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Tweet topics and sentiments relating to distance learning among Italian Twitter users

Abstract and Figures

The outbreak of COVID-19 forced a dramatic shift in education, from in-person learning to an increased use of distance learning over the past 2 years. Opinions and sentiments regarding this switch from traditional to remote classes can be tracked in real time in microblog messages promptly shared by Twitter users, who constitute a large and ever-increasing number of individuals today. Given this framework, the present study aims to investigate sentiments and topics related to distance learning in Italy from March 2020 to November 2021. A two-step sentiment analysis was performed using the VADER model and the syuzhet package to understand the overall sentiments and emotions. A dynamic latent Dirichlet allocation model (DLDA) was built to identify commonly discussed topics in tweets and their evolution over time. The results show a modest majority of negative opinions, which shifted over time until the trend reversed. Among the eight emotions of the syuzhet package, ‘trust’ was the most positive emotion observed in the tweets, while ‘fear’ and ‘sadness’ were the top negative emotions. Our analysis also identified three topics: (1) requests for support measures for distance learning, (2) concerns about distance learning and its application, and (3) anxiety about the government decrees introducing the red zones and the corresponding restrictions. People’s attitudes changed over time. The concerns about distance learning and its future applications (topic 2) gained importance in the latter stages of 2021, while the first and third topics, which were ranked highly at first, started a steep descent in the last part of the period. The results indicate that even if current distance learning ends, the Italian people are concerned that any new emergency will bring distance learning back into use again.
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Tweet topics and sentiments
relating to distance learning
among Italian Twitter users
Luisa Stracqualursi* & Patrizia Agati
The outbreak of COVID-19 forced a dramatic shift in education, from in-person learning to an
increased use of distance learning over the past 2 years. Opinions and sentiments regarding this switch
from traditional to remote classes can be tracked in real time in microblog messages promptly shared
by Twitter users, who constitute a large and ever-increasing number of individuals today. Given this
framework, the present study aims to investigate sentiments and topics related to distance learning
in Italy from March 2020 to November 2021. A two-step sentiment analysis was performed using
the VADER model and the syuzhet package to understand the overall sentiments and emotions. A
dynamic latent Dirichlet allocation model (DLDA) was built to identify commonly discussed topics
in tweets and their evolution over time. The results show a modest majority of negative opinions,
which shifted over time until the trend reversed. Among the eight emotions of the syuzhet package,
‘trust’ was the most positive emotion observed in the tweets, while ‘fear’ and ‘sadness’ were the top
negative emotions. Our analysis also identied three topics: (1) requests for support measures for
distance learning, (2) concerns about distance learning and its application, and (3) anxiety about the
government decrees introducing the red zones and the corresponding restrictions. People’s attitudes
changed over time. The concerns about distance learning and its future applications (topic 2) gained
importance in the latter stages of 2021, while the rst and third topics, which were ranked highly at
rst, started a steep descent in the last part of the period. The results indicate that even if current
distance learning ends, the Italian people are concerned that any new emergency will bring distance
learning back into use again.
e COVID-19 pandemic has greatly aected life worldwide. One of the most remarkable eects was the enforce-
ment of social distancing to reduce the spread of the disease. In March 20201, Italy implemented social-distancing
measures by enforcing distance learning at all educational stages and online assessments to help continue stu-
dents’ education2. ese measures became known as ‘emergency distance learning’ and introduced new experi-
ences and challenges for students, parents, and teachers. In the subsequent months, distance learning gradually
moved to ‘integrated digital learning3, which combined remote (virtual classroom) and in-person (traditional
classroom) instruction. Unfortunately, this integration was very slow: the reopening of schools has been limited
to some Italian regions and has oen been only temporary. As post-outbreak SARS-CoV-2 infections increased,
many regions suddenly returned to distance learning for either some grades of school or for all, as happened in
Italy’s ‘red zones’.
Social media has been a major and rich data source for research in many domains due to its 3.8 billion active
users4 across the globe. For instance, researchers analyze user comments extracted from social media platforms
(such as Facebook5, Twitter5, and Instagram6) to uncover insights about social issues such as health, politics and
business. Among these platforms, Twitter stands out as one of the most immediate; tweets ow nonstop on the
bulletin boards of users incessantly. Twitter allows users to express and spread opinions, thoughts and emotions as
concisely and quickly as possible. erefore, researchers have oen preferred to analyze user comments on Twitter
to immediately uncover insights about social issues during the coronavirus pandemic (e.g., conspiracy theories7,
why people oppose wearing a mask8, experiences in health care9, and vaccinations10) or distance learning1113.
e text content of a tweet is a short microblog message containing at most 280 characters; this feature makes
tweets particularly suitable for natural language processing (NLP) techniques, which are widely used to extract
insights from unstructured texts. Distance learning was much debated during the pandemic. On the other hand,
we chose Twitter for its immediacy in capturing and spreading people’s opinions and emotions on any topic, as
well as for its ability to provide plentiful data, even in a short amount of time. Moreover, the people who have
Department of Statistics, University of Bologna, 40126 Bologna, Italy. *email:
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more directly experienced distance learning are students, parents, and teachers, that is, people who, by age, make
up approximately 83% of Twitter users46.
is study aims to explore sentiments and major topics about distance learning in Italy and their evolution
over time by using NLP techniques to analyze tweets from Italian Twitter users. Findings from this study could
help the Ministry of Education visualize how people are coping with distance learning, thus improving distance
learning support and making the experience more eective in the future.
Unlike traditional methods, which are expensive and time-consuming even for small samples, NLP techniques
use big data and social media and are very economic, fast, and immediate. A well-known drawback of these
methods, however, is that they do not allow us to consider social variables (e.g., age, gender, marital status, mode
of working) related to the emotions revealed by the model.
In the literature, COVID-19 has been associated with psychological distress, depression, anxiety, and fear1416.
Other research highlights a signicant level of traumatic stress in women more than in men17. Moreover, pregnant
women during lockdowns suered the most from anxiety and depression18.
Regarding age, the research highlights that older people suered the most from negative eects such as fear
and loneliness19,20. Younger individuals had fewer negative emotions because they saw COVID-19 as a less risky
disease for them21, although they did report anxiety and depression due to the social restrictions imposed21.
Finally, regarding marital status, Rania and Coppola22 show how single, divorced and separated individuals
were the most aected by loneliness and demonstrated a higher level of mental illness compared to married
individuals. In addition, dierences also emerged regarding work during COVID-19. ose who continued to
work without changes reported a lower level of mental health than those who switched to working remotely.
The data. Twitter was chosen as the data source. It is one of the worlds major social media platforms, with
199 million active users in April 20214, and it is also a common source of text for sentiment analyses2325.
To collect distance learning-related tweets, we used TrackMyHashtag https:// www. track myhas htag. com/, a
tracking tool to monitor hashtags in real time. Unlike Twitter API, which does not provide tweets older than
three weeks, TrackMyHashtag also provides historical data and lters selections by language and geolocation.
For our study, we chose the Italian words for ‘distance learning’ as the search term and selected March 3,
2020 through November 23, 2021 as the period of interest. Finally, we chose Italian tweets only. A total of 25,100
tweets were collected for this study.
Data preprocessing. To clean the data and prepare it for sentiment analysis, we applied the following pre-
processing steps using NLP techniques implemented with Python:
1. removed mentions, URLs, and hashtags,
2. replaced HTML characters with Unicode equivalent (such as replacing ‘&’ with ‘&’),
3. removed HTML tags (such as
<div >
, etc.),
4. removed unnecessary line breaks,
5. removed special characters and punctuation,
6. removed words that are numbers,
7. converted the Italian tweets’ text into English using the ‘googletrans’ tool.
In the second part an higher quality dataset is required for the topic model. e duplicate tweets were
removed, and only the unique tweets were retained. Apart from the general data-cleaning methods, tokenization
and lemmatization could enable the model to achieve better performance. e dierent forms of a word cause
misclassication for models. Consequently, the WorldNet library of NLTK26 was used to accomplish lemmatiza-
tion. e stemming algorithms that aggressively reduce words to a common base even if these words actually
have dierent meanings are not considered here. Finally, we lowercased all of the text to ensure that every word
appeared in a consistent format and pruned the vocabulary, removing stop words and terms unrelated to the
topic, such as ‘as’, ‘from, and ‘would’.
Sentiment and emotion analysis. Between the major algorithms to be used for text mining and spe-
cically for sentiment analysis, we applied the Valence Aware Dictionary for Sentiment Reasoning (VADER)
proposed by Hutto etal.27 to determine the polarity and intensity of the tweets. VADER is a sentiment lexicon
and rule-based sentiment analysis tool obtained through the wisdom of the crowd approach. rough extensive
human work, this tool enables the sentiment analysis of social media to be completed quickly and has a very high
accuracy similar to that of human beings. We used VADER to obtain sentiment scores for a tweet’s preprocessed
text data. At the same time, according to the classication method recommended by its authors, we mapped the
emotional score into three categories: positive, negative, and neutral (Fig.1 step1).
en, to discover the emotions underlying categories, we applied the nrc28 algorithm, which is one of the
methods included in the R library package syuzhet29 for emotion analysis. In particular, the nrc algorithm applies
an emotion dictionary to score each tweet based on two sentiments (positive or negative) and eight emotions
(anger, fear, anticipation, trust, surprise, sadness, joy, and disgust). Emotional recognition aims to identify the
emotions that a tweet carries. If a tweet was associated with a particular emotion or sentiment, it scores points
that reect the degree of valence with respect to that category. Otherwise, it would have no score for that cat-
egory. erefore, if a tweet contains two words listed in the list of words for the ‘joy’ emotion, the score for that
sentence in the joy category will be 2.
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When using the nrc lexicon, rather than receiving the algebraic score due to positive and negative words,
each tweet obtains a score for each emotion category. However, this algorithm fails to properly account for nega-
tors. Additionally, it adopts the bag-of-words approach, where the sentiment is based on the individual words
occurring in the text, neglecting the role of syntax and grammar. erefore, the VADER and nrc methods are
not comparable in terms of the number of tweets and polarity categories. Hence, the idea is to use VADER for
sentiment analysis and subsequently to apply nrc only to discover positive and negative emotions. e ow chart
in Fig.1 represents the two-step sentiment analysis. VADER’s neutral tweets are very useful in the classication
but not interesting for the emotions analysis; therefore, we focused on tweets with positive and negative senti-
ments. VADER’s performance in the eld of social media text is excellent. Based on its complete rules, VADER
can carry out a sentiment analysis on various lexical features: punctuation, capitalization, degree modiers, the
contrastive conjunction ‘but’, and negation ipping tri-grams.
The topic model. e topic model is an unsupervised machine learning method; that is, it is a text mining
procedure with which the topics or themes of documents can be identied from a large document corpus30. e
latent Dirichlet allocation (LDA) model is one of the most popular topic modeling methods; it is a probabilistic
model for expressing a corpus based on a three-level hierarchical Bayesian model. e basic idea of LDA is that
each document has a topic, and a topic can be dened as a word distribution31. Particularly in LDA models, the
generation of documents within a corpus follows the following process:
1. A mixture of k topics,
, is sampled from a Dirichlet prior, which is parameterized by
2. A topic
is sampled from the multinomial distribution,
that is the document topic distribution
which models
3. Fixed the number of topics
, the distribution of words for k topics is denoted by
,which is also
a multinomial distribution whose hyper-parameter
follows the Dirichlet distribution;
4. Given the topic
, a word,
, is then sampled via the multinomial distribution
Overall, the probability of a document (or tweet, in our case) “
” containing words can be described as:
Finally, the probability of the corpus of M documents
can be expressed as the product of
the marginal probabilities of each single document
, as shown in (2).
Figure1. Steps ofsentiment and emotion analysis.
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In our analysis that includes tweets over a 2-year period, we nd that the tweet content is changeable over
time, and therefore, the topic content is not a static corpus. eDynamic LDA model (DLDA) is adopted and
used on topics aggregated in time epochs, and a state-space model handles transitions of the topics from one
epoch to another. A Gaussian probabilistic model to obtain the posterior probabilities on the evolving topics
along the timeline is added as an additional dimension.
Figure2 shows a graphical representation of the dynamic topic model (DTM)32. As a part of the probabilistic
topic model class, the dynamic model can explain how various tweet themes evolve. e tweet dataset corpus
used here (March 3, 2020-November 23, 2021) contains 630 days, which is exactly seven quarters of a year. e
dynamic topic model is accordingly applied to seven time steps corresponding to the seven trimesters of the
dataset. ese time slices are put into the model provided by gensim33.
An essential challenge in DLDA (as LDA) is to determine an appropriate number of topics. Roder etal. pro-
posed coherence scores to evaluate the quality of each topic model. Particularly, topic coherence is the measure
used to evaluate the coherence between topics inferred by a model. As coherence measures, we used
. e rst is a measure based on a sliding window that uses normalized pointwise mutual information
(NPMI) and cosine similarity. Instead,
is based on document co-occurrence counts, a one-preceding
segmentation, and a logarithmic conditional probability as conrmation measure. ese values aim to emulate
the relative score that a human is likely to assign to a topic and indicate how much the topic words ‘make sense.
ese scores infer cohesiveness between ‘top’ words within a given topic. Also considered is the distribution
on the primer component analysis (PCA), which can visualize the topic models in a word spatial distribution
with two dimensions. A uniform distribution is preferred, which gives a high degree of independence to each
topic. e judgment for a good model is a higher coherence and an average distribution on the primer analysis
displayed by the pyLDAvis34.
Sentiment analysis. e ndings show that the number of tweets has increased since the beginning of
distance learning (Fig.3). Clearly, visible in the graph, there is a signicant negative sentiment peak on April 22,
2021, due to the Italian government’s ‘reopening decree’ (DL 2021.4.22 no. 52); it xed reopenings of schools and
commercial activities in gradual terms, depending on the degree of epidemic risk in the dierent areas.
Moreover, it is worth noting that the peaks of tweets with a positive sentiment began during the 2021–2022
school year. e highest positive peak was recorded on November 15, triggered by the Italian tax-labor decree
dra. Much hyped by the media, it provided for the renewal of extraordinary leave for parents with children
involved in distance learning. e output of the VADER model, which is the rst step of our sentiment analysis,
shows a modest majority of negative tweets: 8843 negative, 8077 neutral and 8180 positive (35.2%, 32.2% and
Figure2. Dynamic topic model (for three time slices). A set of topics in the dataset isevolved from the set of
the previous slice. e model for each time slice corresponds to the original LDA process. Additionally, each
topic’s parameters evolve over time.
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32.6%, respectively). e analysis carried out at the regional level was performed only on 9534 tweets that had
a regional geolocation. Figure4, shows the average sentiment scores of the Italian regions: the sentiment score
is neutral (between − 0.05 and
0.05, see Fig.4) for all regions except for Umbria (
0.10), Sardinia (
and Veneto (− 0.06), which slightly exceed the neutrality thresholds. Indeed, there are no major dierences in
school systems in Italy from region to region. Furthermore, the result is consistent with the attening due to the
use of the average of the scores.
e second step of the analysis focuses on searching emotions in nonneutral tweets. Among the eight basic
emotions, ‘trust’ was the prominent positive emotion observed in the tweets, while ‘fear’, ‘sadness’ and ‘anger’
were the top negative emotions (Fig.5). ese results need to be interpreted in light of recent literature on psy-
chological dimensions of the COVID-19 pandemic. e dimension of fear includes the fear of being infected
or infecting others, the risk of death, the loss of loved ones, and not receiving adequate care3538. Several studies
performed during the pandemic found that there is an association between fear and depression14,15,3941. Sadness
is considered by numerous authors to be a core symptom of depression42. e dimensions of anger related to the
pandemic include anger at the government and conspiracy mentalities but also anger at those who fail to comply
with government hygiene measures to contain the virus43.
Figure3. Timeline showing sentiment of tweets about distance learning.
Figure4. Average Sentiment Score in Italy by region.
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The topic model. To explore what the user is concerned about on Twitter with reference to distance learn-
ing, we applied LDA to our clean corpus. For a better representation of the entire content, it is necessary to nd
an appropriate topic number. By using topic numbers k ranging from 2 to 10, we initialized the LDA models and
calculated the model coherence. We mainly used
coherence and
coherence as a secondary reference.
According to Fig.6, the coherence score peaked at 3, 4, and 7 topics (6 was not considered because
did not
conrm good coherence for this topic). e choice of 4 or 7 topic numbers would lead to a nonuniform distribu-
tion on primer component analysis (PCA), which means that there is not a high degree of independence for each
topic. erefore, we chose 3 as the topic number: the model has no intersections among topics, summarizes the
whole word space well, and the topics remain relatively independent (Fig.7).
In our analysis, we nd that the tweet content changes over time, and therefore, aer initializing through the
LDA model, its dynamic version (DLDA) is used. Our tweets dataset corpus contains 630 days, which makes
exactly seven quarters of a year. e DLDA is accordingly applied to seven time steps corresponding to the seven
trimesters of the dataset. e model output (Fig.8 identied the following three topics:
Topic 1: Digital support
Topic 2: Distance learning concerns
Topic 3: Restriction zones.
e rst theme includes words, such as ‘digital,’ ‘family’ and ‘support’, meaning that people need support in
distance learning. e second topic includes the words ‘work,’ ‘student,’ and ‘lesson. Based on this, we inferred
that most people complain about social issues and personal problems that are dicult to management due to
distance learning. Additionally, several words, such as ‘red,’ ‘zone,’ and ‘ordinance,’ are mentioned in the third
topic. is indicates that a further source of anxiety for the Italians was the government decrees introducing the
red zones and the corresponding restrictions.
Figure5. Emotion analysis of non-neutral tweets performed by syuzhet.
(a) Cv(b) Cumass
Figure6. Coherence values.
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e dynamic topic model shows that the people’s concerns changed over time (Fig.8). In the topic related
to ‘digital support’, the relevance of words such as ‘family’ and ‘support’ remained stable, while the importance
of the term ‘diculty’ decreased in the later stages of the period. erefore, concerns about support in distance
learning were quite stable over time, while diculties gradually declined.
In the topic related to ‘distance learning concerns’, the importance of words such as ‘school’ and ‘work
remained stable, while the word ‘home’ decreased in importance as time passed until it vanished. ese results
indicate that concerns about distance learning were stable, but the diculty of staying home was no longer one of
them. Last, in the topic related to ‘restriction zones’, the emphasis on words such as ‘covid’ and ‘region’ remained
quite stable, while the term ‘ordinance’ decreased over time. e word ‘zone, which ranked low at rst, started
to climb in the middle of the period and went down again. e main nding indicates an increase in concerns
about restricted zones, following the Italian government decrees establishing the so-called ‘red zones’, i.e., areas
with a high risk of coronavirus infection. e pie charts in Fig.9 show the dynamic volume of each topic in
three periods: March–May 2020, December–February 2021, and September–November 2021. It is worth noting
that the fraction of tweets on topic 2 (distance learning concerns) increases considerably from 16.95% in the
rst period to 45.94% in the last period. On the other hand, the fraction of tweets on topic 1 (digital support)
decreased during the second period and then grew slightly in the last period. Finally, the number of tweets on
topic 3 (restriction zones) decreased considerably from March 2020 to November 2021.
is study has some limitations. Regarding the emotion analysis, a possible limitation is that the number of emo-
tion categories was limited to 828,44, but emotion is a broad concept and may involve up to 27 categories45. Fur-
thermore, misspelled words could not be identied and analyzed in the algorithm. Further limitations concern
the dictionary of sentiments (“lexicon”) developed by Mohammad and Turney28, which maps a list of language
features to emotion intensities:
Only 5 individuals were recruited to annotate a term against each of the 8 primary emotions.
e emotions of a term have been annotated without considering the possible contexts.
(a) k=3(b) k=4
(c) k=7
Figure7. Primer component analysis using average distribution forseveral topic numbers k.
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Although the percentages of agreement were apparently high, interrater reliability statistics were not reported.
Regarding topic analysis, considering unsupervised learning such as DLDA, the primary limitation is some
degree of subjectivity in dening the topic created10. Finally, it is worth noting that the most recent statistics about
social media usage show that approximately 83% of Twitter users worldwide were under age 5046; this implies that
Twitter-based studies generally suer from an underestimation bias in the opinions of people aged 50 and over.
Figure8. Topics and top terms of dierent time slices by DTM. Distributions for some relevant terms in each
topic over time.
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However, the distance learning topic truly aects the younger population more closely than the older popula-
tion; therefore, the underestimation issue may have a marginal, if any, impact on the results in the present study.
Conclusions and future prospectives
With the aim of studying the opinions and emotions of Italians regarding distance learning, we collected tweets
on this issue and carried out a sentiment analysis using the VADER and syuzhet packages. e results showed
a predominance of negative attitudes. e sentiment analysis shows daily uctuations (Fig.3), mainly due to
continuous updates by the news media and the succession of government decrees to contain the coronavirus.
However, the long-term trend shows an improvement in sentiment until the trend is reversed; attitudes become
positive at the beginning of the 2021–22 school year. Of the highest emotions detected, ‘trust’ was found to be
the main positive emotion, while ‘fear’, ‘sadness’ and ‘anger’ were the top negative emotions. e topic model
identied three topics: (1) requests for support measures for distance learning, (2) concerns about distance learn-
ing and its application, and (3) anxiety about the government decrees introducing red zones and corresponding
restrictions. What emerges clearly is the change over time in the percentage weight of the topics: the concerns
about distance learning assumed an increasing importance to the detriment of the other topics. In the past two
years, the use of distance learning has usurped other learning systems due to the pandemic, inducing sudden,
dramatic and probably irreversible changes in the education process. e use of digital teaching technologies
accelerated and led to a hybrid instructional model that combined remote and face-to-face teaching, named
integrated digital learning. While distance learning has generated and still generates fears and concerns, inte-
grated digital learning has already proven itself more eective than traditional teaching. e positive peak in
time series sentiments started at the beginning of school year 2021–22 (Fig.3) when integrated digital learning
was fully applied in Italy. Further, ongoing technological advancements and the growing experience of students
and teachers could mitigate any concerns related to a return to distance learning following a new pandemic wave
or other crisis. erefore, future studies could investigate how perceptions and opinions about distance learning
will change in the coming years, using sources other than Twitter and combining results of multiple databases.
Received: 16 February 2022; Accepted: 18 May 2022
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Figure9. Dynamic volume of thetopics over time.
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Scientic Reports | (2022) 12:9163 |
Competing interests
On behalf of all authors, the corresponding author states that there is no conict of interest. e datasets used
and analyzed during this study are historical Twitter data purchased through the https:// www. track myhas htag.
com/ service which provides data in line with Twitter’s T & Cs. ese datasets are available from the correspond-
ing author upon reasonable request.
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The adoption of conspiracy theories about COVID-19 has been fairly widespread among the general public and associated with the rejection of self-protective behaviors. Despite their significance, however, a gap remains in our understanding of the underlying characteristics of messages used to disseminate COVID-19 conspiracies. We used the construct of resonance as a framework to examine a sample of more than 1.8 million posts to Twitter about COVID-19 made between April and June 2020. Our analyses focused on the psycholinguistic properties that distinguish conspiracy theory tweets from other COVID-19 topics and predict their spread. COVID-19 conspiracy tweets were distinct and most likely to resonate when they provided explanations and expressed negative emotions. The results highlight the sensemaking functions served by conspiracy tweets in response to the profound upheaval caused by the pandemic.