I had a great time doing a roundtable presentation on teaching with social media at the Western Political Science Association conference yesterday. The roundtable was organized by Janni Aragon of the University of Victoria, who unfortunately wasn’t able to attend, but I was still joined by Juliann Allison of the University of California at Riverside.
My slides are below. I’ll also address some of the concerns attendees raised.
Below are some of the major concerns attendees mentioned. I’ll address these primarily through the lens of using Twitter for my classes, but most of these points would apply to other social media applications as well.
- Further fragmentation of students’ attention through the use of social media.
As we know, both students and faculty face a constantly growing stream of information and input from media sources. Whether requiring them to participate in social media would further divide their attention and focus — as opposed to deepening their engagement with course content — is a legitimate question. My personal take on this — as someone who has unquestionably become far more immersed in her field of study through social media — is that deepening engagement is absolutely possible. However, I realize I’m a bit weird. If nothing else, I would hope that if students are finding their attention already fragmented by the flow of media, we can at least insert into that flow some items that might enrich their experiences in our courses. I also hope that at least some students will take the opportunity offered by courses’ use of social media to read (longer, often better) content that faculty highlight for them in social media. Perhaps it’s best to try to find students where they already are, in the middle of that stream of (social) media content, and get our courses’ content and ideas into that flow.
- [Even greater] commercialization of the educational experience through the requirement of participation in social media, and the provision of student information to companies for data mining.
This has been a concern of mine for some time. As a journalism and media professor, I am constantly working to raise students’ awareness of what they are doing with for-profit media and what, in turn, is being done with/to them. I am truly disappointed by the ways both K-12 and higher education have been subjected to commercial influences in exchange for sometimes life-sustaining funding. That said, I also am in a position that requires me to train students in the use of media production tools that are created by for-profit companies, some of which also will use their data to market to the students in turn. I try to reduce our use of those tools when possible. (For example, I pay out of my own pocket for external hosting of the websites used by the two courses I currently teach in order to avoid the advertising usually present on free sites.) But today’s prospective media professional needs to know how to use Twitter and Facebook, among other tools, for professional purposes. I would be remiss if I did not teach students in my field how to use those things.
So, there are a couple of options here. One is to repudiate these tools’ use completely if their corporations’ goals and practices are not in line with a faculty member’s personal philosophy. Another (which I feel is more realistic and responsible) is to use these tools, but meanwhile, also to maintain a constant dialogue with students about them that supports a critical awareness of the true nature of these tools and of their greater impact on society. In this way, we can combine the best of multiple worlds: we can increase engagement with our course topics, teach media literacy, and provide students a valuable skill that has professional applications.
- Impact on faculty workload.
Tracking students’ social contributions is one challenge. When you’re teaching large classes, requiring students to tweet a certain number of times or contribute a certain amount of content to a social site may be just impossible because there’s no way to efficiently track their work. I don’t require tweeting in my larger classes. That said, there are web tools available to help track Twitter activity; I currently am using iffft to send all of my Media Writing students’ tweets (#mscm175) to an Evernote notebook. At the end of the semester, I’ll count up their tweets to ensure they did their required four tweets per week. In the meantime, I monitor their tweets with a dedicated column on TweetDeck. That’s a class of just 12 students, though. For a class of 120, like I used to teach, I would just make social participation an option — one that helps students who choose to use it feel closer to the professor and other students, and that gives quiet students an opportunity to speak up. Using Twitter as a backchannel during class is also an option for the courageous professor, but out-of-class use is a great approach too. There might also be ways that social media-based projects could replace other assignments that would be graded anyway. At any rate, the point is that faculty don’t have to require students to use social media, and therefore, don’t have to add work in assessing it.
Another aspect of using social media in teaching is, of course, that the faculty member is responsible for generating content — for finding links to interesting and relevant online materials and disseminating them through his/her selected social methods. Ideally, students will also begin generating some items, but the instructor is still going to be responsible for doing the bulk of the work. Personally, I find plenty to share with my students in my everyday online reading. I also subscribe to a variety of blogs, many of which are relevant to my classes, so that’s additional social media fodder. To store up some of the items I find, I use Buffer to schedule tweets (there are many such tools, but this is an easy and free option). Buffer lets me post Tweets on a regular schedule, rather than dumping a ton of links into my Twitter feed at once. This is especially handy when I am catching up on blog reading and find much worth sharing. Odds are, most faculty will have plenty to say in social outlets.
Finally, there’s the additional potential workload of responding to students and others who send personal messages through social media. I haven’t found these conversations to be overwhelming at all, and am always delighted when a student sends me a tweet instead of an email because it establishes a new means of communication between us. It also demonstrates that the student feels comfortable enough with me and with the medium to reach out through it. Having conversations this way might not be for everyone (and maintaining privacy is always a concern), but I enjoy it. I’ve also made a ton of academic and professional contacts through social media that have benefited my career greatly. I could write another full post about that topic. I wouldn’t have been on this WPSA roundtable, for example, if I hadn’t ‘met’ Janni through Twitter!
- Use of social media by students for causing change or advocacy, not just for spreading information.
One of the great points that came up in our discussion was the opportunity to encourage students to try to cause change through their uses of social media. Elsa Dias of Pikes Peak Community College mentioned the recent uses of social media by young people in the Middle East to organize and, ultimately, to provoke massive change in their countries. She compared those uses to the generally unprovocative uses of social media by American youth. I loved the suggestion that we might encourage students to be stronger advocates for the causes they believe in through their social media engagement. There’s plenty of work to be done in just building students’ basic understanding of the appropriate use of social media, but I can definitely see ways in which students who have gained some sophistication with the tools might begin working toward change and creating networks of like-minded young people.
Along with this discussion, however, came a concern for students’ understanding of their civic responsibility in using social media. I mentioned the Kony 2012 campaign, and noted how many students (and adults!) passed along the campaign’s materials using social media before making any effort to personally research or gain insight into the issues portrayed. Along with the critical awareness of social media’s corporate/for-profit nature described above, we also must emphasize with students that when they pass along ideas and links in social media, they are responsible for ensuring that those items are worthy of further distribution. (I’ve written a bit before on the critical reading and writing skills that social media use requires.) If they don’t agree with the items or are skeptical, they need to comment appropriately to express that concern. By encouraging students to maintain that critical stance, we’re helping them prepare more deeply for a world where that constant flow of information will likely only intensify.