Textbook Tweets – Integrating Twitter into a Telecommunications Design Class

Dr. Carrie Heeter, a professor of Telecommunication, Information Studies, and Media at Michigan State University has been integrating Twitter into her graduate Design Research class this spring in two very different ways. She is moderating a class Twitter ID (@tc841) set to follow experts in the field. Heeter retweets particularly important content to students and to the vibrant professional community of design researchers on Twitter.

Heeter is using Twitter in an unusual way to enhance live class discussions of assigned readings. She calls it “Textbook Tweet Time.”

As a graded part of live class participation, Heeter’s students are assigned to come prepared to tweet interesting insights they gleaned from the week’s readings from the Twitter ID they created for class participation (this can be their personal Twitter ID or one created exclusively for class). Using the PowerPoint Twitter tool from SAP, Heeter configures and projects a PowerPoint slide to search for the hash tag #tc841read. The search is continuously updated so new tweets show up within 10-20 seconds.

Dr. Carrie Heeter

Students must include that hash tag in the tweet in order for it to show up on the slide (and in order to receive credit for participation). The PowerPoint Twitter Tool can be toggled between two alternate formats – one shows the 9 most recent tweets in dialog boxes, along with the twitterer’s ID and photo. The alternate photo shows the most recent 18 tweets. The examples below are from Textbook Tweet Time about Will Wright’s chapter, “Sim Smarts,” in Design Research by Brenda Laurel.

As tweets appear in class, Heeter calls on the tweeters to describe their post. The class discusses each post, then moves on to another tweet. The class tweets about and discusses one chapter at a time, to limit number of tweets and to focus the discussion.

Heeter finds that “the tweets give each student a platform, almost like handing them a microphone. The students explain and expand upon their tweet, and discussion ensues.” The tweets focus class discussion and ensure 100% participation (in this small graduate class). There is a permanent record of the tweets, which facilitates grading of live class participation and motivates attention to the readings before class.

Learners can also view the search results for #tc841read on Twitter search (located at http://search.twitter.com). This view does not limit the number of tweets that are returned unlike the PowerPoint tool (shown above). Heeter subscribes to the RSS feed for that Twitter search, creating a permanent record of the class tweets on her desktop. Heeter says, “Because I can search and archive the tweets, grading classroom discussion becomes more systematic, thorough, and objective. I gain a sense of what matters from the readings, and some feel for how deeply different students are delving in to the readings. The tweets motivate preparation for class and then serve to reinforce the important points; and they give each student a turn.”

Twitter is a public space, leading to the potential for privacy concerns. In Heeter’s design, the students can use their personal Twitter account for class or they can create a unique twitter ID just for TC841. She says, “They control their anonymity in their choice of twitter ID.” For example, one student’s Twitter ID is six letters, all consonants and unpronounceable. Another student is a deceased movie star. Still others use their real names.

Some students post a picture of themselves as their Twitter icon while others post a graphic or picture of something other than themselves. Still others are simply a variation on the default Twitter icon – a white bird silhouette with a color background. “I have one orange student, one purple, and one light blue,” says Heeter. “I know the Twitter ID that each student is using for class so I call on them by their real name (or for fun, sometimes by their silly Twitter name). Their tweets are public, but depending on the set up choices they have made, they are more or less anonymous.”

By navigating to http://search.twitter.com and searching for #tc841read, Heeter can click on the feed for the #tc841 query button to have a folder in her default RSS reader collect and save all textbook tweets.

Heeter feels that using tweets for classroom discussion and collaboration is working well, though she notes that “for larger classes I would need more control.” As it stands, with the number enrolled, she finds “this particular interface happens to be perfect as is right now in this class.”

Heeter lives in San Francisco and teaches in East Lansing. The design research class is a hybrid class with between one hour and 90 minutes of live class and the rest online. Heeter participates via Skype and Breeze connect. Students can either come to the classroom or Skype and Breeze from any remote location. Of course, the instructor need not be remote for Textbook Tweet Time to be an effective component of synchronous class discussion.


An interesting theme arose for me in a recent e-mail conversation with my ETC Journal colleague Claude Almansi. She said Twitter is “so simple to use: all you need is to have an idea of what you want to achieve by using it, and be able to effectively communicate in 140 characters.” This got me thinking about effective communication and how hard it is to achieve. This challenge, coupled with Twitter’s ambiguous purpose, makes it easy to see why so many are confused about what Twitter can do. This column defines basic Twitter terms and address some strategies you can implement to communicate more effectively the relatively amorphous Twitter environment.


RT – ReTweet. To share a Tweet you found interesting, use the ReTweet function. This is like crediting the original writer for sharing the information.

DM – Direct Message. This is a private message between two people. Some businesses and organizations set Twitter up to automatically DM people when they follow an account. To many Twitter natives, this is considered impersonal and irritating. Use a DM when making plans or when writing something that only affects you and one other person. This saves your common followers from a timeline cluttered with things they find irrelevant.

a red and a green bird tweeting

@ – A Twitter reply. Place @ in front of the username of the person you are writing to. For example: “@etcjournal Thank you for the article! It helped answer my questions!” In this case, @etcjournal would see your reply and know that you enjoyed one of the articles we posted. The followers you have in common with @etcjournal would also see this reply.

# – Hash tag, used for earmarking Twitter search terms. For example, if I wanted to make ETCJournal searchable on Twitter and encourage other people to do so as well, I might say something like “I just read an article on blended teaching and learning in #ETCJournal. It was very helpful!” Then, to search, one would visit http://search.twitter.com and enter #ETCJournal to see all tweets that incorporate that hash tag. Hash tags are especially useful for facilitating conference back channel conversations and identifying themes in your tweets. Note, however, that hash tags are not stored forever and when used too liberally can become clutter.

Lists – A relatively new Twitter feature, lists allow you to organize those you follow into lists based on a theme. For example, adding ed tech colleagues to an “educational_technology” list would allow you to filter out and view what they are saying, obscuring tweets from users not on that list. This tool is helpful for users who follow several hundred individuals to manage what they see and when. To create lists and see who lists you, visit http://www.twitter.com and click Listed (to see who lists you) or New List to begin creating lists of your own.

Back-channel – At conferences, there will often be a “back-channel” of users sharing ideas and thoughts on the conference in real time using Twitter or other social networking sites. This is useful for following others at the same conference who, perhaps, attend different sessions.

TweetUp – An in-person meeting of Twitter users. TweetUps are common at conferences and in larger cities, and an excellent means for building your network and meeting new people with interests or locations in common.

Basic Strategies

Be social. Find people who have similar interests as you, and interact with them. ReTweet the resources they post that you find interesting, and open a dialogue using @ replies and DMs. Often, when people are deciding whether or not to follow you back, they will look at your Twitter page and ascertain whether you interact with those in your followers list. If your account is all one-way, with you merely pushing information outward, they will choose not to reciprocate the follow or view your account as SPAM.

Be approachable. If people are making assertions that you do not agree with, try sending them a DM with your perspective, as opposed to an @ reply. Try to be open to ideas that differ from your own. This was one of the hardest hurdles for me to overcome in my Twitter use.

Attend local and conference TweetUps. Especially at conference, TweetUps can prove to be a valuable resource and a lot of fun. If you are attending a conference, ask the conference staff if they know of a scheduled TweetUp. If there isn’t one, schedule one yourself, using the conference hash tag. Conferences like Educause, SLOAN-C and Purdue’s Teaching and Learning with Technology conference all schedule TweetUps as part of the proceedings to give Twitter users participating in the conference back-channel a chance to meet in person and share what they have learned.

Further Reading

10 Ways You Can Use Twitter Lists

7 Things You Should Know About Twitter

10 Twitter Tips for Higher Education