To Tweet or Not to Tweet… Social Media in Education

Hello again, readers. I am back again today to talk about a topic that I briefly began discussing in my last post on blogs. That topic, of course, is social media and its role in education. This time around, I am going to expand this topic to cover Facebook, Twitter and other well known sites, as well as programs such as Skype. As always, I will have some literature to go along with this post, as these are meant to be reflections on what I have read, so please have a look at those should you be interested in reading more on this topic.

I will start with the article by Blankenship (2010) in which he briefly details a number of social media outlets as well as gives readers what he calls the “five literacies” that are necessary for using social media effectively. He begins the article talking about how he was asked to give a lecture at Davidson College, which was like many of the guest lectures he had previously done with one exception. This particular lecture was done via Skype. The author notes that the students treated this just like any other lecture as well, taking notes, asking questions, and even contacting him after the lecture was over (p. 11).

Indeed, Skype was used to bring in outside lecturers to the graduate class that I started writing this blog for. Institutions and instructors are no longer limited by distance and budget in who they can put before their students. In fact, the usage of Skype is not for guest instructors alone. Students, too, are able to connect with virtual pen pals in the same manner. Even done as a collective class, it is a profound and engaging method for getting students to communicate in English. I have been toying with such an idea for a while, but I would ideally have students communicating with a single partner in the other classroom via email for a semester and use the Skype video calls as a special treat during which students can actually see each other and exchange questions with the instructors in both classes as facilitators.

Of course, how to use social media effectively is really the heart of the matter. Blankenship brings up the point that the line between personal and professional is already blurred enough as it is without bringing social media in the mix (p. 12). This was not Blankenship’s point of view, but it is a valid one regardless. In order to outline what is necessary for effective social media usage, Blankenship introduces us to Howard Rheingold’s fivelieracies of social media. As using social media is not an inherent ability, we must be trained to use it, according to Rheingold (p. 12).

The first of these literacies is attention. Rheingold says we must know where and when to place our attention when we are using social media. This also includes being able to discern between when our attention should be focused on social media and when it should be focused upon the “real world.” He cites times when he would be lecturing in front of a class and most of the students would never look up from their computers or mobile phones. This would be the result of students not possessing this particular literacy (p. 12).

Another literacy is participating. Rheingold says that one must know when to participate, citing commenting on a blog as a common example. He notes that not only do we need to know when to participate, we must know how to do so in such a way that is appropriate and helpful. Collaboration is next and, unsurprisingly, our good friend Wikipedia is mentioned. Rheingold says that not only must we know how to collaborate with peers in the real world, we must know how to do so online as well. Without such knowledge, things like Wikipedia would not exist (p. 12).

Network Awareness is next, although the explanation given is rather short. Rheingold states that users must be aware of how social networks work. This involves knowing how to utilize things such as privacy settings. I assume this is because, unless you have a separate account for your professional life, there is a need for keeping certain people from viewing posts and photos related to our personal lives. I find the separate account to be much easier, personally (p. 12).

Critical Consumption is the final literacy, although Rheingold has a more appropriate name in the form of “crap detection.” This, of course, means determining which content is reliable and of quality, although Rheingold does state that it can also be about determining which information is personally relevant to us as well. This again ties back to the post on Wikipedia, not in terms of relevant information, but certainly when talking about reliable and quality information for the purposes of academia (p. 12).

I believe Blankenship is certainly correct in that social media is not going away so rather than ignore it, we should find ways to embrace it. Doing so requires us to be well-informed and fluent in the usage of what we introduce in our classrooms. Otherwise, we could end up with a disaster on our hands if we do something as foolish as step over that blurred line between the professional and personal. Administrators are certainly the most critical in terms of protecting students’ privacy, as they should be. No educator wants to lose their job because they had a great idea for using social media, but failed in their execution.

Expanding the discussion to some of most widely used social media sites, George and Dellasega (2011) researched the use of social media in two different graduate-level medical humanities courses. This research was interesting, at least to me, because medical humanities was not one of the areas in education that I imagined benefitting from social media integration. Also surprising was how students in one of the courses migrated their activity from the initial designated social media to that of a blog, which yet again underlines the usefulness of blogs in terms of promoting collaboration between students.

In the first study, Twitter was used to give students in a creative writing for medicine course brief writing prompts from the instructor. Twitter also served as a way to connect students to prompts from their peers as well. These students, upon mastering this format, moved their work to a shared blog where they posted everything from homework assignments, materials, and creative writings to questions for the peers to respond to right on the blog. I am a bit surprised that the students chose a shared blog instead of keeping their own personal work on a blog of their own and merely commenting on each others’ blogs, but my interest lies in the fact that they practically did away with Twitter usage altogether (p. e430-e431).

In the second study, YouTube was utilized to share videos from a number of Alzheimer’s advocacy groups around the world in order to help students gain some perspective on how the disease is viewed from culture to culture. Other videos were also used to show Alzheimer’s patients in various countries engaging in a number of activities that helped to demonstrate that they are still capable of meaningful interaction with others. Following this, one student even opted to submit their final project in the form of a YouTube video (p. e431).

In my case, I also believe that YouTube is a fantastic source of realia and often use it in my classes in order to teach students about foreign culture or as a bit of listening practice. Having students use the format for projects generally brings about a multitude of privacy concerns, as the authors note, so instructors must be careful when using YouTube for such purposes (p. e431).

The authors also mention the use of Twitter in this second study, although I am not so convinced by the purpose. When visiting an assisted living residence for the first time, prior to holding storytelling sessions with the residents there, students used Twitter to tweet field notes in real-time, as well as communicate with their instructor and ask questions. The authors note that Twitter allowed for the documentation of moment-to-moment insights and experiences, which were later reviewed in class, but unless it was necessary for classmates to also be able to view these records, any messaging program could have been used in place of Twitter. Also, given that Twitter limits the number of characters allowed for a single tweet, it is possible that some students wasted time cutting their questions and observations down to 140 characters whereas messaging programs such as Skype, LINE, etc. do not have these issues (p. e431).

Also interesting was the usage of Flickr in this second study. The course instructor, who took photos during the storytelling sessions done by the students, uploaded the photos to Flickr so that all of the students could easily access them for use in their own final projects. This makes sense as Flickr utilizes cloud storage that enables students to be able to access the photos from any computer with Internet access. Dropbox, Google Drive, and other cloud storage programs offer similar functionality, but if students have the desktop versions of these services installed, all of the photos will be downloaded to the students’ computers, taking up space on their hard drives. Considering that most students probably only used a few of the pictures for their own projects, hosting the photos on a site where students can go in and choose which to download makes the most sense (p. e432).

While I still find it hard to argue for the integration of sites such as Facebook and Twitter into the classroom, services like YouTube can prove useful for introducing topics or expanding on those being studied by our students. Blogs and services like Flickr, meanwhile, help to increase collaboration, as well as share insights, experiences, and materials. Given the inherent interconnectedness of social media, it is possible that Twitter and Facebook will also find ways to become useful to educators, and indeed there may be some instructors already using these sites in meaningful ways. The research on social media in education is scarce, at present, but as time goes on, more strategies and ideas for making use of the social media phenomenon are bound to come to light. As always, it is our job as educators to remain well-informed and be aware of the benefits and potential pitfalls of what we introduce in our classrooms. At the very least, I hope that you, dear readers, have found some new and interesting ideas for your own classrooms through consideration of the research presented here. I know that I have and the possibilities genuinely excite me.

Blankenship, M. (2010). How social media can and should impact higher education. The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education, 21, 11-12.

George, D. R. & Dellasega, C. (2011). Use of social media in graduate-level medical humanities education: Two pilot studies from Penn State College of Medicine. Medical Teacher, 33, e429-e434.

Do You Even Blog, Bro?

I am not above a little Internet humor and meme referencing, as you can see, readers. Today’s post, quite amusingly, deals with blogging and whether blogs have a place in the realm of education or whether they are best kept out of the classroom. I will argue for the former while going over some of the research on the subject that I found both relevant and interesting. Of course, there are several ways to use a blog to begin with. Some people never get around to writing a blog and merely read those of other people. Up until seven weeks or so ago (as of the time of writing this post), I was certainly one of those people. Those that write blogs can also do so in a variety of ways. Most people choose to write solo, whether on one blog or multiple, while others co-author blogs with friends or colleagues with the same interests, much in the same way that most of the papers that I have reflected upon have been co-authored by two or more people. So what does the research have to say about blogs?

Divitini et. al. (2005) found that blogs were ineffective for enhancing interactivity amongst students, with only six out of 31 students posting any content to either their personal blog or the common blog shared amongst all students (Usage of the blog section, ¶1). I find this to be a result of how the blog was introduced to the students in the first place. The blog, in this research, was just another optional tool for communication between students that existed in addition to other forms of communication, such as the university’s Learning Management System (LMS). Indeed, students cited the fact that the blog was just another system that they would have to learn to navigate on top of the LMS and, with a heavy workload, they simply did not have time to devote to the blog as well (Motivations section, ¶1). I believe that unless students are required to use a blog, results such as this are inevitable. While many students are likely more aware of what a blog is nowadays than they were back in 2005, the majority probably have never written one and likely would not unless prompted to as part of their coursework.

Kim (2008) found that blogs have many advantages over other computer-mediated communication (SMC) systems such as email and Blackboard. First, systems such as Blackboard require that students visit a website that acts as a central hub in order to participate in any sort of discussion, or to even become aware that one is taking place. This means students may completely miss out on a discussion or lose interest (p. 1343). The authors compare this to the RSS feed system used by blogs that sends an updated list of information to students that they can easily check at their convenience (p. 1344). Of course, with Blackboard and other similar systems now having smartphone applications, receiving notifications is not necessarily an issue so perhaps this grievance may not have the same weight it did when the authors wrote this paper.

Perhaps more important are the next several issues raised. The author noted that current CMC systems do not promote any sense of ownership and may actually cause some students to feel anxiety over participating in online discussions. With a blog, however, students take ownership over the content that they produce, which can help lower anxiety about posting while increasing motivation at the same time. Unlike posting in communal areas where students may be afraid that their opinion is in the minority, having a personal blog to post on gives a sense of safety to the owner about posting their thoughts on a subject. Also contrary to the CMC systems is the fact that teachers are not the ones disseminating information. Blogs are a decentralized system of communication that students can tailor to their own preferences. This makes for a more relaxed atmosphere that encourages commenting and intercommunication. Blogs also have the advantage of being filed in chronological order, with comments and discussions attached to the blog entry themselves rather than appearing at the top of a thread, as is the case with online message boards where you see the newest comment before seeing the original post. This means that anyone can read a blog post and then follow the attached discussion from start to finish in the comments attached to that piece (p. 1344).

Indeed I have found all of these things to be true when writing this blog and reading those of my fellow classmates. Certainly the sense of ownership motivates me to produce my best work and RSS activity feeds helped me to keep track of my classmates’ progress on their blogs as well. Seeing what my peers were producing also helped to increase my motivation and so I believe that in an educational context, personal blogs rather than community blogs are to be preferred if we wish for student adoption rates to be high. While I cannot say that I have ever had anxiety over posting in communal spaces such as message boards, as I have spent a considerable amount of time doing so in the past, having something that is entirely attributed to me is a completely different experience and so extra effort goes into ensuring the quality of my writing, which is what I would want out of my students as well.

Finally, in the research by Halic et. al. (2010), results showed that sense of community was directly related to perceived learning. When students felt a strong sense of community by connecting with their peers using blogs, they reported more satisfactory learning experiences. They also found that interaction with the instructor via the blogs was important to the level of perceived learning by the students. They go on to mention that while unstructured blogging can facilitate communication between students and still foster a sense of community, the presence of the instructor can help to focus discussions and keep students from veering off from course-specific issues (p. 211). As someone who has always valued feedback, I would say that getting comments from an instructor on what is being produced is, indeed, a critical factor in the success of blog utilization in education. Peer feedback also helps me to reflect and reconsider my own ideas, although the research by Halic et. al. indicated that only 25% of those surveyed said that they valued peer feedback. Not everyone is comfortable with receiving peer feedback, particularly if it is negative. Thus, instructors that wish to use blogs as part of their assigned coursework may want to consider a structure for comments made by peers, such as having students comment on one post that they find interesting each week, while leaving other praise and criticism to the instructor to write in their comments.

To wrap things up, I can say that I personally find blogs to be a fantastic tool for helping students to reflect on and think more deeply about what they have learned or read about in a given class. Being able to read and comment on the blogs of peers also opens us up to new opinions and viewpoints that we may not have considered, which further enhances our learning. Blogs can also be used as a form of journal as well, with students publishing their works to their blog, effectively creating a portfolio that they can then go back and reflect upon and which documents their progress as they grow as writers. Students might be surprised after keeping a blog for a one-year course as they compare their first entry to their last. This also lets instructors utilize methods of dynamic assessment (DA), evaluating students on not only the writing they produce, but how well they adapt and change their writing strategies based on feedback given by the instructor. Most courses evaluate students by comparing their work to that of others, but by using portfolios via the medium of blogs, instructors can evaluate students on their growth and how well they overcame individual issues and problem areas. Of course, DA can be utilized with standard, hard copy portfolios, but having peer and instructor feedback and instant availability of the portfolio (provided there is Internet access) makes blogging a more powerful tool, in my opinion.

Divitini, M., Haugalokken, O., & Morken, E. M. (2005). Blog to support learning in the field: Lessons learned from a fiasco. In
Proceedings of the Fifth IEEE International Conference on Advanced Learning Technologies (ICALT’ 05).

Halic, O., Lee, D., Paulus, T., & Spence, M. (2010). To blog or not to blog: Student perceptions of blog effectiveness for learning in a college-level course. The Internet and Higher Education, 13(4), 206-213. doi:10.1016/j.iheduc.2010.04.001

Kim, H. K. (2008). The phenomenon of blogs and theoretical model of blog use in educational contexts. Computer & Education, 51, 1342−1352.