Smile Politely

Educators take advantage of social media in the classroom

For Susan Hamilton, social media remains an entity very much distinct from her education. None of her professors at the University of Illinois use social media as a teaching tool, she says, a fact that she wishes were different.

If a professor created a class Facebook group, for example, that might help Susan and her peers have easier access to general announcements and other material relevant to their course simply because of the fact that they are all on Facebook and check it constantly. “The first thing a kid is going to do when they wake up is check Facebook,” she said.

Hans Mundahl believes technology becomes socially interesting only when it becomes technologically boring — that is, when technologies no longer seem new and are widely used, they start to have a larger social impact. That’s why at the New Hampton School in New Hampton, N.H., where Mundahl is the director of technology integration, high school students have only recently been introduced to social media in the classroom.

In 2010, each student received an iPad. In history class, students tweet their reactions to Thomas Paine readings and invite other people to join the conversation. In engineering class, students created a Kickstarter account to raise funding for a project and a blog to interact with vendors. “It allows us to interact with ideas in a public space, which is really, I think, the point of citizenship and the point of education,” Mundahl said. “We’re testing our ideas against not just what our teachers think, but against what other people think, and that’s a pretty powerful way to learn.”

Educational use of social media is still not as widespread among faculty as personal use, but it is growing each year, said Mike Moran, co-author and chief strategist of a recent study by Pearson Learning Solutions, a company that designs client-driven education solutions. About 34 percent of faculty use social media for teaching us, which included Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, podcasts, blogs and Wikis:

A couple of years ago, they were more likely to be using it for personal use than they were for professional use and especially more likely than for teaching use. While it’s still true that that scale exists and it exists across all ages, we see a consistent increase in the use in each area.

The use of social media in the classroom varies by field. About a quarter of faculty in math and the natural sciences use non-video forms of social media for educational use, a number that jumps to almost 40 percent among humanities and social sciences faculty. “What we’re really seeing when we look at these discipline differences is that people who are in communications fields are treating social media as media,” Moran said. “They’re using this new communication mechanism the same way that they communicate using other mechanisms.”

At New Milford High School in Bergen County, N.J., students in a digital journalism class create their own Twitter accounts to use in real-time reporting and create QR codes that link back to a website they maintain. In AP biology, students had to tweet the stages of meiosis. Lab reports can be turned in via creative Facebook pages rather than the usual typed paper.

“In terms of allowing students to create artifacts of learning and getting away from the typical test or research paper, teachers are using a variety of Web 2.0 applications that really pull upon the creative juices of our students,” said Eric Sheninger, principal of the school. What it all boils down to, he said, is that students are immersed in a connected world outside of school walls, a fact educators need to be aware of and take advantage of:

They’re very engaged, they’re communicating, and they’re collaborating. Why not harness that energy and that excitement and that passion and bring it into a school setting and allow students to really have much more relevancy in terms of what they’re learning by allowing them to utilize the tools that they have more or less just grown up with?

Because tools like Facebook and Twitter are spaces that young adults use every day in their lives, they feel more informal and familiar, and students are motivated to engage with their peers, said Christine Greenhow, assistant professor of educational psychology and educational technology at Michigan State University. So when those tools are introduced in classrooms, students are already receptive to it and become more engaged with the subject matter.

Social media is a place where students are getting to know their peers in ways they might not if they only interacted face-to-face. People share more on social media spaces than they would share offline, Greenhow said, leading them to feel closer to friends and as if they know them better:

That can be really good for classroom situations because we know when students feel a sense of belonging and connectedness to other classmates, they do better. It increases their persistence, their achievement in school and their outcomes, their graduation rates — that’s what we call social capital.

More specifically, social capital refers to the resources that are available to us in our social networks, online as well as offline. We can gain access to information, credibility, or job recommendations. Social media use has been linked with higher social capital, Greenhow said. “Kids who have more social capital, more sense of belonging to their peers and others in their school community tend to do better in school,” she said. “That’s why we care about developing kids’ social capital.”

In her own teaching, Greenhow uses Facebook groups created for her classes and Twitter accounts to share material that is relevant to the class. That has allowed her to see the interests of her students and what they want to discuss, both as a class and as individuals:

It’s just a way for instructors to individualize instruction, so to not only teach the class as a whole but also to connect to students on an individual basis. And that’s just a way to make the class more engaging for the students in it.

In all of her electrical engineering courses at the University of Illinois, Snegha Ramnarayan and the rest of her classmates create Facebook groups dedicated to discussion about course material. Ramnarayan said seeing other people’s questions sometimes answered her own and gave her the chance to interact with the material after lecture, when she believes the real learning begins. “I think in the classroom, you’re hearing it for the first time,” she said. “The discussion comes in when you’re working on something.”

Using social media as an extension of the class rather than in the classroom works best, said Reynol Junco, a faculty associate at Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. What doesn’t work as well is having simultaneous discussions on social media and in the classroom. “Doing that doesn’t really make that much of a difference,” he said. “It could make a difference in helping introverted or more reticent students participate in class.”

In a religions studies course, Joe Moormann, a recent graduate of Illinois, saw how that could be true. During a guest lecture, students tweeted their questions using a specific hashtag, and their tweets were projected on a screen for the speaker to see and answer. “It was a means of being heard,” he said. “You got to express a question or opinion regardless of whether the lecture addressed it or not.”

That kind of integration of social media in the classroom is also important because it is becoming a critical skill set, especially in the jobs students will have later, Greenhow said:

It seems more and more employers are looking for employees with social media savvy. Social media is becoming increasingly important to how businesses and organizations get out their message, interact with customers, learn about what their customers need and want, and oftentimes, they want their employees to not just know how to use social media, but to have a following on these social media spaces.

When students do have a following and understand that their work is being viewed by other people not connected with the school, they work harder than if they were just getting a grade and the teacher was the only person viewing it, Mundahl said.

Niklas Myhr, assistant professor of marketing at Chapman University, agrees. In a recent business travel course in Scandinavia, students created their own blogs where they wrote about what they discovered, learned, saw, and evaluated during the trip. Knowing their work was being published on a public space encouraged students to write better, ask more questions, and even set up interviews to become better acquainted with the material they were writing about. “Overall, I think it makes sense to extend your teaching to the current or the prevailing, preferred platform of choice,” he said.

But Myhr acknowledges that social media is not the only way to communicate with students, but simply another powerful way to do so. “I see it as a supplementary tool to my class and what I’m doing,” he said.

Social media has made the barrier of entry lower, Mundahl said, so that it becomes easier for students to do the kind of work older people are doing in actual work environments. But the fact that that interaction is occurring on a public space also means educators need to be upfront about Internet safety.

Pearson Learning Solutions found three primary concerns that keep faculty from introducing social media in the classroom: (1) concerns about the integrity of student submissions, (2) a lack of privacy, and (3) the desire to keep personal accounts separate from classroom accounts. However, although these concerns were the same from previous years, the percentage of faculty citing them has dropped since 2011.

What needs to take place, Sheninger said, is proper teacher training and a discussion of policies and procedures that will take away some of the fear and uncertainty that exists:

Social media has become a real big buzz word, but there really isn’t much targeted training on the pedagogy behind effectively integrating social media. It’s very important to have certain policies and procedures in place that make that guide for the use of social media toward a specific learning goal and objective.

Mundahl believes the ultimate answer needs to be determined by schools, not by the tools themselves. It’s easy to fall into the trap of wanting to use social media without thinking about what the educational goals are and what tools work best for those goals:

I see there being enough tools of different sorts that it will be impossible to do them all, and you shouldn’t feel like you need to do them all as an educational institution. You’ll be able to choose the tools, platforms, and social media tools that really fit your core values.


Front page image from Mr. Denton’s Star Tech Blog.

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