Make Facebook Your Friend: expanding the classroom with social media

Courtesy of Freestyle Interactive

Like it or not, 95 percent of college students use Facebook, usually for several hours each week. More than half use Twitter. You can resist that trend, banning laptops in class. But why not leverage the force of social media for educational good?

That’s the central question I posed to higher education faculty and technology support staff at the Lilly Conference on College and University Teaching last month. The response to my presentation was refreshing and invigorating. The dozens of instructors in attendance were receptive to the potential of social media, so long as there are strategies and safeguards to ensure it is used productively.

My experience at UNCG Online shows that it’s possible for social media to be a teaching tool.

For the details on my presentation, you can view the Prezi or download my presentation resources on how to set up the technology for a class. But here are the highlights, grouped around the central questions the presentation asked.

Why use social media?

We’ve already touched on the vast percentage of people using social media, figures that grow every year. But could those using social media actually be doing better in class as a result? Possibly. A fascinating study published last year indicated that it’s not whether you use Facebook, but how you use it, that makes a difference. Solitary activities such as posting status updates had a negative relationship with grades. But activities such as sharing links, commenting on other posts, or connecting with friends — in short, using social media to be social — had a positive relationship with grades. Remember that social media is just like every other communications tool invented by man, it can be used for good or ill. Plenty of people waste time on the phone or in front of the TV, but those mediums still have value when used with the right purpose. Social media is no different.

What are the major platforms?

Thanks to the folks at Freestyle Interactive, attendees at my session were introduced to the big social media players as if they were superheroes (that’s where the “Facebook as Hulk” came from). It underscored the point that the most powerful networks aren’t always the most flexible. Facebook’s built-in familiarity is great, but if you want more control, consider some of the other options.

  • Twitter: Expands connections to transcend, not just replicate, your face-to-face network with a wide range of expert commentaries and perspectives.
  • YouTube: Only does one thing, but does it well, so its videos should be integrated with other social network platforms.
  • WordPress: A blogging platform at its core, but incredibly versatile with enough plug-ins to create an interactive class website without needing to know any code.
  • Google+: Offers the most privacy controls for sharing content and also has powerful video-chat feature, but can be tricky to learn at first.

How can social media be deployed?

At UNCG Online, we’ve used the social media platforms highlighted above to create active discussion and a sense of community that’s often missing from online classes. Here are the tactics that have worked for us.

  • A Facebook group looks, feels, and functions the same as normal Facebook, but all sharing is done in a private space. It’s great for class discussion, linking to current events, or collaborative work
  • A Twitter hashtag (#topic) categorizes posts, making it easy to search the platform for specific topics or filter out anything not related to a certain category.
  • A WordPress blog allows for discussion threads that incorporate multimedia, custom designs, and pages of static content. All discussions are easy to archive.
  • A Google+ page allows for selective sharing, hiding content from one group while making it visible to others. It also has a built-in, video-chat feature that’s useful for virtual office hours.
  • YouTube offers a number of ways to embed videos directly onto each social media platform without having to send visitors directly to YouTube’s site.

When can social media enhance learning?

What’s most important when it comes to social media is not whether it’s used or even how it’s used. What really matters is the strategy and objectives behind your use. Think of social media as a teaching assistant you can hire (for free!) to do a certain job. If you’ve defined the goal behind introducing social media — whether that’s improving student research, encouraging creativity, or deepening student engagement — you’re much more likely to have success with your platform of choice. Social media can bring lessons to life, enable a large lecture class to have a real-time discussion, or make connections between course material and the real world. Once you’ve clearly defined its role in your class, it can quickly become a trusted friend.

Have you ever used social media for education — either as a teacher or student? What worked? What didn’t? What potential does social media possess as more learning goes online?

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