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Using Social Media in the Higher Education Classroom

by Justin Marquis Ph.D.

Social media has changed the world. It has allowed people to reconnect with old friends from college, high school, and even elementary school. It has changed the way we shop, schedule appointments, plan vacations, and work. In addition, social media is changing the face of education and the very way in which we learn and think about what it means to know something. In every college and university, social media is being integrated in every way possible, including admissions, campus life, alumni relations, and in the classroom.


Image: basketman / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

At least a part of the admissions process is taking advantage of social networking, as Facebook is being used by students to help them decide which school to attend and college admissions offices are creating groups on the social networking sites to make their prospective students feel more like they are part of the community long before they arrive on campus. Here is a nice synopsis of the ways in which social media is being used in admissions and marketing initiatives from the .eduGuru.

Once students arrive on campus, their social media use mediates the ways in which they interact with their peers. Social arrangements are made via Facebook and Twitter and parents and friends from home are kept up-to-date on all the college happenings via the same channels. Current students are far more connected to people beyond their immediate physical sphere than ever before. The Association for Social Media & Higher Education provides a great source of information on the use of social media in the lives of college students.

Once students leave campus, colleges and universities are taking advantage of social media to stay connected to their alumni. Tweeting current happenings on campus, establishing online affinity groups and soliciting for donations via social networks are all commonplace now. CASE, the Council for Advancement and Support of Education maintains an "Ask the Experts" page about the preferred ways in which alumni want to be engaged with their alma maters via social media.

Social Media has Its Greatest (Potential) Impact in the Classroom

The college classroom is, however the core of the higher education experience and it is also an area in which social media is having a significant impact, but also one where that influence can be greater. A 2010 Pearson social media survey found that four out of five college professors use social media in some capacity in their courses. However, the smallest reported use is in having students create and share their own work through social sites. Research indicates that the use of social media in the classroom can aid in college retention and helping struggling students better understand course material (Junco, Social Media in Higher Education).  Here are a few of the ways in which it is being used (or could be used) in the classroom and some great tools to help you get started.

  • Basic course communication
  • Connecting beyond the campus
  • As a research site
  • Creating and sharing media

Basic Course Communication

Social media is most commonly used in the classroom as a channel for communication between instructor and student. It is a natural fit for online education, which relies on the use of advanced communication technology to connect instructors and learners. The basic use of these tools can range from simply establishing a Facebook page for the class and posting the course syllabus and assignments, to taking attendance through mandatory, topically-related tweets. On the other hand, it can be as complicated as conducting an entire course via these channels and requiring and facilitating full participation in ways that more closely emulate the types of rich interactions possible in a F2F classroom. Some of the best tools to facilitate classroom communication are:

  • Nurph – This tool allows Twitter users to come together for a more formal conversation in a hosted chat room.
  • Present Online Now! – This site provides a free webinar interface to present any type of content.
  • BackNoise – This back channel tool allows conversations to take place while students are engaged with other tasks.
  • Livestream – This tool allows the creation of live video streams of classroom events with embedded chat features.
  • Edmodo – This site lets users establish a class microblogging network for students where they can post, share and critique each other’s ideas.

Connecting Beyond the Campus

While a connection between instructor and other students is nice, it does not really take advantage of the power of the World Wide Web. The Internet provides ready access to other learners, experts, and real-world experiences that an individual teacher cannot match. Using Web 2.0 capabilities to connect your students to others who can spark conversation, provide additional insights, or alternative points of view is a great way to engage students at a much deeper level with course content. Some of the tools available to connect your students to the world beyond the classroom are:

  • Brainify – This is a collaborative learning space for college students to share and create their own knowledge built around a library of academically-focused websites.
  • Classroom 2.0 – A site devoted to learning about the use of social media in education. Discuss the topic with practitioners and researchers.
  • The Global Collaborative – A network of socially-conscious individuals established to understand and solve global problems.
  • Wetoku – This online tool allows students to create and share interviews with people from around the world. A great way to meet experts and gain knowledge directly from them.
  • Browzmi – A collaborative Web browsing tool that utilizes AIM to link learners together in their Internet surfing experiences.
  • epals -  This site features a  global community of connected learners. Students can connect with others to share perspectives on a wide variety of issues.

As a Research Site

Social media is a new and important development in human society and one that is currently wide-open for new research. Engaging students in conducting research in any capacity is both rewarding and educationally speaking, extremely beneficial. Students can undertake their own investigation or collaborate on an instructor led inquiry about the use of social media in society. This type of research may seem best suited to sociology courses, but the proliferation of social networks means that there is a potential research site available for almost any topic: politics, religion, education, medicine, gaming, journalism, etc. There is a social network or social media-related function for groups interested in almost any area students may be interested in. Take advantage of these open avenues for students to conduct research and communicate with real members of a community they are interested in studying. The following tools can be used to find people, rank influencers, locate conversations and themes, assess buzz, and to track changes in online communities:

  • Google Insights – This Google function allows researchers to compare search volume patterns by region, category, time and other properties.
  • Twellow – This social site allows Twitter users to search for other users based on topic or interests.
  • Samepoint – This search engine allows researchers to sift through online conversations and track the buzz around topics.
  • delicious – Built in functions of this popular service allow users to sort bookmarks by popularity.
  • Social Mention – This social media search engine looks at user-generated content from blogs, comments, news, videos and tweets.
  • Technorati – A search engine which looks at user-generated media and checks their popularity indices.

Creating and Sharing Media

One serious underrepresentation of social media use in universities, according to the Pearson survey, is that instructors do not require students to use social avenues to create and share their own media or critique that of others. This is a powerful tool and one of the best ways to have students participate in their own knowledge production. Using social media tools such as YouTube, Wikipedia, and blogs to synthesize knowledge and explore their intellectual voices engages students not only with the current topic they are studying, but also helps them to establish lifelong patterns of inquiry and scholarly communication. Some of the multitude of tools available for media production and sharing in the virtual social sphere are:

  • WordPress or Blogger – Use classroom blogs to encourage students to synthesize their knowledge and share it with their peers and the world.
  • Wikispaces – A free wiki tool ideally suited for students to create their own entries.
  • PodBean or MyPodcast – These sites provide free capture and hosting services for creating and sharing podcasts on any topic.
  • YouTube or Vimeo – These and other online video hosting sites allow users to capture, edit, publish, comment on, and share videos with the world.

These are just a few of the many, many options available to incorporate social media into your classroom. As an online instructor the choices are always at your fingertips and are just a quick search and click away from becoming a significant part of your teaching.