What is Social Media?

If we’re going to talk about social media, something that people have different degrees of familiarity with, we should first define it.

Social media is any tool online that allows people to interact with each other. That can include the more obvious public platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat. But it also includes entities like YouTube, Quora, Reddit, Tumblr, other blogging platforms, and, more recently, TikTok.

Social media offers a host of opportunities to expand learning and engage students. But before you plunge in, it’s important to think carefully about how you plan to implement it and potential points of resistance among students, to ensure you’re committed to sustaining the effort.

Why Would We Be Discussing Social Media in the Classroom?

Social media is a set of tools that are used across all aspects of modern life, and the idea of “social media” commands a lot of attention as a concept. It is ostensibly an interactive tool, but all interaction is not created equally, and thought needs to be given to the purpose or use case behind any technology you employ. There are a variety of platforms and kinds of activities that fall under the social media umbrella, some of which we don’t always thing to include.

What are the Possible Values of Social Media for Learning?

Each social media type and platform has a particular usefulness that can be employed in different ways, depending on the context. Some, like Twitter, are great for different kinds of threads addressing concepts or issues discussed in class. For example, Twitter is useful for sharing and discussing the interpretation of graphical data representation. Others, like Instagram and TikTok, are well suited for sharing quick pictures and videos of activities, perhaps to reinforce learning or level set students on important concepts. Blogs are useful for helping students practice writing for specific audiences and honing editing and analytical skills by challenging them to dissect arguments and assumptions. YouTube is a platform I have used in my classes quite a bit. I have had students create concept videos, or even artistic projects, and upload them for the rest of the class to see. This is a great way to expose students to the creativity and thinking of their peers.

Sometimes, students are accustomed to using a platform like Twitter in one particular way, so part of my role is to expose them to new applications they may not have considered. For example, some students use Twitter mainly to hear from friends and share funny memes and GIFs. But it can be an incredible resource for information research and networking.

Speaking of networking, students can use LinkedIn to network with other students and professionals in their field. I led a class last year where I helped them learn how to make LinkedIn Profiles to build connections with others in their fields. It’s a great way to demonstrate how much more accessible thought leaders and experts have become thanks to the ubiquity of tools like this. Learning how to tap into professional groups offers an incredible well-springs of wisdom and information.

Polls on Facebook and Twitter are great fodder for honing research skills. Educators can also use these activities to help students identify research bias and flaws inherent in conducting surveys on these platforms. Insights here offer interesting points of discussion – whether online or in person during class time.

What are the Possible Drawbacks of Using Social Media to Enhance Learning?

Some students see their social media accounts as a private space, using pseudonyms to ostensibly avoid detection. (Don’t worry, I let them know they might not be as anonymous as they think.) But if it is a perceptual issue, it can significantly impede opportunities to dimensionalize learning and should be worked through in class.

Other students may see social media accounts as integral to their personal brand. Others may just flat out see social media as recreational and don’t understand why it would ever be connected to something academic. I have a handful of students who shun social media and have the same complaints as many people in older generations – that it compromises “real” human interaction. These differing opinions are important to be aware of when deciding whether to use social media in the classroom.

Where There is Resistance, There is Adaptation

One alternative strategy is asking students to create accounts specifically for the purposes of academic use. This allows them to keep the social media account “clean” and use it to interact professionally with other students, people within a given field and, of course, the instructor. You can have students post on a class account blog or podcast. Use superhero names. You can implement classroom-based solutions that help address this issue. Tools like Top Hat include features like discussion boards that provide opportunities to extend learning and engagement outside of the class. These tools mimic public social media platforms while fencing them off from the public view. In short, there are all kinds of possibilities.

The key is to understand why you are doing it and what it adds that you wouldn’t be able to achieve otherwise. As I discussed in my article on technology and Generation Z, we can’t just use things because it makes us look innovative. We should be using things where it is either fun or necessary (or both!) to innovate. We should employ tools and methods that are useful and add value to the student experiences. As an instructor, It’s important that you use platforms you are comfortable with and personally see value in. When you ask your students to use social media to enhance their learning and engagement, you are also setting an expectation. It’s important that you are consistently prepared to employ a given tool.

I am always eager to hear from others. Join me on Twitter (@drkmbrownTNN) if you’d like to continue the conversation.

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