Cross-University Collaboration through Micro-blogging: Introducing Students to Twitter for Promoting Collaborations, Communication and Relationships

By Tricia M. Farwell, Middle Tennessee State University and Richard D. Waters, North Carolina State University

University collaboration with schools, communities and industry has been around for some time. While recently some universities are feeling increased pressure to focus on community partnerships through service learning due to President Obama’s pointing towards service as part of the higher-education agenda (Ashburn, 2010), partnering across universities is still slowly growing in some fields (Fisher, Phelps, & Ellis, 2000).

With the exponential growth and organizational usage of social media, our students need to think more in a collaborative vein to be more effective and efficient future communicators. This collaboration should not be confined within one organization similar to structured classroom learning, but it should reach across organizations into the global community. Students, therefore, should not only be expected to be aware of new technologies but also be aware of the theories and strategies behind their effective usages (Solis & Breakenridge, 2009). The job market for majors in schools and colleges of journalism and mass communication increasingly wants and expects those graduating in these areas to know how to create strategic plans for using social media in both one-way and two-way communication environments along with knowing how to maintain proper social media etiquette and virtual culture norms for their clients.

Yet student attitudes, at least anecdotally, are mixed regarding some social media venues. While students are known to be tech savvy when it comes to social media (Li & Bernoff, 2008), many may dismiss vehicles such as Twitter if they do not see the immediate benefit to its use. Research has shown that blogging, social networking, vlogging and photo-sharing hold the most interest for students (Pew Research Center, 2010). Industry analysts, however, indicate that the micro-blogging service, Twitter, is the application of choice for their social media campaigns (Stelzner, 2009). Twitter demographics point to the fact that the Millennial generation, which includes the majority of today’s college students, has not found Twitter to be their outlet of choice, despite its adoption by organizations (Nielsen Online, 2009).

Given this disconnect between the students’ and organizations’ affinities for Twitter, two professors at Southeastern universities, who were teaching social media courses in strategic communication disciplines (advertising and public relations), created an assignment that introduced students to the unique contributions Twitter makes to the social media sphere. Specifically, students from the public relations course were partnered with students from the advertising course at a separate university and asked to communicate with each other using Twitter to create a 140-character definition of a common industry term (e.g., return-on-investment, goal development, metrics, influencers) as well as 10 strategies to help carry out or achieve the group’s assigned concept (e.g., this tweet from an advertising student “Give it TIME. It takes time to build relationships and time to promote engagement. Don’t get discouraged or give up.”)

The assignment was designed so that students would have first-hand experience with using Twitter, thus becoming aware of its limitations and advantages of the service for fostering communications, relationships and collaborations. The assignment also fostered the thought process of retrieving information from each other and online participants who may be interested in or informed on the topics, not just academic organizations, as is typical in social media (Li & Bernoff, 2008). In essence, the students experienced how to “harvest knowledge” (Tapscott &Williams, 2008).

Through creating a collaborative online environment, students were pushed to think beyond the “typical group project” dynamics to focus more on communication and relationship building in an asynchronous collaborative environment. The assignment not only involved team work across the universities, but also involved the students in learning the culture and strategies for promoting relationships and conversation using Twitter. Essentially, it was a first step in helping students start thinking about collaborative communication using social media.

Along with industry books on social media usage, students were also pointed toward trade publications, such as AdAge and PR Tactics, and a site that bookmarked helpful information (e.g., for the project. Industry books included Groundswell by Li & Bernoff, Socialnomics by Qualman, Wikinomics by Tapscott & Williams, and Throwing Sheep in the Boardroom by Fraser & Dutta.

Grading the assignment can be both quantitative and qualitative. For example, professors can count the number of tweets that a student sends or the number of interactions with another person as representative of relationship building. Qualitatively, the responses can be graded based on how “on point” the strategies are, the quality of interaction in the conversations and assessing the quality of the relationships established.

While the underlying tasks in the Twitter collaboration project may seem simple at first, communicating in a cross-discipline, cross-university environment with only 140 characters at a time proves to be quite challenging. As one public relations student described her experience, “I always thought Twitter was just a bunch of people spouting off about what they were doing. I never would have imagined that it could also bring people together to solve problems and also be a valuable resource for information about my major and future career.”

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