Pop quiz: What’s the capital of Texas? It used to be that if you heard this question in your history class at school, you’d raise your hand to get the teacher’s attention and then answer the question (assuming you knew the answer).

These days, however, it’s becoming increasingly common for students to use social media tools like Twitter to chat with their teachers, each other, and even the rest of the world as part of their instruction.

Every era has had its technical advances in the field of education. Chalk slates gave way to exercise books, exercise books are giving way to iPads, so it’s only natural to see the methods of communication in the classroom evolving with the times as well. Here are 3 creative ways that educators are using Twitter. If you’re an educator, a student, or a parent of a student, use these ideas for inspiration in your own respective educational environment.

1. Increasing Student Engagement

Increase Student Engagement

Like many educators, University of Texas (Dallas) history professor Dr. Monika Rankin was finding it difficult to engage her large classes in group discussions. She found that because she didn’t have time to solicit participation from every one her 90 students, discussions typically involved only a handful of her particularly vocal students.

She looked for ways to bring more people into the class discussions and thought that Twitter might be an effective tool to achieve just that. “To have 30 or 40 people at a time talking about the discussion material is really interesting,” says Megan Malone, one the grad students who assisted professor Rankin in implementing Twitter within the class. Sending her students direct messages on Twitter and engaging in discussions on Twitter during the weekends really gives the students a chance to “think about what they’ve been reading,” added Malone.

The students in Dr. Rankin’s class seem to concur. “It actually gets the students incorporated into the class” says Alex Teagle, a sophomore at the University of Texas and one of the students participating in the Twitter-enabled history class. Fellow classmate Dave Shallert says that in a class of 90 students, “trying to pipe up and be heard can be a little intimidating,” but in Dr. Rankin’s class “all you have to do is send a tweet from your phone and your opinion is up there for everyone to read,” he added.

Rankin says that “almost everyone participates in class” and says that students are posting tweets from their phones, laptops and dorm room computers. Those that don’t have any means of posting tweets can write their comments on a piece of paper and have one of the teaching assistants post their comments on their behalf.

If you’re interested to know what Dr. Rankin’s class talks about on Twitter, you can see for yourself by following @utdlas on Twitter or search the hashtag #utdlas.

2. Increasing Civic Awareness and Participation

Civic Awareness and Participation

Students in Jeremy Reid’s 11th grade social studies class might not be old enough to vote but that doesn’t mean they’re not interested in politics. In an attempt to get them more involved in the political process, Reid created a Twitter account with the goal of using it to pose questions to local and federal politicians.

Some of the first tweets that his students posed were questions to political party leaders about their positions on the legalization of marijuana. Perhaps not surprisingly, the students received no replies. Mr. Reid used this as a teaching opportunity, reiterating to his students that the concept of 24×7 connectivity is still relatively new, and that politicians are grappling with the best way to handle this level of transparency with their constituents.

Undeterred by the lack of responses at the federal level, Reid instructed his students to focus their questions and conversations on local politicians instead. The results were far better for this group. Questions regarding educational funding and environmental sustainability received direct responses from local politicians who also commended the students’ initiative on embracing new tools like Twitter to get more involved with the political process. Conservative MP Cathy McLeod, even went on record with the local newspaper with a public endorsement for the kids. “I think that’s one of the purposes of…Twitter — getting people involved,” she said.

3. Teaching English as a Second Language

Learning English as a Second Language

One of the features that makes Twitter unique — the 140 character limit for status updates — also makes it a very effective tool for teaching English as a second language (ESL), according to a study conducted by the Distance Education College of Shanghai Jiao Tong University, in Shanghai, China.

Educators at the College believe that students learn English much more effectively through “active learning” and “cultural competence” than through traditional “passive” learning aids like books, lectures and so on. Language students benefit greatly from participating in conversations, as opposed to simply reading about them. With its strict character limit, slang, shortcuts and abbreviations, cultural nuances form a large part of the conversations that take place on Twitter, and learning the nuances of a language is one of the best ways to become fluent.

Furthermore, because conversations are necessarily limited to a just a couple of sentences at a time, ESL students don’t need to worry about composing long, more complex conversations. This tends to accelerate their comfort level in trying to communicate in a foreign language and rapidly increases their comprehension of the new language.

And the results? Approximately 70 percent of the students in the program said that they found it easier to communicate in English after using Twitter. When asked if they were less self-conscious about communicating in English after using Twitter, approximately 62 percent of the students agreed that Twitter helped them to get over their fear of speaking English. These numbers really show how powerful Twitter can be in a learning environment, even for non-English speaking students.

Because social media is becoming such an integral part of our modern society, it’s not surprising that these tools are being incorporated into the educational environment. The examples above represent the tip of the iceberg in terms of the potential Twitter has to positively affect the learning process.

By the way, the capital of Texas? It’s Austin.

Do you use Twitter in the classroom? Have you used Twitter to learn a new language, connect with a politician or to rekindle your interest in history? Share your experiences in the comments below.

[Sources: kesmit, Kamloops This Week, Carsten Ulrich; Image Credits: Lucy Gray, mrsdkrebs, David Woo]