The Great Social Media Experiment

During the past two weeks we conducted an experiment where we had class using only social media tools. We conducted class via tweets using a common hashtag and posts to a Facebook page. Even though I am very familiar with both tools and use them frequently, the total immersion into social media for learning was rather interesting to say the least.

I have been a fan of Twitter as a classroom tool. I think Twitter is a good way to engage a roomful of students in a discussion and sustain it beyond the classroom walls. The short posts force students to think critically about what they want to say and get to the meat of their topic. In a large class where engaging all the students would not be otherwise possible, Twitter provides a voice to every student. Twitter also permits the otherwise shy student a certain measure of anonymity and safety in a group discussion, allowing them more freedom of expression. Controversial topics can be discussed without open war. Whereas most classroom discussions end at the classroom door, Twitter allows students to continue the discussion on as long as they find the topic engaging. There are stories of conversations taking off and continuing long after the official class period has ended. I know in our situation, even after Dr. Warren called time, the conversation continued for a while.

Using Facebook for educational purposes was new to me. I have used and kept a blog throughout my educational career, at least since I went back for my master’s degree. I have two Facebook pages; one for my personal use and a fan page I use to market my brand as an author. My Facebook account is tied to my Twitter account and as a result I often post educational things to my Facebook page. I have set up postings from my blog to feed to both Twitter and Facebook automatically. I can see the informal benefits of using Facebook this way. I also see the need for Facebook as a communication medium with today’s students. They are already up there and using the tool and this is one of the best ways to get your message out. If you post an event up there, students are more likely to hear about it. After the event, students can post pictures to the page, especially if you link it to an Insta-gram account with a hashtag. What is new for me is the idea of using Facebook as an educational forum, posting and communicating there asynchronously the way you might on a learning management system (LMS).

I have used some LMS tools which mimicked Facebook in certain ways. Schoology, for example, has a very similar look and feel to Facebook packaged up in a true LMS that supports grading, feedback, file management, assessments, and other standard tools. Another tool meant to introduce social media to education is the site Lore.com. This site imitates Facebook almost to the letter, but is open only to educators and students. Instructors can create classes and give their students the enrollment information to join the class. Once a student signs up for the class, the medium acts very much like Facebook, allowing participants to “like” and comment on posts. Unlike Facebook, however, the tool supports file uploads and boasts a library that can keep track of course materials. Instructors can create events, add multimedia, attach files, and link to other websites to give students access to content. Students can then discuss the content and create shared meaning.

In my opinion, the past week was not as effective as our synchronous online sessions for learning, but it was not totally ineffective either. In a classroom where synchronous learning is not a possibility, or where students cannot all be present for the synchronous activities, social media may provide a suitable alternative that gets the job adequately accomplished.

I am part of an unusual group of students. In our synchronous group, there are very few that don’t participate verbally. Even the quietest of students finds their voice in our online sessions and is able to express themselves well. In a traditional classroom setting, that is not always the case, especially in a very large class. Tools like Twitter may provide an opportunity for these reluctant students to come forward and express themselves. They may provide a means of equal participation in a class of 200 students. While social media tools may not be ideal, they are certainly better than some solutions out there.

I believe these tools hold value and should be made available for teaching and learning. Instructors need to become familiar and comfortable with the tools. They need to learn about options for display in a classroom setting, such as Twitterfall, and they need to be informed of best practices and ways to protect student privacy and deal with situations such as students without devices or students who lack “smart” technology. The informed educator can then add these tools into their educational tool belt. With the right knowledge and understanding these tools can be applied to situations appropriately to enhance student experiences and make classes more engaging and interactive for students. They are not, however, a fix-all and should not be used indiscriminately.

In short, I enjoyed our week-long experiment culminating in a two-hour social media blast, but I would not want to try and learn this way all the time. I am glad the experiment is over and we can go back to our regularly scheduled program! I am glad I had the experience and can use this as a point of reference when working with faculty to incorporate social media appropriately into higher education classrooms, especially online classes.

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