Twitter chats – why are they useful and how do they benefit academic staff?

This is a guest post by Dr Christopher Wiley, Senior Lecturer and Director of Learning & Teaching in the School of Arts. Chris is also a National Teaching Fellow, and tweets at @Chris_Wiley.

At the start of the academic year, a colleague drew my attention to the weekly Learning & Teaching in HE Twitter chat (#LTHEchat) and suggested that I might like to give it a go some time. I’ve been taking part ever since, and earlier this week, I also had my first experience of hosting a chat.

What exactly is a Twitter chat?

Participants set aside an hour to ‘meet’ online and respond to a series of questions broadcast at regular intervals by the host. The questions are numbered using Q1, Q2, Q3, etc. and respondents correspondingly precede their answers with A1, A2, A3, etc., to make it easy to follow the various threads of conversation. Everybody uses a hashtag common to the chat.

Engaging concisely with complex academic issues, while trying not to cause offence when disagreeing with experts whom you don’t know personally, is challenging at the best of times. To do it using discussion contributions of just 140 characters in length (including the chat hashtag) can feel like an impossible task! But that’s all part of the fun.

In the digital era, not all networking is face to face

Twitter might not seem the obvious platform with which to generate extensive academic discourse. But as an article in the Times Higher Education put it three months ago, ‘Scholars failing to engage with Twitter and other platforms are missing out on crucial resources’.

I’m finding participation in Twitter chats to be invaluable for a combination of reasons: networking, continual professional development, and the cultivation of ideas. It’s brought me into contact with whole a new community, diversifying my network of contacts. And, just as I learn more about the interests of like-minded individuals elsewhere in the UK and abroad, my own work is reciprocally brought to the attention of others.

The exchange of knowledge that typically takes place in a Twitter chat can be really enlightening, and helps me to develop aspects of my teaching, pedagogic research, and academic management. And that’s quite aside from the immediate buzz you get when your contributions to the chat are retweeted, quoted, or ‘like’d, or when a fellow participant expresses hearty agreement with a point you have just made!

Image: A SocioViz visualisation of the network of participants during Wednesday’s #LTHEchat.

Playing host

Having been an enthusiastic participant in previous #LTHEchats, I was somewhat nervous about being invited to guest-host a session myself, on the subject of ‘Using music creatively to enhance non-music teaching’. Would anybody show up for ‘my’ chat – and, if they did, what would they make of the questions I had spent all week deliberating over?

As it turned out, I needn’t have worried. Participants join Twitter chats to read one another’s posts, contribute their own thoughts, and engage in dialogue. And that’s exactly what happened! 60 minutes just flew by, and in that time a vast amount of valuable conversation was generated on a wide array of music-related topics.

It can be daunting at times to be involved in a Twitter chat – the larger ones, such as #LTHEchat, can produce hundreds of tweets. I read quickly, I’m a touch-typist, I have a two-monitor setup, and I use TweetDeck to monitor multiple feeds simultaneously. Nonetheless, there were moments last Wednesday evening at which the volume of conversation felt a little overwhelming to me.

The trick is to try and keep up with the reading as best you can, even if (with apologies to the contributors) that means skimming a few tweets every now and then.

Sounds interesting… how do I get involved?

Here’s a helpful slideshow explaining how a Twitter chat (or ‘Tweetchat’) works in practice, with specific reference to #LTHEchat:

Why not join #LTHEchat on Wednesdays from 8-9pm GMT? Note that on the last Wednesday of each month, #LTHEchat joins forces with the Higher Education Academy’s #HEAchat.

Or, if you miss an interesting chat session, you may be able to catch up via Storify, which gathers social media postings together into one holistic ‘story’.