The sight of students fiddling with their mobile phones and laptops as they tweet their way through lectures is enough to drive many academics up the wall.
But according to a study at Lock Haven University in the US, tweeting could be used to improve academic performance.
Rey Junco, associate professor in the department of academic development and counselling, assessed the impact of using Twitter as a teaching tool on students taking a pre-health course at the institution, which is a member of the Pennsylvania state system.
Separating the students into two groups, he asked one to use the social-networking site Ning to communicate with lecturers while the other used Twitter.
According to a paper published in the Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, titled "The effect of Twitter on college student engagement and grades", the latter group scored on average a grade higher than their counterparts.
Professor Junco, who co-authored the paper with two colleagues, admitted that the exercise had required significant commitment on the part of academics as well as students.
"We're pretty honest about this; it took a bit of time," he said. "We had to monitor these two sites and there were a lot of students."
He added that the participants who had been able to call on their tutors for help using Twitter had done so more frequently than those using Ning.
The academics participating in the study had used the social media sites to communicate with students and to begin discussions within the groups on books and topics that might not have been fully explored in class.
They also provided individual support, answering questions and offering reminders and encouragement when they saw that students were struggling.
However, Professor Junco said that the participating academics were clear about maintaining boundaries (see box below).
"We were very vigilant to make sure that we were using (social media) in ways that were educationally relevant and encouraged our students to use them in the same way."
He conceded that Twitter was "just a technological platform like anything else", but added that certain aspects of the site lent themselves to a better learning experience.
Twitter's ability to be both "synchronous and asynchronous" allowed students to meet at the same time or to exchange comments over longer periods, he said.
This facilitated fuller engagement than set meeting times, Professor Junco argued.
No Poke - I'm your lecturer, not your friend
The potential for inappropriate interaction with students may be deterring academics from using social-networking sites in their personal lives, research suggests.
According to a study at the University of Wales, Newport, female lecturers in particular are wary of socialising online, with some describing sites such as Facebook as a "fantasy world" where "anything goes".
One female marketing lecturer says: "Students might go online at 2am when they are drunk and make comments that in the cold light of day they would never have said. The speed at which these comments can travel is quite alarming."
A male accountancy lecturer adds that inappropriate comments from students made in person or via email could be dealt with more quickly and less publicly than on social media.
"If a student makes a comment on a social-network site, it's there for more people to add fuel to the fire."
The concerns are detailed in a paper titled "Social network sites and student/lecturer communication: an academic voice" by Joanna Jones, Ruth Gaffney-Rhys and Edward Jones of Newport Business School.
Some participants in the study say academics should see it as part of their responsibility to help students understand the repercussions of online activities. However, others argue that this should not extend to engaging with students online.
One says: "You cannot be 'friends' with someone you grade."