Social Media in the Classroom: Beyond the Hype

By Jerod Quinn, Instructional Designer for the Reinert Center for Transformative Teaching & Learning

Visual representation of social media. Image courtesy of Brian Solis, The Social Business Sessions: Visual Notes photostream, Flickr

As an instructional designer in the Center for Transformative Teaching and Learning, I have been exploring the use of social media in the classroom during the spring 2012 semester. I’ll admit, it can be a little overwhelming to sort through the mix of hype and horror stories. One trend I have discovered is that there is an abundance of articles about specific social media tools, especially Twitter. While those types of articles are useful, I noticed the lack of articles that talk about the pedagogical reasons why you would consider experimenting with social media in your classes. In this blog posting, I hope to address a few of those pedagogical reasons, offer some inspiration regarding various types of social media, and give a few practical steps for getting started. Let’s start with the “why” and go from there.

So why on earth would you want to use any form of social media in the classroom? Because it can be surprisingly useful for getting students involved in their own learning. Always keep in mind that it’s not the tool that is meaningful but rather it is what you do with that tool. Tanya Joosten’s book, Social Media for Educators (2012), has a great set of questions to ask yourself when you begin to think about how using social media in your class might improve the student experience.

  1. What is the pedagogical need?
  2. How will the selected social media meet that need?
  3. What aspects of the learning process should be improved?
  4. What learning outcomes can be better achieved through the use of the selected social media over other technologies?
  5. What is the expected behavior of students within the selected social media?

When we talk about pedagogy and education, the first framework that comes to my mind is the Seven Principles for Good Practice in Undergraduate Education, by Chickering and Gamson (1987). This article is a must-read for all educators. Chickering and Gamson lay out seven principles that greatly shape the educational experience of students. The first three principles relate directly to purposeful use of social media:

1. Good practice encourages student-faculty contact.
2. Good practice encourages cooperation among students.
3. Good practice encourages active learning.

The nature of social media is to foster connections between people. It can give an avenue inside and outside of the classroom for faculty to connect with students in potentially productive ways. In large lectures where students are stacked up in rows like books on shelves, how can the instructor connect and field questions from such a large audience? Even the moderately shy would be intimidated to holler out a question in such a large group. Twitter can give students a voice (and another chance) to ask questions in large classes with less intimidation. This can work particularly well if the instructor has a teaching assistant available to sort and monitor incoming tweets, responding directly to the easier ones and passing the most pressing messages on to the instructor at appropriate breaks in their lecture. Social media like Twitter can help facilitate faculty-student contact.

Social media can also encourage student cooperation. I had a conversation with a SLU faculty member recently who spoke of her student’s desire to be provided with a test review worksheet. The faculty member was reluctant to provide such an outline because that would encourage the students to memorize what was handed to them as opposed to working to understand where their studying priorities should be. She encouraged her class to start a shared Google Doc and create a study guide themselves. The students compiled and refined what information they believed was vital. The faculty member did peek in on them occasionally just to make sure there weren’t any grievous errors, but for the most part the students created the study guide themselves. They corrected each other’s informational mistakes and worked together to create something that benefited the whole class. Shared documents, like Google Docs or wikis, can be useful in encouraging cooperation among students.

Blogs can also be a great tool for active learning. But when I think about classroom blogs, I immediately assume that the instructor will be doing most of the writing and the students will be responsible for commenting. What if each student were responsible for becoming the resident expert on a subject by researching and writing a blog post, while another student was responsible for moderating and encouraging discussion on that post? You would have one student creating the base knowledge for a subject while the second is actively stimulating deeper discussion on that topic. If your class is small enough, every student could be given the opportunity to be the resident expert and write on a topic, and every student would be responsible to encourage deeper discussion on a topic. Creating, evaluating, and synthesizing content and facilitating conversation is an example of active learning.

These are just a few ideas of what different types of social media can bring to your class. If you are interested in getting started with social media here are a couple steps to get you going. First, try some of the services out yourself and see if you like them. Twitter is a really easy one to begin with. It is concise, easy to figure out, and can help you build a professional learning network. I will be honest, a few months ago I thought Twitter was ridiculous. Why would I care about the mundane of strangers’ lives? Then I read this statement on Professor Hacker’s blog; “One of the most common dismissals of Twitter sounds something like this, ‘I don’t need to know what a bunch of people had for breakfast.’ My response to this is always, ‘if that is what you’re seeing on Twitter, you’re following the wrong people.’” Feeling a little silly after reading my own excuse in an article, I decided to try Twitter and began following people that are interesting to me. After five months I have to say I love it. I see intelligent articles, event updates, get feedback from experts in my field, all with a very low time commitment.

I have also seen Twitter used to chronicle historical events. The most fascinating is WW2 Tweets from 1940 where the author tweets what was happening on today’s date during World War Two, often with accompanying images and videos. A project like this could be great for a history or even a literature course. Another option you can try if you teach courses that revolve around current events is Storify. Storify is used to collect and curate related articles, tweets, videos, and various kinds of media and gather them into a single place.

Last but not least, talk with other faculty in your department to see if they are delving into the social media world. When you start experimenting, be patient and stick with it. It will take time to understand the tool and for it to become fluid to you. Also, be sure to revisit Tanya Joosten’s five questions on an on-going basis to keep your pedagogical bearings. You will also need persistence when you first start using social media in class. Almost every instructor I have talked to or read about has mentioned how it takes time to get students engaged and accustomed to using social media in class-related discussions and projects. And no matter what social media you may try, be sure to get feedback from your students so you can accurately gauge if it is improving the educational experience.

One Response to “Social Media in the Classroom: Beyond the Hype”

  1. Thanks, Jerod, for this fine orientation to social media in the classroom. Dr. Jonathan Smith, in the African American Studies Program at SLU has experimented with social media in his classes, which he described at a Spotlight on Teaching event hosted by the Center in fall 2010.