Using Social Media in the Classroom — An Introduction

UH Digital Archives

Consider the following — you’re lecturing in Agnes Arnold Auditorium 1, about three weeks into the semester. Students have settled into a routine where they show up (generally) on time, sit peaceably, watch your slide presentation and dutifully take notes. You’ve got an exam scheduled for next week and now would be a good time to informally assess student understanding. So, what do you do?

You could remind students of study groups available.

You could remind them to ask questions of their lab instructor.

You could give them a study sheet to prepare for the exam.

Or you could ask them to immediately tweet short replies to a pertinent question you pose, and have those tweets display on the video projector. You can immediately get a sense of what students are thinking en masse and see variants of responses. Within one minute you can have dozens or hundreds of real ideas from real students for everyone to review and comment on, even after class.

If you choose the latter option, you’re using social media in the classroom to engage students in their own learning — low (or no) cost, simple interactions between you, the course material, and the students

Definition, examples
Social media is the use of technology to build, sustain, and improve communities and to communicate interests and information within the community. The best-known examples of social media include Web 1.0 applications such as AOL and most Web pages (including most course Web sites), as well as Web 2.0 applications such as Twitter, Facebook, blogs, and on-line discussion forums.

Your Teaching Philosophy — Why Use Social Media ?
Technology per se and social media in particular should only be used to support the presentation of course content, assess student learning, and facilitate student inter-communication. As with any technology and any media, social media should be used to engage students in learning, not to detract from it. This sounds obvious, but is often overlooked. For example, there is a world of difference between using a PowerPoint presentation to read to the students, and using one to illustrate content to students.

Instructors choose to use social media not because they find it intimidating (it’s not) or because they can’t find time to use interactive media in their instruction (they can). They utilize social media to enhance the classroom and lab as students participate more, vocalize their understanding more often, and engage with their peers in learning scaffolding strategies.

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Why Not to Use Social Media in the Classroom
As with any technology, social media can be abused and grossly misused if the larger purpose of engagement is forgotten. Sometimes we see professors use response technology as a “gee-wiz” toy — just to show the students something different without enforcing actual learning. Other misuses of any technology include making the students busy just to keep them busy. It would be a mistake to believe that just because “this generation expects technology,” we must use it outside the real purpose of learning. Technology should only be used for real engagement — wherein the student is actively learning with measurable results.

Problems with Using Social Media in Learning
The immediate concern with using social media in the classroom is the digital divide — some students having easy access to devices, communication, or software that others do not. This is an important consideration at the University of Houston with our students — many come from homes that simply do not have all the gadgets that others have. To insist on using technology outside of the classroom that some students cannot afford would be incorrect — though we can require students to purchase a text book or a clicker, we cannot require them to purchase a new smart phone or Mac. This series of blog postings, however,  will focus on social media tools which are free or so easily accessible on campus that every student can participate.

Again, it’s about student engagement — really involving the student in his own learning using tools that he is likely already using for other facets of his social or academic life, but to strengthen his learning in your classroom.

In the comments, please feel free to offer your experience, suggestions, and questions about using social media in your classroom. We’ll respond in comments below, and in future posts.

Next: Class Engagement in 140 Characters or Fewer


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