Using twitter in lectures

Tips for using Twitter as a backchannel in a unit of study

Michele Zappavigna
School of Arts and Media
University of New South Wales

The following are some tips for incorporating Twitter as a backchannel (in parallel with lectures and tutorials) into a unit of study based on my experiences at UNSW. NB, the following assumes that you understand the basics of creating a Twitter account and using this communicative channel. The course Mobile Cultures (ARTS2091) is used as an example throughout. This document will expand (or contract!) as I learn more over future semesters.

Create an official course account

Your course will need a single place that students can go to engage with the backchannel. This should be a different account to your professional or personal Twitter account. 

Mobile Cultures uses the following account @ARTS2091 (which can be reused each year) as a backchannel for:
  • Real-time updates  - e.g. notices about administrative/procedural issues such as lecture cancellations, corrections to material, changes of venue etc.
  • Sharing resources – by ‘following’ key researchers and institutions in the area of mobile media relevant resources accumulate in the course feed alongside links posted by the lecturer and students.
  • Encouraging student engagement - students are asked to answer questions or respond to a resource presented in the lecture. They have reported that this made lectures feel more interactive and kept them more engaged. 
  • Encouraging student bonding ­-  students use Twitter to organize meet-ups to work on group tasks and presentations and to socialise. Large courses can be very lonely spaces and students found it helpful to have a channel for staying in touch with each other (particularly people who were not in their immediate tutorial group).
  • Encouraging real-time focus – students are asked answer questions via Twitter at points in the lecture or tutorial that make sense in terms of the particular learning goal. They are also invited to live-tweet video presentations embedded in the lecture as a way of focusing their attention on particular material.

    Teach students how to tweet

    This may be the most important point on this page...and I don't mean teaching students the technical details of how to post a tweet! Show the students what an effective tweet looks like in your particular disciplinary context. They wont necessarily understand what the different communicative goals are that you would like them to achieve in 140 characters. Explicitly indicate the kind of tweets you hope they will produce and the kinds of material that they might share via the backchannel. Indicate what kind of material is inappropriate and brief them on ethical behaviour.

      Ask students to use disposable accounts

      While students will likely have existing personal Twitter accounts there are a number of problems that might arise from using these within a pedagogic context. Students in ARTS2091 are required to create ‘disposable’ accounts with the username format @initials+tutorialtime e.g. @MZH13A. These semi-anonymous accounts are important for two reasons:
      • Avoiding inappropriately personal sharing via students’ existing personal accounts.
      • Giving students control over their digital footprint by ensuring that the material they post as part of the course isn’t linked to their main account/online identity.
      The main course account needs to ‘follow’ these accounts if you want posts by each student to appear in your course feed  and be publicly viewable (alongside the posts of other accounts that you are following).

      Use a warm-up activity

      It is helpful to run an activity aimed at getting students familiar with using Twitter in a university context and to create a sense of shared experience within the course. A warm-up activity that was effective in ARTS2091 was to ask the students to post a photo of their morning coffee/beverage. I later linked this activity conceptually with some of my own research on ‘coffeetweets’ and ambient affiliation in social media. Be careful that the activity does not involve sharing material that is too personal.

      Use hashtags

      In order to meaningfully aggregate and delineate conversations that occur, for example, in a particular tutorial, or during a particular live-tweeting session, the students should use a predefined hashtag. More general posts should be directed at the main account via an @mention e.g. @ARTS2091. NB, using a hashtag outside a set period of time without @mentioning the main account will make a student’s post hard to find.

      Link the backchannel to assessment

      Part of the assessment for ARTS2091 involves tweeting resources relevant to the students’ tutorial presentations. Creating this link between the backchannel and formal assessment helps to encourage those students who may otherwise not have bothered to get involved in the backchannel.

      Encourage students to live-tweet at specific moments in the lecture

      After you have taught students how to effectively live-tweet, encourage them to live-tweet while you are presenting particular material. For example in Mobile Cultures we live-tweeted video presentations shown in the lecture and asked students to imagine that they were media commentators live-tweeting from a professional event.

      Display some tweets in your lectures

      Students in Mobile Cultures appeared excited if their tweets were ‘featured’ in a lecture (and would often tweet about this). There are many ways to display tweets within a presentation or on a screen parallel to the main lecture slides. Unfortunately many of the tools useful for achieving this have been broken by the new version of the Twitter API but are sure to be fixed soon. When they are I will link them here.

      Have a plan for students who don’t own mobile devices

      There may be some students who do not own a laptop or a smart phone. Consider how these students will be able to use the backchannel and investigate options for borrowing devices.


      Below are some examples of posts from ARTS2091. NB, students were instructed to use anonymous disposable accounts and informed that the material they posted would be publicly viewable.

      A live-tweet by a student:

      Student's asking each other questions about tutorial tasks:

      Student discussion:

      Inviting students to participate in a warm-up task:

      Bonding with students around quotidian but not-too-personal material:

      If you have opinions on the above based on your teaching experiences I encourage you to voice them below!


      1. Awesome, Michele, thanks for sharing this. Can you give some examples of what were effective tweets in your course? Louise

      2. Thanks Louise I have added some to the above.


      3. Most people think that the use of social media sites is just for personal means or a sort of an emotional outlet. It’s good to hear that there is someone like you who take its good advantage to share knowledge and lectures towards their students. That’s awesome of you!

        Clwyd Probert

      4. I came across this post when I was trying to look for ideas for using social media in lectures. I was specifically thinking of it being used as it is in conferences to ask questions/share resources and so on. I am going to have to try to work out how to do it through something other than Twitter because I am going to be lecturing in China, but I love the ideas. Thanks for sharing.

      5. I came across this post when I was trying to look for ideas for using social media in lectures. I was specifically thinking of it being used as it is in conferences to ask questions/share resources and so on. I am going to have to try to work out how to do it through something other than Twitter because I am going to be lecturing in China, but I love the ideas. Thanks for sharing.

      6. Thanks for sharing your insight about social media.