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Reflections on Teaching with Social Media

Social Media IconsAs I’m a little more than a month out from the semester’s end, I’ve been reflecting on different aspects of the semester: things that worked well, things that didn’t work at all, and things that could be tweaked for the future. In particular, I’ve been musing on how I integrated social media into my classes.

My classes tend to be fairly technologically heavy for a number of reasons: my own research revolves around the use of technology within narratives; I believe that teaching humanities students to use different tools in the classroom teaches them transferable skills; and I like to experiment with how technology can change the classroom space. In other words, I use technology in the classroom for thematic, practical, and pedagogical reasons. I even have a technology policy in my syllabus.

That being said, I used more social media this semester than I have previously. And as I mentioned previously, some of it worked and some didn’t. Herewith, then, are my thoughts on the tools that I used.

Twitter

In three out of the four classes that I taught this semester, I asked my students to use Twitter. In one class, the students were explicitly assigned to use Twitter on a daily basis. Since the class was specifically about media theory, Twitter seemed an important real-time medium to investigate. The other two classes were different sections of a survey of American literature, which tended to be lecture-y much of the time. In there, I introduced Twitter as a tool that was available to them to use as a backchannel during the lectures. I kept the fourth class (a third section of the American lit survey) Twitter free as a way of having a control group. In all of the classes I wanted to give the students a way to communicate easily with one another inside and outside of class. I also hoped that it would change the classroom dynamic. Would knowing what each other was thinking inside and doing outside of class builds what Clive Thompson has called a  social sixth sense?

In all three of these classes, almost all of my students had heard of Twitter. This meant that my job was much easier than when I started using Twitter in classes in 2008, where only two out of thirty students would even know what the medium was. While they already knew about Twitter, however, most of the students were not already using the service. I spent a portion of a day in each of the classes getting the students into the system and demonstrating how it worked. This meant that everyone was on equal footing with an introduction to the platform. (I use Dave Parry’s great approach to getting students started with Twitter.)

Even though I started each class in the same way, the differences between how it was used were surprising. Not surprisingly, in the class where everyone was required to tweet regularly, the participation was high. About 1/3 of the students quickly tired of the platform, but kept using it out of concern for their grades. But all of the students conceded that it became a useful tool for corresponding with one another about assignments or work. They found that I was especially accessible on Twitter given my long commute, although they strangely did not take advantage of my digital office hours. A few students learned that they shouldn’t tweet while class was happening if they had decided to skip class that day. Overall, I was pleased with the project.

In the other two classes, where Twitter use was completely voluntary, things were different. In the first class, a group of six or seven regular users emerged, and they would tweet occasionally throughout our class periods where I displayed the Twitter feed for the class. They posted links to material that extended our class discussion, asked one another questions, and poked fun at me. A good time was generally had, although less students ended up taking advantage of it than I had thought. In the third class, there was only one day of true classwide tweeting before all but two students abandoned the platform en masse. And those two students preferred to tweet outside of class rather than during. I kept displaying the class Twitter feed for four weeks or so, but eventually took it down as it was a reminder that no one was playing along. What made the difference? I don’t know that it was anything that I did so much as it was the particular group of students. It just wasn’t a tool that clicked for many of them. And when most people weren’t playing along, everyone else abandoned ship as well.

Did Twitter help establish a social sixth sense for my classes? I believe it did for the one where everyone tweeted on a daily basis. We suddenly knew about one another’s lives outside of class and that enabled conversations to happen in class more easily than they otherwise would have. The students also learned something about creating online personas that at times differed in significant ways from their real personas. While there’s certainly a fine line between teacher and student relationships, we made this subject a portion of our class discussions and found it useful. In the second and third classes, I got less of a sense of a classroom shift, and I believe that this was due to less overall buy-in to the tool.

In the future, I think that I will continue to make use of Twitter-like tools for in-class sharing of information, especially during lectures. While I was watching the feed and would comment on what they were saying as a portion of the lecture, I believe that I could have had more students playing along with the lectures if there would have been a way for me to interact with their tweets on Twitter itself. That’s obviously difficult if you are teaching a course, but if I had had a TA in any of the courses, that might have made for a more fruitful interaction.

Wiki

I tend to use a PBworks wiki as my LMS of choice. But as I have mentioned previously I not only post syllabi and assignments on the wiki, but I have students use it as well, with a Jason’s wiki notes assignment. I’ve used this assignment for four semesters in a row, and while it takes a little bit for the students to understand both the idea of collaborative note taking and the wiki itself, it’s probably the best thing that I do for getting my students to understand the material that we cover in class. Even the students like the assignment–especially when it’s exam time. What I like about using the wiki this way is that it makes use of a wiki’s natural advantages. I’ve not had to change my approach to using it much for the last three semesters, and I don’t think that I will in the future.

Google Wave

Since I like the collaborative aspects of social media in the classroom, I also wanted my students in the media class to experiment with Google Wave. As opposed to Kathleen’s positive experiences teaching with Wave, I had an abominable time. In large part, this was due to my students not being able to get accounts. I had plenty of invites, but none of my students seemed able to receive them. The result was that by the time we were supposed to start using Wave in the class, a full third of the class still wasn’t in the system.

Like Kathleen, we were going to use Wave as a way of taking collaborative notes. But where I differed from her approach was that I had the students use the wiki for the first half of the semester for these notes; we then transitioned to Wave. The point of doing this was to allow the students to evaluate two different media for collaborative document writing. But looking back, I think that it was a bad move. When it came time to switch, the students understood the wiki and were working well within it. Wave was similar in many ways, but different in enough ways that it was as if they had to learn the assignment again from the beginning. The result was a sort of tool fatigue. My take away from this experiment was to pick one tool for an assignment and stick to it. I’ll use Wave again in the future, I’m sure, but I believe I’ll use it like Kathleen and just start with it from the beginning so we can iron out the problems. This will be easier now that Wave account creation is no longer by-invite only.

Zotero

We here at ProfHacker are big fans of Zotero, the Firefox plugin for collecting, managing, citing, and sharing research. This semester I decided to have one of my classes do an annotated group bibliography in Zotero. I had two reasons for giving the students this assignment. First, I wanted them to learn to use what I consider to be a tool that could be useful in classes outside of my own. Second, I wanted the students to benefit from one another’s bibliographies when it came time to writing final papers.

I created a shared library for the students in my very brave (and very patient) media theory class, and at set points throughout the semester they had to contribute a certain number of sources that were shared, tagged, and annotated according to the assignment’s directions. As happened with Wave, there were a few hiccups in this assignment. Some students’ computers were sufficiently ancient (the seniors in the class, particularly) that Zotero sometimes slowed their computers to a crawl. It also appeared that we overwhelmed the Zotero sync servers when the first assignment came due, and it took about a week for each of us to receive all of the sources. (To be fair to Zotero, this wasn’t a problem during the other two due dates of the semester.) Those technical issues aside, however, I believe that most of the students found the assignment to be useful. None of them had heard of Zotero before, and they liked the idea of sharing sources with one another…although I didn’t find any evidence in their final papers that they had really built on the work that their classmates had already done. I would certainly do this assignment again, but I also was reminded of how easily an assignment that is dependent on some technology can get waylaid if that tool does not behave properly. While I already knew how great the tool was, those students using it for the very first were not at all convinced at first of its usefulness.

And so on….

This list of social media that I inflicted on my students used in the classroom isn’t complete. We also used Google Docs in my American lit survey (Julie has already [and brilliantly] covered using Google Docs in the classroom twice and my media theory class played around with the browser-based game The Nethernet. (Attacking students and planting mines around the course wiki? Yes, please!) But as I reflect, here is what I think I’ve most learned from a semester with heavy social media use:

  1. Be ready for problems. Even if you’ve never had any yourself, the number of students and of students’ computers (whether personal or in a lab) will insure that you have some.
  2. Be conscious of tool fatigue. The classroom should be a place where lots of learning takes place and where the patterns of learning can be shifted in interesting ways. Just don’t overdo it.
  3. In the end, I still think it is worth it.

What experiences have you had using social media in the classroom? What are your favorite tools? Which would you never, ever use again?

[Image by Flickr user webtreats / Creative Commons licensed]

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