engaging opportunity to connect with other students and discover "shared values and interests" (p. 8). Junco et al. explained that "one of the striking effects of having students communicate on Twitter [was] how they built strong relationships across diverse groups" (p. 8). The researchers also found that using Twitter improved communication between faculty and students because Twitter provided an "avenue for contact congruent with [student's] digital lifestyles" (p. 10). Perhaps most importantly, Junco et al. found that "using Twitter in educationally relevant ways had a positive effect on grades" (p. 12).

Two acknolwedged limitations of this study were its modest sample size and the researchers' inability to determine whether or not student and faculty engagement was merely a result of Twitter usuage or a result of the process of educating participants on how to be more engaged.


Chickering, A. W., & Gamson, Z. F. (1987) Seven principles for good practice in undergraduate education. AAHE Bulletin, March, 3–7.

Junco, Heiberger, & Loken. (2010). The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades. Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, 27(2): 119-132.

Li, Helou, & Gillet, (2011). Using social media for collaborative learning in higher education: A case study. Conference paper to be presented at the 5th International Conference on Advances in Computer-Human Interactions, Valencia, Spain, January 30-February 4, 2012.