Microblogs as Educational Tools

by Adam K. Saperstein

One of the challenges in the large classroom environment is helping students overcome the intimidation that inhibits question-asking behaviors. This is particularly important when the dialogue is focused on topics that can be uncomfortable and which students may feel are taboo to discuss. One solution to this is the use of the small group environment, something used by many Reflective Practice curricula. That said, what to do in the large classroom environment?

One solution is the use of an electronic medium through which students can ask questions and engage in dialogue with their peers during the large classroom session. Microblogs offer such a solution. The best known microblog is Twitter, but there are many, many more. Using Twitter poses two main challenges:

  1. Only a minority of medical students have Twitter accounts. The Pugh institute publishes an annual report of social media use (pewinternet.org/2015/01/09/social-media-update-2014/) which includes Twitter users by demographic (see image below). Certainly, it should be noted that this number is on the rise, and there may be a point in the future where more students have accounts, but in the interim, the need to create an account and then learn its use is an impediment.
  1. User accounts are not anonymous. When trying to overcome barriers to question-asking and dialogue behaviors in a large classroom environment, one of the most important to overcome is fear of negative reactions from peers. Offering the ability to post messages anonymously or semi-anonymously is one way to overcome this barrier.

Our current platform

With this in mind, we sought other options and currently use TodaysMeet® (www.todaysmeet.com). The site offers a number of advantages including:

  1. It is free.
  2. The ability to create a discussion/question room at a moment’ notice.
  3. The fact that the discussion/question room are not discoverable to anyone who is not explicitly given the unique URL (web address) of the site.
  4. The ease with which students can enter their semi-anonymous usernames and post questions and/or comments
  5. The ability to download the transcript of the session – both to send questions to panelists after the session and to inform future sessions.
  6. The ability to select the length of time that you want the discussion to be open.
  7. A robust teacher tools section[1] (https://todaysmeet.com/about/teachertools )

Other microblog sites that may better meet your needs include: the discussion feature of Poll Everywhere and Google chat, among others. We encourage you to search for one that meets your particular needs and to periodically investigate new microblog sites.

Increased Question-asking

In our classroom, use of the microblog resulted in a significant increase in number of questions, number of questioners, and question diversity as can be seen in our study. In fact, the average number of questions per session went from 4 to 32, far more than could be answered in the time allotted during the classroom time. Consequently, having a deliberate plan to respond to this increase in question-asking is important.

Our solution is to take those questions not answered during class and send them to the appropriate panelist or panelists, as warranted. Replies to these questions are sent to the students by the end of the working day and to facilitators for our small group sessions (which are typically one week after the large classroom panel ) as possible discussion starters.

Monitoring in Real Time?

In our environment, three panelists discuss common and challenging topics through the medium of their first-person narratives at the front of the large classroom, joined by a session moderator. We have elected not to have anyone at the front of the room monitor the microblog forum during the session. That said, we feel it is imperative to ensure that all panelists understand that we are using the medium, and are comfortable with its use before they participate in a session.

Initially, we used a second faculty member to monitor the session and to ask questions of the panelists from the back of the room, but we found that this resulted in students deferring to the faculty to ask questions. Ultimately, we found the best solution was giving students the opportunity to ask questions they see on the microblog or other questions verbally during the Q&A session. That said, your environment may be different, and we encourage you to explore what works best for you.

Voluntary Use

We feel it is critical that use of the microblog be voluntary and have no bearing on the grade of a student. This is a tool that will help some, but not all students. In addition, while our data demonstrates that over 73% of students felt that the use of a microblog would enhance their engagement, this is not universally true and the use may distract others.

A note about anonymity and professionalism:

We have used both anonymous and semi-anonymous usernames in the past. Our experience with completely anonymous usernames showed us that a small minority of students posted unprofessional posts. While these posts were very rare, their posting could impede others from feeling comfortable engaging in the dialogue thus impeding the reflective environment we hoped to create.

In response, we:

  1. Taught a 30 minute session at the beginning of the course, using the unprofessional posts as a teaching tool to demonstrate unprofessional use of social media
  2. Developed a professionalism contract that all students must sign prior to using the platform
  3. Changed to the use of semi-anonymous usernames, in which students are given 4 digit, randomly generated numbers that are known only to the student and the instructor and referenced only if/when posts are unprofessional.

These interventions have been quite effective. In the 7 large classroom sessions since, we have seen 0 inappropriate posts without a decline in the use of the medium.

In addition, we contacted the founder of TodaysMeet®, and offered recommendations for improvement to the site to include the ability to “mute” students who post an unprofessional post for the remainder of the session. When muted, the student in question is still able to type a post and will think their post is being sent, but their posts are not visible to anyone else. It is hoped that the lack of response from others will discourage students from posting inappropriate posts in subsequent sessions.


[1] It should be noted that we have no financial relationship with TodaysMeet®, but have offered our feedback to improve the site and have been impressed by the inclusion of many education-centric additions.

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