Natascha Chtena is a PhD student in Education and Information Studies at the University of California, Los Angeles. You can follow her on Twitter @nataschachtena 
Social media is like teen sex. Everyone wants to do it. No one actually knows how. When finally done, there is surprise its not better. - Avinash Kaushik
Add “integration in the classroom” after social media in the above quote, and you get an observation that’s at least as biting, funny, and accurate as the original. Don’t get me wrong--I do believe there’s something unique and perhaps even remarkable to be leveraged from tools like Twitter when used in conjunction with traditional courses. But after spending a quarter experimenting with Twitter in the German language course I teach at UCLA, I feel we’re still a long way from a definite “cookbook” or a set of ultimate best practices that make sense in different classrooms around the world. The past three months have been challenging, but they have also been eye-opening. They taught me many things I intend to apply to the course I’m going be teaching next quarter.
1. “How to use Twitter in the Classroom” guides are largely missing the point. Every class has different needs, and thus Twitter integration cannot be theorized in a one-size-fits-all kind of way. It cannot be generic but has to correspond to specific needs. I didn’t foresee how much tailoring successful integration needed, and almost all sources I consulted obscured the amount of planning and expertise it would take.
2. Not everyone’s a “digital native.” It’s a myth that all students arrive on campus, fluent in Web and social networking technologies. Only 30% of my students had used Twitter before and only about 14% of them were active users. Many of them thought that Twitter was “for old people.” Others were frustrated that they had to break their vow to “never ever open a Twitter account.” Looking back, I should have taken more time to explain to them why we were using the tool and what I expected them to gain out of it. It was also a mistake to make assumptions about their expertise in social media. Thus, next quarter I will be integrating an in-class tutorial to the curriculum to go over the basics of Twitter use but also to discuss educational benefits and issues of privacy.
3. Sometimes you just have to use incentives. Introducing Twitter to some students can be more challenging than expected. Most students warmed up to Twitter eventually, yet a couple of them opted to ignore this requirement completely. Others gave up after a couple of days of tweeting. I thus quickly found out that it is difficult to get social media right when not all people in the audience have the same interest in this form of participation. Incentives like extra credit and verbal rewards generally worked well this quarter, although I really like and will most likely be implementing this author’s idea about Twitter Awards  (Most Thoughtful Tweet and Most Humorous Tweet could work well in the context of my class).
4. Participation is one thing, engagement is another. Participation goes beyond tweeting regularly, and similarly engagement goes beyond participation. While “engagement” may be a notoriously fuzzy concept, it’s not enough to look at the amount of student tweets to evaluate the quality of Twitter integration in the classroom. However you understand engagement, you have to think carefully about what you’re hoping your students will gain through Twitter and develop some kind of rubric for measuring the quality of interactions taking place on the platform.
5. Consistency will influence student output. It’s essential to commit to posting at regular intervals. On the occasions that I started being inconsistent, it was immediately reflected in the amount and quality of students tweets. If I was posting six times a day one day and then waited a week before posting again, students lost interest. For maximum value, I think it’s important to post a reasonable number of times each week, while avoiding to bombard students with several tweets at once. Apps for managing social profiles, like Hootsuite  or Buffer , can be really helpful for this, as they let you schedule posts to go out at regular intervals. It saves a lot of sanity when you know that you'll need to post a consistent number of times at consistent times but aren't always glued to Twitter!
6. If you’re aiming at student interaction, offering concrete tasks is key. Before I started using Twitter, I talked to different faculty in my department who have been using Twitter in their own classes. None of them had a concrete teaching strategy or Twitter-specific tasks that they implemented in their courses. They saw Twitter predominantly as a discussion board for students to freely reflect on course material and interact with each other. But interaction doesn’t just happen, as I discovered. It has to be woven into concrete tasks and it has to feel organic.
7. Think about what Twitter really brings to the table. It’s important to think about what Twitter--or any social medium for that matter--can make possible that a class couldn't do face-to-face or even in a forum. For me, one of the greatest rewards from using Twitter was the one-on-one interaction with my students outside class and the immediacy of the medium. The 140-word limit was also great for providing to the point feedback and corrections that often get lost in larger essays. Another thing I loved was how Twitter allowed us to quickly access original news stories from Germany and connect to stakeholders overseas. It was also great for sharing media and resources without flooding my students’ inbox. I do however have to think more closely about what sets Twitter apart from a standard class forum and other university-provided resources.
Those are all things that will influence how I plan my next quarter of Twitter-infused teaching. Among my priorities is finding ways to increase interaction between students, better integrating Twitter into classroom activities and practices, and developing Twitter activities that will use individual tweets as building blocks for bigger stories.
Are you using Twitter in your classroom? What advice would you give to teachers starting out with the tool?
[Image by Flickr user Pete Simon  used under creative commons licensing.]