Introducing a twitter discussion board to support learning in online and blended learning environments

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  • Introducing a twitter discussion board to supportlearning in online and blended learning environments

    Brian Thoms & Evren Eryilmaz

    # Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

    Abstract In this research we present a new design component for online learningcommunities (OLC); one that integrates Twitter with an online discussion board(ODB). We introduce our design across two sections of upper-division informationsystems courses at a university located within the U.S. The first section consisted offull-time online learners, while the second section met face-to-face twice a week.Guided by a working theoretical model for how individuals learn and interact withinOLCs, we measure student perceptions of learning, social interaction and coursecommunity before and after our intervention. Initial findings were largely positiveand students across both sections experienced high levels of learning, interaction andcommunity. Our results pave the way for more integrated learning environments thatincorporate online social networking (OSN) technologies.

    Keywords Social learning . Online social networking . Twitter . Online discussionboard . Constructivism

    1 Introduction

    For most individuals, imagining a world without the Internet seems impossible. Fortodays traditional college students, aged 1824 and who comprise 60 % of collegeenrollment, this notion is impossible (U.S. Census Bureau 2009). Referred to asmillennial students, these students have grown up with computers and the Internetwith over 86 % participating in some form of online social networking (OSN) (Jenks

    Educ Inf TechnolDOI 10.1007/s10639-013-9279-3

    B. ThomsSUNY Farmingdale, Farmingdale, NY, USA

    E. EryilmazBloomsburg University, Bloomsburg, PA, USA

    B. Thoms (*)Computer Systems Department, School of Business, Farmingdale State College,2350 Broadhollow Road, Farmingdale, NY 11735-1021, USAe-mail:

  • 2011; Williamson 2007; Oblinger and Oblinger 2005). And todays institutes ofhigher education are learning to adapt for these new dynamic learners. In recent years,colleges and universities around the country are relying on a wide variety of Internettechnologies to facilitate everything from course registration to course delivery.

    In this research we focus on new pedagogical software; specifically asynchronoussocial technologies that provide students and instructors with opportunities to extendlearning outside of the classroom. More specifically, we explore those technologiesthat are widely used by traditional college students on the most popular OSNs such asFacebook, Google and Twitter. Commonly referred to as Web 2.0 software, thesequick and simple-to-use technologies offer students and instructors opportunities tocreate and share knowledge outside the classroom.

    As design science researchers, we are continually exploring IT artifacts acrosshigher education with the greater goal of enhancing learning through interaction andcourse building. In previous design iterations, we integrated Twitter, a microbloggingengine, with a traditional blog within an online learning community (OLC) used atour university. While we found Twitter was successful in providing students with ameans to explore and share new information, there was a lower level of agreementthat our design enhanced levels of interaction, learning and community.

    During this design cycle, we have redesigned our software and integrated Twitterwith our OLCs online discussion board (ODB) and measured its usage acrossmultiple sections of upper-division information systems courses. The first coursewas a fully online course, while the other course met face-to-face two times eachweek. Initial results were largely positive across both sections and we have discoveredthat this new design provides students with a powerful mechanism for building coursecommunity, increasing course interaction and aiding in learning.

    2 Background

    Within higher education, online technologies play increasingly important roles inlearning. While some institutions offer complete online degree programs, more tradi-tional institutions utilize the web to supplement in-class learning, with some offeringcomplete courses online. Market research estimates that 81 % of all institutions will beproviding some form of online learning by 2014. Across each of these institutions,specialized software, known as course management software (CMS), is in a constantstate of flux to meet the demands of academic institutions, classes and, of course,students. With an adoption rate above 96 %, this software plays a critical role in howcourse content is delivered and managed (Educational Marketer 2003). CMS software isdesigned specifically for the facilitation and management of academic courseworkproviding instructors and students with critical resources for learning.

    Our universitys preferred CMS platform is Angel, which provides participantswith a number of interactive features, including email, blogging and an ODB.However, even with its vast range of features, Angel still lacks even basic socialcomponents that traditional college students utilize on a day-to-day basis. And thosesocial components Angel does offer lack even basic features such as avatars and userprofiles. Yet, as the numbers of social software users rises, so, too, will expectationsthat it play a more central role in educational software. And while CMS platforms

    Educ Inf Technol

  • look to find the right blend of social media tools, practitioners and researchers arecurrently developing and integrating existing social technologies into education.

    2.1 Social software across education

    Studies in online collaboration have shown that virtual communication patternscorrespond in similar fashion to real-life communication (Rhode et al. 2004; Redfernand Naughton 2002). Research by Stacey (2002) found that a higher quality ofelectronic communication helps to engage students and aids in their learning of thecourse material. As in face-to-face communication, members of online social learningenvironments are able to state what they think, comment on what others have said,collaborate on common statements, and share information in many forms. Addition-ally, as members of a learning community, students have the right to comment onwhat others have said, collaborate on common interests, and share information inmany forms. Accordingly, online social learning environments offer a valid form oflearning and offer many different methods for students to interact with instructors andtheir peers (Quan-Haase 2005).

    Web 2.0 technologies, such as blogs, microblogs and wikis along with peer-to-peernetworking, discussion and file sharing, empower individuals to take ownership ofthe content they create while also making it easier to pursue social or scholastic tieswith their peers. And increasingly, more individuals are gaining access and familiarizingthemselves with these technologies making their introduction into the classroom more-or-less seamless (Oblinger and Oblinger 2005). In one study, Brescia and Miller (2006)found that the benefits to using blogging in the classroom included enhanced studentreflection, increased student engagement, portfolio building, and better synthesis acrossmultiple activities. In another, Kirkup (2010) argues that academic blogs can lead to theconstruction of an intellectual identity.

    As researchers in social learning software, we look to enhance our existing OLC,one that has already shown success blended learning environments, to discover hownew technologies can further engage students. In prior research we have shown that acorrect formula of software, along with proper alignment with course learningobjects, social software offers students the ability to reflect on course material andexpand in-class discussions to virtual spaces, in addition to improving learning, enhanc-ing social interaction and helping to build course community (Thoms 2012, 2011). Inthis research we explore how the integration of an asynchronous ODB and microblogcan support these same constructs.

    2.2 Online discussion boards

    Online forums have existed since the early days of the Internet and their usagecontinues to grow. From YouTube comments to the Facebook Wall, online forumshelp facilitate discourse across web content. These same tools are represented in theODBs of the most widely used CMS platforms, including Blackboard and Angel.And it is no wonder since ODBs have become the pivotal social component thatprovides numerous advantages.

    For starters, the discourse that takes place across an ODB is not performed in realtime, which offers students more opportunities to prepare, reflect, think, and search

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  • for additional information before contributing to a discussion (Chen and Chiu 2008;De Wever et al. 2006; Liaw and Huang 2000). Secondly, discussion content persistslong after a discussion concludes, which allows supports to analyze the contributionsof others while collaboratively expanding and deepening their understanding of aparticular subject matter (Hull and Saxon 2009; Solimeno et al. 2008). Lastly, inmany types of online forums, users are presented with certain levels of control, whichprovides users with a sense of empowerment and autonomy.

    In the light of these advantages, the success of an asynchronous ODB acrosseducational environments can be conceptualized as the ability of a system to facilitatecognitive, on-topic, on-task, and sustained discussion among a community oflearners. And these interactions has a reciprocal effect, as identified in Balaji andChakrabarti (2010), where a strong sense of course community among students canincrease interactions across the discussion board. And, as identified in La Pointe andGunawardena (2004), these interactions have a higher impact on students learningoutcomes, than merely studentinstructor interaction.

    3 Microblogging

    Microblogging sites such as Twitter, Tumblr and Jaiku are largely popular and provideindividuals with innovative ways to share information. Microblogs, by their definition,limit the amount of information that can be shared for any given post. This, in turn,requires that the content generator be more selective with what he or she shares.

    We chose Twitter as our microblogging engine for many reasons. A primary reasonwas because it is the most popular and popularity has its advantages, such as a greaterchance students would already have accounts or at least be familiar with the Twitterinterface. Additionally, Twitter has an advanced application developer interface (API),which allows third-party developers to easily integrate Twitter into their own applica-tions. Finally, Twitter still largely focuses on text based posts (140 characters or less),while other microblogs such as Jaiku and Tumblr focus more on media transmissions,including images or videos.

    3.1 Twitter

    The microblogging engine, Twitter, was founded on March 21, 2006 and allows anyuser with a valid email address to create an account for free (Official Twitter Blog2011). Once a user opens an account they are able to post content, view or subscribeto other Twitter feeds and can do so through mobile means as well. Detailed in Fig. 1,Twitter has a very user-friendly web interface.

    Currently, the average number of Twitter posts, or tweets, per day is in theneighborhood of 140 million and, roughly, 1 billion tweets made each week. Addi-tionally, the site averages over 175 million accounts. While it is easy to argue againstthe quality or content of these tweets, for good or bad, Twitter has been successfullyutilized across many industries. Some industries utilize the microblogging site as aprimary mechanism for marketing and to alert customers to upcoming events orpromotions. Another popular area for the microblogging site has been real-time newscoverage. Twitter, along with other social media outlets like Facebook and YouTube,

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  • was at the forefront of the Occupy Wall Street movement, or the series of movementsacross the U.S. aimed at protesting the economic inequality within the U.S. show-cases how effective Twitter was for communicating information in real-time and whothe dominate social media activists were and how they used it (Chen and Pirolli2012). Within more cooperative settings, such as the workplace, Twitter helps createvirtual water coolers and helps colleagues to get to know one another better (Zhaoand Rosson 2009).

    3.2 Twitter used in education

    With the widespread adoption of Twitter, it was only a matter of time before it wasintroduced into education. Recent research suggests that within an academic environmentmicroblogging adds to community building by offering individuals the ability to contin-ually inform others to what you are doing, discovering or experiencing (Betta 2007).

    This notion is supported empirically, and numerous studies have included Twitterin academic environments. Grosseck and Holotesco (2008) argue that the incorporationof a microblog models good pedagogy and can be responsive to a students learningneeds. Specifically, they argue that Twitter can change the classroom dynamic and offera useful tool to share information. Ebner et al. (2010) concluded that microblogging cansupport learning beyond the traditional classroom through a constant flow of informa-tion between students and between students and teachers. Dunlap and Lowenthal (2009)found microblogging to be a powerful tool for enhancing social presence in addition toestablishing informal, free-flowing, just-in-time communication between and among

    Fig. 1 Twitter system

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  • students and faculty. Furthermore, Wakefield et al. (2011) found that Twitter can helpincrease understanding of course materials as supported by the interactive environmentand affiliated rapid feedback.

    4 Theoretical model

    Theory plays an integral role in how we create and manipulate our OLC design andhelps guide how new sub-components can facilitate learning, social interaction andcourse community within an academic OLC. Illustrated in Fig. 2, this model iscomprised of three distinct but integrated constructs: individuals, activities andcommunity. Our model incorporates theories of individual learning and classroominteraction (constructivism), peer-to-peer interaction and community (social presence)and the various technology-based activities students perform to accomplish courseobjectives (activity theory). Together, they help guide the design of information systemsartifacts and identifies how individuals will utilize a wide range of technologies to shareideas and information with the larger community.

    Academic communities are a subset of what Lave and Wenger (1991) have coinedcommunities of practice (CoP). In such communities, individuals work togethertowards common goals, collaborating on common problems, sharing best practices,supporting one another and sharing a common identity. At the heart of an academiccommunity is the individual, which we represent in our model by constructivism.Prior research...


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