The Digital Bridge: How Interactions on Twitter Can Connect Students to the World Beyond Academia

by Benjamin Dally

Recent Trends in Twitter Study and Usage

Participatory Culture in Higher Education

A number of studies have defined and examined participatory culture and education. Participatory culture has been well defined by Jenkins et al. (2006). Jenkins’ most direct influence with regard to participatory culture and education has been on the field of literacy, especially digital literacy (Avila, 2013; Jacobs, 2012; McShane 2011; Rheingold, 2012) and civic engagement (Garcia-Galera et al., 2014; Raines-Golding & Walker, 2008; Rheingold, 2008). Much of Jenkins’ work focuses on the concepts of motivation, the influence of re-mixing and re-appropriation culture, and the challenges due to cultural/historical differences (Jenkins & Kelley, 2013, pp. v-vi; Reilly, Mehta, & Jenkins, 2013). The concept of motivation is examined by Garcia-Galera et al. (2014) who the connection between social media and civic participation. The authors find that young-people use social media to civically engage in meaningful ways and that social networks offer an effective way to enhance “active social participation” (p. 42) in Spanish youth. Other studies focus on participatory culture with specific attention paid to re-mixing and re-appropriation, also known as Re-mix Culture (link). Stedman (2012) studies Re-mix Culture and the compositional community that surrounds it along with the necessary rhetorical skills to effectively carry it out, especially with regard to fan fiction and video game music. The author notes the ways in which “Remix Literate Composers” are already employing a number of rhetorically complex devices to deliver their message, which could be harnessed by educational professionals (2012, p. 119). Dubisar and Palmeri (2010) explore case studies that brought political video remixes into the composition classroom and thereby gave students “an opportunity to apply traditional rhetorical concepts in new ways” (p. 89). Also using a case study format, Rosales (2013) situates the Echo Park Film Center (EPFC), a non-profit media education organization in Los Angeles, within participatory culture in order to allow students to challenge the surrounding culture. Rosales shows how members of EPFC were able to “think critically and make media that was both close to them and their community” (p. 355). According to Rosales, the introduction of participatory culture perspectives helped expose students to a multitude of viewpoints and allowed them interact with the communal space surrounding the EPFC (2013, p. 355). In a study of assessment practices within a participatory culture, Hickey, McWilliams, and Honeyford (2011) introduce intermediate, close, proximal, distal, and remote levels of “participatory assessment” strategies into the classroom to enhance and direct curricula; the introduction of the varying levels of “participatory assessment” effectively helped shape curriculum and resulted in more engaging and meaningful assessment of students operating in a participatory culture centered classroom (2011, p. 260). These studies highlight the interactive potential inherent in participatory culture and demonstrate the ways in which participatory culture has been successfully integrated into the classroom. Participatory culture provides a solid foundation to understand how and why students are already reaching out into the world without specific direction from teachers. In part, this webtext addresses a gap in the literature in order to confirm that similar kinds interactivity are occurring on Twitter and to what degree students already feel comfortable in practicing these skills. While study will also examine Twitter and participatory culture from the perspective of composition and writing, by including the perspective of Activity Theory, this study attempts to understand the relationship between the different groups (activity systems) participating in Twitter.

Web 2.0

Since the expansion in use of social media and Web 2.0, there have been a number of studies that have examined its structure and use. Web 2.0, the foundation for Twitter, has a well-documented history with the composition classroom. According to Wolff (2013), Web 2.0 is causing “active interaction” that has permeated much of the web, including more traditional information delivery website like the N.Y. Times (p. 220); this is creating an “ecosystem of dynamic, overlapping, and evolving interactivities” (p. 223). This new model of the web, coupled with participatory culture, is redefining the act—and students’ conception—of composition. Boyd (2007) highlights how the rich rhetorical landscape that students traverse in social networking outweighs the repercussions of misuse and overexposure to public life that are still being explored. The underlying structure of this social networking landscape, with an emphasis on the Web 2.0 technologies MySpace and Facebook, are explored by Maranto and Barton (2010). They discuss the potential of the sites to increase civic and social engagement and act as a place of identity formation for students in the writing classroom. Reid (2011) uses the closed-group feature of Facebook to read and write in coded language. Students are able to redefine reading, writing, identity formation, power relationships, and the diversity of language (2011, p. 78). Web 2.0 also allows educators to integrate writing and research; Purdy (2010) argues that the incorporation of Wikipedia, JSTOR, ARTstor, and into writing classrooms may help establish a link between online proficiencies and academic writing tasks. Each site, to varying degrees, allows students and educators to research and write in the same space, which address the complex relationship between the two (Purdy, 2010, p. 54). Braender, Kapp, and Years (2009) use a different Web 2.0 platform, Wordpress, a blogging service, as a basis for discussion of social issues in first-year Management Information Technology course. They found that the platform revealed important information about student “opinions, perspectives, and experiences” which correlates with other studies that describe participatory culture and Web 2.0’s functionality as developers of identity and agency. Clark (2010) expresses the necessity of incorporating technology into the writing classroom and examines a number of ways that Web 2.0 can be brought into the classroom. She successfully integrates ePortfoliosm blogs, digital stories, and Secondlife and notes that they “allow students to reach larger audiences with the important work they are doing in their first-year composition courses, and with students” (Clark, p. 32, 2010). Merchant (2009) considers the interaction of Web 2.0 and participatory culture in a case study of a primary school teacher who uses blogs to enhance learning and act as a “bridge between home, school and the wider community” (p. 111). While Web 2.0 is, of course, not without its challenges (Arola, 2010; Bennett, Bishop, Dalgarno, Waycott, & Kennedy, 2012; Maranto and Barton, 2010; Mueller, 2009; Schroder, Minocha, & Schneider, 2010), the seemingly myriad ways (Alexander, 2006; Atta & Mahmoud, 2012; Magnuson, 2013; Charlton, 2014; Purdy, 2009; Selfe, 2009) in which it can be incorporated into the classroom make it highly customizable for educators. This webtext offers another way to conceptualize Web 2.0 in the classroom and addresses a gap in the literature; the addition of Activity Theory allows for a more focused investigation of Web 2.0 as a link between academic and societal activity systems by examining student perception and use of Twitter.

Examining Twitter

In general, as Evans (2014) and Junco, Heibergert, and Loken (2010) make clear, there is still a lack of information regarding Twitter’s “impact on learning” (Evans, 2014, p. 903). In some studies, researchers stay within the boundaries of Twitter and examine Twitter decontextualized from classroom use. These studies focus on the activity system of Twitter autonomously. For example, Huberman, Romero, and Wu (2008) studied Twitter to determine the kinds of networks developed on the site and a quantifiable way to evaluate a user as active; they determined that active users are more easily identifiable by the number of users they follow, not the number of users who follow them. Additionally, Huberman et al. discovered that “25.4% of all posts are directed,” suggesting that a quarter of Twitter users are already reaching out into the Twitter community and that the “feature is widely used among Twitter users” (p. 3).

Gillen and Merchant (2013) also examine Twitter autonomously and note that Twitter is “a strong contemporary example of the dialogic” (p. 48). Gillen and Merchant explore the relationships that develop through communication on Twitter and argue that Twitter is “an unfixable constantly mutating act of partial intersubjectivity” that creates a “discursive relationship” in a Bakhtininan sense (Gillen and Merchant, 2013, p. 57). For Gillen and Merchant, Twitter is a place where intersubjectivity creates relationships built on communication. This communication thus exists in a Bakhtinian sense, where the very interaction between the subjects causes changes in them either toward or away from shared meanings. Gillen and Merchant feel that interactions do occur on Twitter and that users, through discussion, participate and influence one another.

These studies contrast with a number of other studies that instead bring Twitter into the activity system of the classroom in an attempt to enhance the classroom’s object/motive. Junco et al. (2010) conducted an experimental study in college classrooms in order to determine whether or not there is a correlation between “engagement,” GPA, and Twitter usage. To do this, they established two classrooms, one that voluntarily engaged in Twitter to extend classroom discussions and a control group where Twitter was not used (p. 121). The authors noted that the “Twitter assignments promoted active learning… by helping students relate course material to their own experiences both inside and outside of the classroom” (p. 128). In this sense, Twitter is a tool that is used to accomplish the object (student engagement and achievement) of the classroom. Evans (2014) also introduced Twitter into the classroom to assess student engagement. Similarly to Junco et al., Evans found a “strong relationship between Twitter usage and student engagement” (p. 913, 2014). Additionally, Evans noted that while interpersonal relationships between tutors and learners were not positively correlated, there was no negative correlation between Twitter in the classroom and attendance.

Twitter has also been used to increase active learning. Using Twitter as a pedagogical tool, Prestridge (2014) found that Twitter, despite some limitations, provided a way for students to continue academic discourse outside of the classroom. The findings suggested that student-instructor interaction was the most productive and that little student-student interaction occurred. However, towards the end of the course in which Twitter was introduced, students were “tweeting images, links, retweeting and eventually applying knowledge to their own contexts” (2014, p. 112). While Prestridge’s study focused on active learning, it also lends support to the concept of both a participatory culture and boundary interactions between activity systems. The study does not, however, highlight which activity systems students linked when they tweeted images, tweeted links, and retweeted.

It is important to note that not all studies have found Twitter advantageous to the classroom. In an oppositional study, Lin, Hoffman, and Borengassar (2013) concluded that Twitter is too social for class. The authors offer four recommendations for an instructor who wants to use Twitter in the classroom: provide scaffolding, address privacy, establish purpose, and model use within structure (p.p. 43-44). If the only goal of using Twitter in the classroom is to extend classroom discussions into an online forum, then Lin et al. may have sufficient ground to stand on. Lin et al.’s conclusion, in Activity Theory terms, is that Twitter is an ineffective tool that doesn’t efficiently help accomplish the object/motive of the classroom. However, disregarding Twitter because there is increased information sharing and limited collaboration between students seems shortsighted. Increased social interaction lends support to the idea that Twitter has the potential to facilitate boundary interactions between activity systems.

Unlike Lin et al., Jacquemin, Smelser, and Bernot (2014) focus on the potential for Twitter to mediate academia and society. Their study quantitatively assessed perception of Twitter among undergraduates, graduates, and faculty before the inclusion of Twitter into a classroom and after the inclusion of Twitter. They concluded that “while Twitter can provide a useful hub for linking course topics with current news, its use for active discussions and feedback should be tempered” (Jacquemin et al., 2014). Though some studies have shown contrasting results with regard to using Twitter for discussions, Jacquemin et al. provide support for the link between the university and the professional activity systems. The study presented here offers a focused examination of the relationship between the activity systems of school and society.