Students and tutors ready to embrace the Twitter bug

John Gill investigates the communication phenomenon that is infiltrating academe

March 26, 2009

Twitter is all the rage in some walks of life.

Celebrities appear to have embraced it wholeheartedly, as was recently demonstrated by comedian Stephen Fry, who used the micro-blogging service to give minute-by-minute updates during an afternoon stuck in a lift.

The service allows its users to share information, often sent from a mobile device, in the form of brief postings that can be viewed by their "followers".

But if the rich and famous tend to use Twitter to feed the insatiable public appetite for even the most mundane details of their lives, might it not also have a use in higher education?

Nic Mitchell, head of press at the University of Teesside and vice-chair of the Higher Education External Relations Association, believes so.

"The publicity has all been about people like Britney Spears using it to tell us that she's by the pool with a Coke, but I think actually there is something in this for universities," he said. "I'm a recent convert, and I've really gone for it."

As local newspapers decline, universities are going to have to do more of their own work to communicate with their communities, he said, and Twitter is one medium open to them. It is also a way of getting two-way communication going with students, many of whom keep up with the latest technological developments and are avid users of it already.

Mr Mitchell said that Twitter came into its own during the heavy snow last month when Teesside, among others, used it to alert students that lectures were cancelled.

But if Twitter is useful as a communication tool, it does not necessarily follow that it will be useful to academics as a tool assisting scholarship.

Mr Mitchell said that there were academics on Twitter, but most were working in areas linked to computing or communications.

There must be some doubt about how many others will take to it when the likes of Terry Eagleton, professor of English and creative writing at the University of Lancaster, refuses even to use email.

David Stuart is a research fellow at the University of Wolverhampton investigating so-called Web 2.0 technologies. He said that Twitter was "not a particularly academic medium", as it traded quality of information for timeliness. He said: "Where micro-blogging is likely to get a foothold in academia is at conferences, where reaction to speakers may make timeliness a more important issue.

"For most academics, Twitter will provide a poor return for time invested. There are generally other tools more appropriate for specific tasks."

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