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Twitter Chats

Many educators have taken to using Twitter as a tool for "discussions". Among participants these discussions are more commonly described as chats and may be used as a way for students to communicate, but more commonly seem a way for educators and their colleagues to interact.

Twitter chats, often called edchats when used in education, tend to follow a particular format partly to take advantage of characteristics of Twitter and partly because the approach is an efficient way to impose a synchronous approach on a tool not necessarily designed to be used in the way it has come to be used. Twitter was developed to share comments with followers. An edchat does not require that participants follow each other.

The essential feature of a Twitter chat is a common hashtag. All comments during a chat must contain the same hashtag. A Twitter hashtag is the symbol # followed by some series of letters or numbers; e.g., #grabechat. Participants in a chat actually search for the designated hashtag rather than watch their Twitter feed.

Following a series of tweets containing a common hashtag during a chat works best with a tool that automatically updates itself so the user does not have to repeat the search over and over again. My tool of choice is Tweetdeck (see image that follows). This tool allows an on-going search to be established based on a designated phrase (e.g., #ndedchat) and will keep this search current.

The other "rules" for a Twitter chat are conventions, i.e., made up rules. To have a synchronous chat, participants need to be online at the same time – e.g., Wednesday at 9 P.M.. A variant, called a slow chat, uses many of the same techniques but relies on an asynchronous approach – participants connect when they can over a greater amount of time.

The most common approach for a Twitter chat is a question and answer format based on a theme. A "moderator" may generate the questions for the week or participants may share responsibility for this task. Posting the questions before the chat allows participants to prepare. Some participants may even generate answers and then paste them into the chat tool when the questions are presented. This slows the discussion process down for these participants and allows them to spend the time thinking about what others have to say. This approach is uncommon, but would seem to lead to greater reflection (see my criticism of the typical chat that follows this description).

Another convention is used to deal with other typical challenges of an online discussion. Because real-time chats involving many participants have the potential to become disjointed, questions and answers are often numbered; e.g., Q1, Q2, … and A1, A2, … . The appropriate label is added to each question or answer. This approach allows individuals to make clear how their responses match with a specific question or earlier replies from other individuals. A typical hour-long chat seems to be based on 8-10 questions. Note that the inclusion of a hashtag and the indicator for a given question reduces the length of any given tweet so the "content" of a comment will be less than 140 characters in length.

Critical analysis and suggestions

I have participated in and viewed many edchats. These experiences have resulted in criticisms both of the technical tool and the way chats tend to unfold (the tactics).

I have fallen into analyzing educational technology experiences in terms of tools and tactics and this approach may be useful here. The idea is to consider the potential and actual perceived value of the tool (the specific service or application) and tactics (the strategies of use). My assumption in the comments that follow is that the general goal for an edchat is professional development – the acquisition by professionals of new knowledge and skills. The existing tool is Twitter and the tactic is participant responses to a series of approximately 10 questions within an hour long block of time.

Assumed advantages of tool (twitter) – free, easy to learn, large installed base of users

Assumed advantages of tactic – educators are familiar with a question and answer format and can participate with little preparation


A general issue with social media is that once a platform (tool) has attracted a user base, new and better tools fail to gain participants because individuals are reluctant to migrate for fear their social connections will be lost. I think this is the case with Twitter in the education community. I think Twitter has inherent issues because of the brief comments it allows. This limitation, in my opinion, leads to rather shallow interactions. It may be a great way to learn about new things via links, but it is not a tool suited to meaningful, synchronous discussion.

The edchat format (the tactic) has taken hold and it seems popular to have such chats. There is a certain momentum here. There is also the issue of doing it like everyone else does. Conformity seems to limit a consideration of both tool and tactic.

I tend to look at this setting as if it were a class I was facilitating. As educators, does the typical edchat generate the type of interaction you would want to see in your class. What would you change?

How to improve edchats – some ideas:

Prepare beyond the generation of a lengthy series of questions. Either come up with 2-3 questions of greater depth or offer a common preparation task (read this post, read this book, etc.). Perhaps the moderator for the week should either find a resource or write a position statement.

I find the questions and topics to be too general. As an academic I understand that since we are frequently described as being abstract and not getting the level of actual application this would seem a strange concern, but review chats and see what you think. I try to recognize by own possible biases here by looking at the responses the questions generate. The questions seem to generate few specific suggestions or examples.

I see very little interaction. Put more bluntly – the discussions are seldom discussions. Sometimes a response from another participant is praised, but there are few reactions, counter examples, requests for clarification, etc. If this was a FTF classroom, the typical edchat would be similar to choral responding rather than a discussion. I would propose these limitations are the result of both the tool (lack of room for depth) and the tactic (tool many questions and responding without preparation).

Blogging before discussing might be helpful. Taking a position on an issue before interacting can be productive. Give some thought to your position before you are tainted by what others have to say. Offer an example. Process your own experiences and externalize a position for others to consider. Post before you participate. A moderator and other participants might then use these comments to request clarification or note differences of opinion.

Some comments on tools.

I admit at this point that it is difficult to isolate tool and tactics. I think moving beyond Twitter would be helpful.

I think it is time to consider other tools. I have always had access to discussion tools and I see greater opportunity for depth in synchronous commenting and responding in using these tools.

I understand that folks enjoy the social experience of Twitter chats, but I think it important to consider whether group socializing is the primary goal.

I am not familiar with all of the tools available to educators. Does the state or school offer a general set of tools (a discussion option, a blogging option)? I think groups should more actively consider other tools. For example, Slack offers some interesting opportunities. Mastodon is a microblog similar to Twitter with a much larger message capacity (500 characters). Mastodon is an open source project and it will be interesting to see if the service attracts a critical mass of users.

Twitter chats may be the "in thing" but it may be time to think through the tool and the tactics and either make adjustments or move on to a better tool and improved tactics.


1) Reduce the number of questions and give more thought to the type of questions used

2) Have a pre-session expectation for preparation of some type. I think expecting a product is always helpful related to this preparation is always helpful. Somehow, the popularization of "flipping" various education experiences should apply here. Prepare before you participate should be the expectation.

3) The moderator needs to encourage more give and take rather than limiting "discussion" to call and response. As I have already suggested, existing positions statements that can be contrasted would be a great place to start. I understand the concern with how stating a different position will be received, but the generic positive reactions add little.

4) Consider other technology tools.

5) Generate a discussion summary (perhaps the moderator or a designated discussant). Did the summarizer learn anything?

Given these observations, I encourage you to form your own opinions. I wish Twitter chats had been analyzed more empirically, but to my knowledge this has not been the case at the time this content was generated. It is easy enough to explore on your own.

The following video summarizes some of these ideas.

One source of links to edchats


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