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January 28, 2008, 02:39 PM ET

A Professor's Tips for Using Twitter in the Classroom

Twitter at first seemed like a bad idea to David Parry, an assistant professor of Emerging Media and Communications at the University of Texas at Dallas. For those not in the know, Twitter is a service that lets you micro-blog your life by dashing out very short notes (140 characters max) to a select group of friends or other subscribers, who can receive them as text messages on their cell phones. Mr. Parry’s first instinct was that Twittering would just encourage students to speak in sound bites and self-obsess.

But then he gave it a try, and he now sees Twitter as a useful classroom-communication tool.

How is that? He outlines several “Ways to use Twitter in Academia” on a post on the blog AcademHack.

Last semester he required the 20 students in his “Introduction to Computer-Mediated Communication” course to sign up for Twitter and to send a few messages with the service each week as part of a writing assignment. He also invited his students to follow his own Twitter feed, in which he sometimes writes several short thoughts each day. Yesterday morning, for instance, he sent out a message that read: “Reading, prepping for grad class, putting off running until it warms up a bit.” Last week, one of his messages included a link to a Web site he wanted his students to check out.

The posts from students also mixed the mundane with the useful. One student twittered that she just bought a pet rabbit. Another noted that a topic from the class was being discussed on a TV-news report.

The immediacy of the messages helped the students feel like more of a community, Mr. Parry said in an interview Monday. “It was the single thing that changed the classroom dynamics more than anything I’ve ever done teaching,” he said.

One downside: Some students have to pay a small fee for each text message they receive, and that means all this Twittering can add up to real money. Students can avoid such charges by setting their Twitter account so that they receive e-mail messages instead of text messages, but that eliminates much of the point of the service.

Should more professors use Twitter? Have you tried it in your classroom? —Jeffrey R. Young

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