Using Social Media to Promote Student Learning

Today’s MSU Grad School teaching seminar was designed to inform PhD candidates and post-doctoral fellows of the uses of social media in student learning.  In case any of you have found my site due to anything besides social media (Facebook or Twitter in my case), these sites are becoming much more popular in the world of research and academics.  Social media permits someone to connect to a huge range of people – those who you may not even know directly.  They are networks, and as such they allow someone (or someone’s information) to spread across an existing web of contacts.  If you know one person, they undoubtedly know a few more and ever outwards.  Thus, posting content on your site can instantly lead to it spreading to hundreds or thousands of individuals (depending on how interesting your content is).  Others of you may be familiar with social media but, like myself, don’t see the value in incorporating such technology into the world of teaching.  I am still not a firm believer that sites such as Pinterest and LinkedIn will ever be of value in a college classroom, but I do think that Twitter and Facebook, if handled properly, can serve students and professors well in the classroom.

Constant involvement and immersion in the classroom, or a certain subject matter, has been shown to improve student learning.  This forces students to have the topic on their mind and not simply prepare for class and have the materials dissolve into the ether once the proverbial bell rings.  Thus, if a professor creates a dispersal method which the student is required to be involved in (a la a Twitter or Facebook group), those students who use the sites for personal reasons will come across information from your class in a casual manner.  This engrosses the student and permits them to view the subject matter in an organic instead of structured environment.  This idea spreads also to the student-teacher relationship.  Students who feel a connection to their professor do better in their classes.  Be this because they are more engrossed in the material or they feel a personal responsibility to their professor is beyond the scope of this post.  Regardless, if students can interact with their professor in an informal and non-classroom environment they can start to see them as a source for interesting information and not just information required to pass a course.  I do not attempt to force a professional/strict relationship with my students; I simply cannot perform as well under these conditions.  My students know who I am as a person, but I require them to respect me as a professor.  I believe this leads to more honest questions and approach to the class.  If I am able to connect to these students on a social media site, it will allow me to further this connection and promote active discussion with me in a non-threatening manner.

Now let’s dive into some specific sites that were mentioned in the workshop:

Facebook:

Facebook – one of the original social media sites and I would imagine today’s most popular.  Facebook allows one to create their own profile page describing themselves, their interests, and provides a sort of bulletin-board for them to express their ideas/beliefs/findings.  When I become a professor I plan to have a professional page, but as of yet I do not have such a page and therefore keep this digital identity to myself.  I have, however, created several Facebook groups for the courses I teach.  These groups function as an online meeting place where members share a bulletin board and can ask questions or post material that are mutually beneficial.  A community can form around this group – involving students of previous years, experts in the field, and even those who are not related to the group.

One attendee volunteered a bit of helpful information for instructors:  If you field a simple question by email you may have to answer 10+ of the same email.  If this question is posted to the Facebook group, you only have to answer it once, thus saving you time and reduces the stress that accompanies a full inbox.

Twitter:

Twitter is the epitome of the attention span of today’s youth.  This social media limits one’s thoughts to a measly 140 characters and spreads it out for the world to see.  While this limits how deep a single message can go, it is fantastic for synthesizing information and spreading a quick note.  Unlike Facebook, where each person has their own space to call their own, Twitter is solely composed of these small blurbs.  “Tweet” a fact out, and anyone in the world can see it.  This creates a powerful way to spread your ideas.  You could require your students to have a Twitter account and “follow” you.  In this manner you can send out links to articles, quick facts, or reminders for that pesky test coming up in a few days.  This is yet another casual way for students to interact with you and the topic at hand.  Professors these days show “live tweets” from their students during classes – instant feedback on the material.  These tweets could be part of class participation – since they are putting their thoughts and ideas out for the world (literally) to see.

Some of you out there may be saying “But Mike, if you promote these sites during class won’t they just distract your students and reduce their attention to the material?”  Well, it’s reducing their attention to me definitely.  I have little faith that all of my students are paying attention to me at any given time.  They are already on these sites during class (seriously, go into any class over 40 students and peek at the screens of the back 20 students), so at least you could provide a way to do so and contribute.

Many top students go to class because they are required to, not to learn from the professor.  If they sit in class and look up topical news articles, science articles, or old-wives tales about your course material…don’t you think you should provide them a way to share these with the rest of your class and get answers/feedback?

Does anyone out there use social media sites in their classroom?  I’m especially interested in learning if anyone uses something besides Twitter and Facebook.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE:  Here’s a helpful link for Twitter possibilities:  http://www.teachthought.com/social-media/60-ways-to-use-twitter-in-the-classroom-by-category/

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