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An Online Student’s Guide to Twitter

Since Twitter started in 2006, hundreds of millions of accounts have been opened and it now sees a billion tweets (messages sent via Twitter) per week. If you are new to Twitter or perhaps still considering jumping in, the numbers can seem overwhelming. "Twitter is a real-time information network that connects you to the latest information about what you find interesting." The potential uses for such a network are seemingly endless.

Twitter is becoming more popular in higher education. A 2010 Faculty Focus survey found that over a third of college faculty used Twitter in some way, such as for sharing information and as a news feed. The report also noted an increase from the previous year for use of Twitter to communicate with students and as a learning tool. Leaders in education and training development, such as Logan Rath at SUNY Brockport, are looking for ways Twitter can be utilized to improve communication in a course and enhance the learning process.

Creating and maintaining a Twitter account can be an educational process, even outside of school, providing you with access to people and information. It can also be a distraction. How can you use it wisely? Let's focus on how it might be leveraged to help you as an online student. In this post I'll describe some of the ways you might want to use Twitter and a few techniques for managing that use so that it is productive, not a time waster.

Establish Goals for Use

Before engaging with this tool for use in your education and career, take some time to set a few goals for how you plan to use it. Several popular uses include:

  • Meeting new people: Twitter allows you to view and engage in discussions meeting new people along the way. By "following" others in your field of study, adding to the discussions, you can become part of that online community and broaden your circle a bit. You might even eventually meet a few of these people in person! It has happened to me at professional conferences.
  • Interacting with leaders in your field: You may be surprised at the wide range of people who are active on Twitter. It has become a popular tool for educators and many other professions. Those who decide to engage in Twitter are also usually open to making the connections. You may find yourself in conversation with the leaders in your field!
  • Staying up-to-date with industry issues: Twitter allows you to craft your own personalized new feed. Consider who and what you might want to include in this feed: publications, professional associations, researchers, etc. Choose to follow accounts that are specifically related to your studies and professional interests.
  • Learning new things: Use Twitter as a source of information. Many people tweet links to websites, articles, news stories, and book reviews that may be helpful with your current work, as well as introduce you to new ideas and avenues to explore.
  • Getting feedback: Once you begin building your Twitter network, you can ask (and answer) questions. Need to find out more about a specific topic? Looking for an article or reference? Curious about employment in a region or sector? Ask your network!

An educator recently tracked his use of Twitter and provided his take on what you can learn via Twitter. Take a look at this post – If you were on Twitter – that captures the information and conversations he encountered in just one day. This post may provide you with a few ideas about how you could use Twitter.

Participate in Twitter Activities

There are organized events that also occur in the Twitter community. Through the use of hashtags (#) groups participate in these real-time conversations.

  • Chats: There are currently over 400 twitter chats listed on the Twitter Chat Schedule. Take a look at the spreadsheet and find the time for a chat that interests you. You can also use a special chat tool to help you follow the conversation via the hashtag. This allows you to see all of the participants' responses, not just those you follow with your account. Read How to Participate in a Twitter Chat for more detailed information and tips. 
  • The backchannel: Unfortunately we can't attend all of the events we would like to attend in person. Twitter is becoming a popular tool at conferences, as well as for webinars and other presentations. By following an event's hashtag, you can follow members that are participating in and tweeting from a live event. An example is the recent American Society for Training and Development conference held in Orlando, Florida. By following #astd2011 on Twitter, I was able to see the backchannel tweets from conference participants who sent out information and links provided at the face-to-face sessions.

Develop Good Habits

Since the Twitter stream is live and continuous – non-stop across all time zones – it can easily become a distraction. Here are a few guidelines and ground rules to get you started and help you maintain your focus.

  • Time your access: Set aside time to monitor your Twitter feed on a periodic basis. Avoid having your feed open on your computer all of the time.
  • Manage the stream: Use a dashboard tool like Hootsuite or Tweetdeck to more easily add/delete hashtags and follow/unfollow other users. Adjust the settings to turn off automatic notifications.
  • Disengage with distractors: It's okay to not follow and to "unfollow" any account that is not helpful to you and your goals for use. You'll find that some accounts send out more tweets than others for example.
  • Consider a separate account: If you already use Twitter for personal connections, consider setting up a separate account for use in class or for professional networking.
  • Give and receive: The benefits to be gained from joining any network, especially an online one like Twitter, will be significantly enhanced when you actively engage in the conversations. This takes time, but look for opportunities to add your input and perspective.

Who should you follow?

The choice is yours! Build a Twitter network that provides you with information that is helpful and encourages relevant conversations.

  • Use a system like Followerwonk to locate people that have similar interests based on their Twitter bios.
  • Search for Twitter accounts associated with your school, instructors, and classmates. Take a look at these examples from the International Academy of Design and Technology (@IADTstudents) and the University of Pittsburgh's online programs (@PittOnline).
  • Look to your Personal Learning Network. Who in your PLN is on Twitter? Who are they following?
  • Follow human resource professionals and recruiters in your planned field of work for job announcements and job search tips. Try @CareerTip and @JobHuntOrg as well as specific employers.

Leverage the Techniques

As an online student you may be looking for ways to get involved and to connect with others who share your education and career interests. This can be challenging without the resources found on a traditional campus.

  • Consider ways in which Twitter could help you and set specific goals for how you will proceed.
  • Revisit your goals from time to time, adjust as necessary, and don't be afraid to step away for a while to take care of other priorities.
  • Share your experiences!