Social Networking and Classrooms: What’s there for us?

Last August, a soon-to-be student of mine posted a message on Twitter, a popular micro-blogging platform, asking her online followers for information about @gruzd, from whom she was about to take a class. As it happens @gruzd is my username on Twitter, and because the student used it in her post, Twitter automatically alerted me to her message. Within minutes, somebody replied to her message offering some insights into my background. At first, I felt a bit strange knowing that people are having a conversation about me and making it available to 200 million other Twitter users (if they were looking). But after getting over my initial feeling of unease, I began thinking about how fast social media is changing our social norms and the types of information that we can now access. This anecdote from my academic life is an example of how students are quickly adapting and incorporating social media into their daily lives.

According to a recent study done by the EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research, over 90% of students under 25 reported using social networking sites (SNS). (Smith & Caruso, 2010) And it seems that instructors across North America are also quickly catching on to this fact, and are starting to incorporate SNS and social media into their lesson plans. In fact, almost two-thirds (2/3) of faculty in North America have incorporated social media into an assignment or as part of their course work during class time (Moran, Seaman, & Tinti-Kane, 2010). For example, Dr. Alec Couros, an Associate Professor at the University of Regina, has started incorporating wikis into courses such as Educational Technology and Media (Chant, 2010). On the course wiki, students are invited to contribute to reading lists, discussions regarding assignments, and so on. Since the wiki is open, both current and past students are able to engage in the dialogue and contribute ideas. Another example is from the University of Chicago Law School, where faculty and students created a microblogging platform called TweetChicago (http://webcast-law.uchicago.edu/tweetchicago), in which they contribute tweets regarding what they are doing and thinking about during the day. The purpose is to share projects, articles, or links of interest with the entire law school community, as well as provide prospective students with an idea of what daily life is like at their School.

Evidently, there are many potential benefits to using SNS in a University setting. For example, by having access to SNS and social media tools, students can continue discussions started in one class and carry them over to another. Students also have a chance to view and build on conversations by others who took the same class in a previous semester. If used correctly, these new communication tools are a great way to create a sense of community among students and improve their ability to learn. Whether it is submitting questions via Twitter, blogging about current events related to general themes of the class, or using Facebook to carry out class discussions, you can expect an increase in students’ class participation and engagement once SNS and social media are introduced into the mix.

Of course, SNS and social media are not without problems. Before introducing them into class settings, it is important to be aware of some of the pitfalls. First, be aware that most students do not really want to mix their personal and academic lives. It is important to consider whether it is more beneficial for your class to setup their own social media solution such as MediaWiki versus relying on a public website such as Facebook. If you choose to rely on a public website, aside from the privacy concerns, there may also be some logistical concerns regarding accessibility and preservation of student-generated content. Specifically, will the website be accessible throughout the whole term? And is there a way to preserve your students’ contributions even after the course is over? Both are very important questions, especially when we are talking about graded assignments. To address these problems, there are a few good social archiving tools such as Socialware Sync and CloudPreservation that can automatically archive the data coming from a multitude of social media and networking platforms and accounts.

Another concern with social media is that the content may be modified by somebody else on the website other than your students. If such concern exists, for product-oriented assignments, i.e., essays or papers, a possible solution may be to ask students to also submit one original copy of their assignment to the course website. And if the assignment is more process-oriented, where students are assigned to become familiar with a particular tool and interact with their peers online, then there is always the option to simply ask students to write an essay about their experience with the tool and submit it in a more traditional way.

It is becoming more self-evident every day that social networking is here to stay, and it is up to us to decide how to embrace these technologies for the benefits of our students. I think that the potential benefits of SNS and social media in general far outweigh the concerns described above, especially if we are prepared for them.

Happy Social Networking,

@gruzd

* An earlier version of this post appeared in the Spring 2011 issue of Dalhousie’s FOCUS Newsletter on University Teaching and Learning

** The author thanks Melissa Goertzen for her help in providing background research for this article.

References

Chant, C. (2010, January 11). A beginner’s guide to social media. University Affairs. Available at http://www.universityaffairs.ca/a-beginners-guide-to-social-media.aspx

Moran, M., Seaman, J., & Tinti-Kane, H. (2010). Teaching, Learning and Sharing: How Today’s Higher Education Faculty Use Social Media. Report, Pearson Learning Solutions. Available at http://www.pearsonlearningsolutions.com/educators/pearson-social-media-survey-2011-color.pdf

Smith, S.D. and Caruso J.B. (2010). The ECAR Study of Undergraduate Students and Information Technology Report, EDUCAUSE – Center for Applied Research.. Available at http://www.educause.edu/ers1006