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Social Media as a Teaching Tool


Twitter's popular hashtag, #thatawkwardmomentwhen gains another contribution when Criseyde tweets, "I just realized that my uncle is setting me up with the King's son... "

Of course, Criseyde, the ill-fated lover who makes a cover appearance in Chaucer's poem, Troilus and Criseyde, doesn't have her own Twitter account. She and others from Chaucer's Medieval writings must rely on the students in an upper-level class at Shenandoah University to say what they would if they could in a social media experiment being tried out by instructor Bryon Grigsby.

Grigsby, who is also the vice president of academic affairs at the Virginia institution, is one of multiple instructors in campuses who have dived into the deep end to test out the use of social media as a teaching tool to support student learning without knowing the outcome.

At Georgetown University, Professor Betsy Sigman is using Google+ in her courses at the McDonough School of Business. There she's trying out the social networking platform to help students keep up with current events on data, the topic of the course she's teaching.

A Visit to Chaucerland

Shenandoah runs iMLearning, an integrated mobile technology program that hands out to all incoming students Apple mobile products, including a MacBook Pro laptop as well as an iPhone, iPad3G, or iPod touch. So when Grigsby decided to teach a course on Chaucer, "the greatest English poet ever," he pondered how the class could use technology in a creative way.

Struck by other programs he'd heard about where students re-enact historic events day by day, Grigsby came up with the idea of using Twitter. Each of the 14 students in the class has access to the user name and password for Chaucerland, the Twitter account set up for the course. As the class works through that day's Chaucer text, students are encouraged to post new dialog that wasn't part of the story, but could have been. "It's probably the only class where you'll hear the instructor say, 'Log into twitter and start tweeting while we talk today,'" jokes Grigsby. "The rules are pretty simple: They have to stay true to the story, and they can't go further than we read."

Initially, Grigsby thought he'd make the tweets an assigned part of the class. But he quickly realized that the posts were anonymous -- he couldn't tell who was posting what. Students were hesitant at the beginning of the program to exploit the platform. So Grigsby addressed that by posting a few items himself -- also anonymously. Then he walked into class and said, "You know, you guys are doing such a great job with this Twitter account. I'm amazed at the things you've posted." Suddenly, he notes, "there was a big flurry. They got into it."

The students sit with their laptops, Grigsby says, with eChaucer, a digital version of the Chaucer stories from the University of Maine at Machias, up in one window and Twitter in another. As the discussion proceeds, he can "see a light go on" for one or another of the students, "and they're probably putting something into the Twitter account."

Recent posts include several from characters who appear in The Knight's Tale. Pronounces Theseus, who has called a joust to decide who should get to marry Emily: "We will settle this like men. WITH CAPTURE THE FLAG!" Replies the knight Arcite, who wins the tournament after a prayer to Mars and then gets crushed by his own horse: "You know, I am a little peeved that I wasn't more clear with Mars about this winning thing!" Apparently, Emily doesn't care. She marries Palamon and concludes in a tweet, "This honeymoon thing ain't that bad..."

As a result of the use of the microblogging, the instructor is finding class discussion much more vibrant. "I think they're understanding the characters much better," he says. "They create dialog for the characters. It has to remain within what's plausible. They're not violating the plot or the character development. They're simply adding to it. That's causing them to think about the characters in different ways."

Grigsby isn't convinced that the experiment would work in any class. He typically teaches a freshman seminar, and he's not sure that tweeting in that course would necessarily work. He finds the juniors and seniors in the Chaucer class "much more playful and astute -- and they're OK with doing things for no grade."

However, he hasn't given up on the idea. He frequently teaches a "Dreaming and Afterlife in the World's Religions" course for that freshman seminar. "Maybe," Grigsby muses, "I could have them speak to God through Twitter."

Sigman's business students using Google+

Hanging Out with Google+

"Developing/Managing Databases," a course taught by Sigman as part of the Georgetown business school program on operations and information management, introduces some "dry stuff you have to slog through," she acknowledges. In order to get the students more engaged and make them feel "like they were on the cutting edge of some of the things going on in the database world," the instructor challenged them to keep up with current events when they found something that was interesting and pertained to data -- how it's presented, stored, used, and secured. She also made their participation a part of their grade.

And they responded enthusiastically. Students posted links to videos; photos; reports; articles; different technologies for data storage, data communication, and data visualization. Then they followed up with comments on the posts.

As a platform for maintaining this repository of content, Sigman and the students chose Google+. The group debated the possibilities of using Twitter and Facebook, but there was excitement among some students about using the recently released Google+. Also, says Sigman, "I really wanted to use Google+. From the standpoint of the professor, I really like it because it is restricted to just the class."

Like Facebook, Google+ provides a way for users to connect with each other and share links and upload certain kinds of files. Sigman, in particular, was drawn to several of Google+'s features, including Circles and Hangouts with Extras. Circles provide a structure for organizing groups of people for sharing specific uploads and comments. So to get the use of Google+ started, everybody signed up for a Gmail account, then signed into Google+, and Sigman invited all 46 of her students into a circle; they in turn created their own circles for the class.

Google Hangouts with Extras allows groups of up to 10 people to do on-the-fly video conferencing; screen sharing; Google Docs, Notes, and Sketchpad integration; and YouTube video viewing. Although the limit to the number of participants prevented Sigman from using Hangouts to hold remote classes, she did try it out for office hours and showed students how to use it for collaborating on group projects

An assessment of the use of Google+ among the students was generally favorable. One student reported, "I really enjoyed Google hangouts. I definitely see the business implications of using this system. You can share your screen with colleagues, type documents and sketch. Great too -- especially for being free!" Said another, "Really fun exercise. Will definitley [sic] use in future. Much less glitchy than skype and screen share and shared documents are useful."

The major obstacle: the classroom wireless infrastructure wasn't prepared to handle so much simultaneous Internet access. As a result, students were getting kicked out of Hangouts, experienced lag in performance, or had trouble inviting others into their Circles.

But those glitches haven't prevented Sigman from introducing the use of Google+ into her spring course on electronic commerce.

"If you have a course that has to keep up with what's happening day to day, and especially in a technological field, I think it's excellent," she notes. "As we know, technology changes every day, and it's a fulltime job to keep up with technological changes." Google+, she adds, "is perfect for a class situation."

Engage and Educate

Neither Grigsby nor Sigman knew what the outcome of their experimentation would be. In Sigman's case, she introduced the data class to a number of other online tools as part of the course, inspired by the help she's received from the university's Center for New Designs in Learning & Scholarship (CNdLS). The team assigned to help her from the center, have been "terrific," she says. They've helped me prepare for class, gather data, look at data."

Although Grigsby didn't receive institutional support for his test, he did present it to Shenandoah's director of teaching and learning. "We said, 'This is either going to be a success or it's going to bomb terribly and be mediocre. So we figured we'd give it a try and see how it works."

His advice to others: Don't be afraid to try new approaches. "I don't think there's any really good reason in banning things. Faculty will say, 'Let's ban the laptops, or ban Twitter or Facebook.' We have to figure out a way to use it engagingly and teach students when it s appropriate and when it's not appropriate to be doing that."

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