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.