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Digital Literacy | Feature

The Intersection of Digital Literacy and Social Media

As educators look for new ways to teach digital literacy or the use of digital technology to find, organize, comprehend, evaluate, and create information, some are turning to social media to help advance the concept in the college classroom.

"Digital literacy and social media is an inseparable and powerful combination," said William J. Ward, a social media professor at Syracuse University's S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications. "Done correctly, this combination enhances the quality and efficiency of teaching, research, learning, communicating, collaborating, and creating."

Combining digital literacy and social media also helps educators connect and collaborate with students in an online format most of the former has been using in some fashion – be it via Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, Google+, or another platform – for years now. Whether they are connecting with friends and family, gathering news and information, or posting photos and videos, today's youth continues to swarm to social media in droves.

By harnessing some of that activity and using it in the classroom, educators can save time, increase student engagement, and teach in a more efficient manner, said Ward. An added bonus is that digital literacy and social media can be delivered with technology that is open and free online – making the pairing particularly cost effective during an era where every penny counts.

Connect the Dots

For the intersection of social media and digital literacy to have the most impact, educators can't assume that students will embrace the idea because it's cool, digital, and involves their mobile phones. "Students want to talk to their friends on social media sites but they don't necessarily want that exercise to be work-related," Ward pointed out. "It's not as exciting when that extra effort is involved."

There are ways around that challenge, according to Jim Groom, director of teaching and learning technologies at the University of Mary Washington in Fredericksburg, VA. He said colleges leveraging social media to improve digital literacy must focus on students' current use of social media and then find ways to interface those activities with the curriculum. "Asking students to ‘come in and play in my online tree house,' doesn't work," said Groom, whose institution created a blogging platform for students and faculty.

"Through our blogging platform we've been able to integrate social media into our classrooms and teach students not only how to use the Web," explained Groom, "but also the implications of using it and other technology tools to change the practices of teaching and learning."

The platform also helps students shape and reflect upon their online identities – a step that Groom sees as being critical to the effective pairing of digital literacy and social media. Such self-realization typically results in more productive, responsible use of the Web as a learning tool. "A big part of digital literacy," said Groom, "is understanding what it means for other people to see, experience, and find you online."

Throwing lessons at students and asking them to "Tweet about it" or "post it on Facebook" is another ineffective way of connecting the dots between digital literacy and social media. "It has to go deeper than that," said Ward, who points out that his own department's efforts to effectively intertwine the two concepts have included a partnership with social media management dashboard HootSuite. During the spring semester of 2012, Ward and his team integrated the application into the curriculum via a beta test of the vendor's Pro Account offering.

Instead of using traditional books, professors delivered content via a classroom blog and students learned about search engine optimization, content curation, and other relevant topics using the blog and various social media sites. "Students were able to integrate their entire social media presences onto a single platform," said Ward, "and also received Social Media Certifications as part of their classwork."

New Mindsets

Many times, it's the educators who stand in the way of effective digital literacy-social media connections. Getting them into the right mindset to meld the two can be a challenge, said Ward. "A cultural shift has to take place because most professors are used to working in their own silos," he explained. "They're not necessarily accustomed to sharing and don't like to be told how to teach or what to do." To overcome that obstacle, Ward said institutions must create a culture of accountability that includes continuous feedback, acknowledgement, and rewards to empower change.

Ward pointed to Google's compensation model as a good example of a culture of accountability. "Google ties compensation to how well people use digital and social media as part of the bonus multiplier; employee bonuses increase or shrink by a percentage based on how well those elements are done," said Ward. "If higher ed is serious about changing the status quo it can follow this example by also tying compensation and advancement to digital literacy and social media."

The Social Media Umbrella

The perception that social media is limited to specific websites is another hurdle that institutions will be up against. While the social media umbrella does encompass sites like Facebook and Twitter, Groom said its scope is much broader and far-reaching than those sites. That's something institutions must keep in mind as they leverage the intersection of digital literacy and social media.

"The idea of social media is for people to be able to communicate and share easily on the web – something that was impossible back in the 1990s," said Groom, who points out that the true intersection of the two concepts is not about visiting specific, megapolis sites to post status updates. "It should be focused on a space online that can be programmed and shared. That's the best vision of digital literacy and web that a university can get behind right now."

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