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Enhancing Coursework With Social Tools

Social media offer a way for students to collaborate in a familiar environment, whether in a public forum, private network, or somewhere in between.

This story appeared in the December 2012 digital edition of Campus Technology.

This is the second article in a six-part series on the elements of a collaborative classroom. For part one, "Classroom Furniture: The Mod Squad," see our November issue.

For tech-savvy educators looking to connect with students, social media have a powerful allure: Not only are sites such as Facebook and Twitter inherently designed for discussion and the exchange of ideas, but most students are already immersed in the technology. While these sites have their critics, social media's potential for collaboration is hard to ignore. (For a breakdown of the issues, see "Pros and Cons of Social Media in the Classroom.")

Instructional technology leaders across the country are experimenting with ways to use social media for collaboration in their courses, while at the same time giving students a chance to interact with a larger audience outside the classroom's four walls. Their efforts generally fall into three categories: public social media, private networks, or a hybrid of the two.

Public Social Media
Gideon Burton describes the English Department at Brigham Young University (UT), where he teaches, as quite conservative in its pedagogical approach. And, at first glance, you might not think his specialties of Renaissance literature and the history of rhetoric lend themselves to the use of social media. But, after several years of classroom experimentation with Facebook, Google+, blogging software, and other tools, the professor wouldn't want to teach any other way.

"I haven't done quantitative analysis, but in three years the level of interest in semester-ending projects that use social media channels has increased dramatically," Burton says. "There has been a palpable increase in engagement."

Initially, Burton had students use a Facebook page to begin group discussions of classroom assignments. It worked well for a while, in part because students so often use Facebook. "They claimed that made it easier to go to our class page, although some complained that it led them to waste time on Facebook," recalls Burton.

Also, unlike a discussion forum inside a learning management system, Facebook allowed students to see the faces of their fellow students--and many of them commented on how much that mattered to them.

By having an ongoing online discussion among students, Burton believes that class time can be used more efficiently. "I know what students have already been conversing about," he explains, "so we can take off from there."

Despite all this, Burton eventually moved away from Facebook. For starters, the company changed its group features and no longer supports discussion forums. Furthermore, students said they wanted to segregate their social life from their class life. Facebook didn't feel academic enough to them, and they don't want to "friend" their professor.

Nevertheless, Burton wouldn't go back to a "walled" LMS discussion group. "I like [the discussions] to be public-facing," he explains of his decision to move to Google+. "I have been so pleased with Google+. It is integrated with Gmail and Google's Blogger tool. I have found it is a better way to conduct conversations more broadly, not just with others in the class."

His students write longer-form essays in the Blogger platform and use Google+ to notify the class when they have posted a new item. "The real interaction takes place in Google+ rather than in the comment section of the blog," Burton says.

In Burton's class, students are also asked to do what he calls "social proofing" of their work. At each stage of their research and writing, they must demonstrate that their work is relevant to real audiences--largely by using social media to find and interact with interested parties. For example, one student posted a long comment on the blog of an expert. Her comment was substantial, and the expert responded by making her comment the basis of a later blog post. He also reciprocated by commenting on the student's blog.

Since Burton introduced social media to class, students are far more interested in each other's work than ever before. "There are former students I follow on social media," says Burton. "They are still talking to each other and still referring to the work they did in this class. That is not going to happen without social networking."

Burton notes that administrators at many universities are still trying to form social media usage standards. So far, he has not run afoul of any BYU policies. "I think they largely ignore this because it is so new," he says. "And I am grateful for that, because this can be a sandbox to have the freedom to try things out."

Private Networks
Some institutions may be uncomfortable using public social media for educational purposes, or they may simply desire a social network that is more customized to faculty and student needs. To encourage collaboration among its online MBA students, for example, the University of North Carolina's Kenan-Flagler Business School has created 2NC, a closed system that combines the look and feel of Facebook with synchronous and asynchronous meeting features.

In a blog posting about her experience with the tool, Ana-Laura Diaz, a student in the MBA@UNC program, noted that the 2NC platform takes common elements from popular social media websites and mixes them with intuitive design and access. As a result, it's a snap to share a finance article with her classmates and professor, to meet her classmates for a virtual happy hour, and to post on people's walls. "The end result is an educational-cum-social experience that allows students to access the full educational experience with ease," she wrote.

Students also can easily form groups to work on projects together or to study common interests, says Associate Dean Douglas Shackelford. They can even reserve virtual rooms for conversations or take "virtual coffee breaks" together. Professors might drop in an article on a business topic to get a conversation going. "You see the strings of conversation and interest spread out from there," reports Shackelford.

But do the relationships developed online translate into meaningful personal connections? Shackelford believes so. "I knew we could teach in this environment and that the students are familiar enough with social media to do well," he says. "What I didn't know was how they would do face-to-face when we get them together once every quarter. But it is like a family reunion."

A Hybrid Approach
IT developers at Purdue University (IN) have created their own hybrid social media tool, called Mixable, that allows students to form online study groups and contribute to them through their Facebook accounts. (Mixable is part of a suite of collaborative applications that won a Campus Technology Innovators award last year.)

With Mixable, students build and share their personal learning environments by using tools with which they are already familiar--such as Twitter and Dropbox. Mixable also can be used independently, without connecting to Facebook. "It allows for course discussion in an environment students are already comfortable with, without having to create a new destination they have to go to," notes Kyle Bowen, Purdue's director of informatics.

At the same time, Mixable provides more academic features that appeal to faculty. "I liked that Mixable was informal," says Ellen Gundlach, who has experimented with Mixable in her courses in statistical literacy for liberal arts majors at Purdue. "It was somewhat like Facebook, so it was a format students were already comfortable with, yet a secure environment where I could force them to participate for course credit."

Gundlach has taught traditional classes with 300 students per section as well as online and hybrid courses. "I have a sense that students can get lonely in these large classes," she notes. "I was trying to find a way to get conversations started about what we are studying--in part because it is not all black and white. There are gray areas, and I would like them to have a dialogue about that."

Gundlach created an assignment that asks students to find five examples of statistical topics in mainstream media and to write blog posts in Mixable about the way statistics are used. Students are also required to make at least five comments on five peer posts throughout the semester.

"Once the students do the first post, they start to like it and see it is fun to get the discussion going," she explains. "I also can look at the things they are discussing, see where misperceptions are, and go over those concepts in class. Then, if I put something similar on the final exam, I can see the improvement on those concepts."

Spheres of Influence

While social media are commonly used to enhance collaboration in the classroom, there's another good reason for faculty and students to embrace the technology: Fluency in social media makes students more marketable in the workplace.

In 2011, Todd Bacile (@toddbacile), an instructor of electronic marketing in the College of Business at Florida State University, developed a classroom assignment that challenges students to increase their own personal "Klout score." (A Klout score is a single number that measures social media "influence," based on aggregated data about a user's social media activity.) We asked Bacile about the project.

CT: What sparked the idea to use Klout scores in a class assignment?

Bacile: A manager of a social media marketing agency told me his firm uses Klout during the job-application screening process. The very first thing he and his recruiters do is look at students' Klout scores and their LinkedIn profiles. Any student who does not have a complete LinkedIn profile and a Klout score above 35 is removed from further consideration. This is when I decided I should teach students about social media influence metrics.

CT: Do the students' Klout scores give an indication of their ability to effectively communicate using social media tools--or just how active they are on social media sites?

Bacile: Klout doesn't merely look at how often or how much content is created--it looks at that to a degree. However, the algorithm attempts to determine the level of engagement and conversation a person generates. A person will have a lower score if a lot of content is created via social media yet nobody is responding to or sharing that content. In contrast, a person will have a higher score if he creates content that others like, reply to, and re-share to their own networks.

CT: Were the students open to being graded on this project?

Bacile: Yes. They were excited to learn about something that seemed so emergent and relevant in the real workforce. Also, this was only 10 percent of their overall course grade. But, just to be fair, I gave students the option to opt out of the project and write a paper instead. Only two students out of more than 100 have opted out, not because they dislike Klout or being graded on it, but due to their lack of interest in social media in general.

CT: What's the best way to raise a Klout score?

Bacile: The key to improving influence in this context is to create content other people want to act upon. Having more followers, friends, and connections helps, but only if these people respond to content. A large following with little to no engagement will cause a Klout score to decrease (drastically, in some cases).

A few tips: Create interesting content that is unique and helpful; always try to respond to those who engage with you; be helpful and answer questions; ask questions of others; and try to identify opinion leaders within a topic area you would like to discuss, then engage with those leaders. It's very important to follow commonly accepted etiquette on the different social media sites. Doing these things will improve one's engagement and also grow a following of authentic people who are interested in the content being created.

CT: Were most students successful at raising their Klout scores? Did you get a sense they found the project worthwhile?

Bacile: The average Klout scores at the beginning of the project were in the range of 15 to 20. By the end, the average scores were in the range of 40 to 45. When these classes participated in this project, the average Klout score for all social media users was about 20. So an increase to 40 or higher was really exciting. Based on feedback, I believe the majority of the students really enjoyed the project because they were learning how to engage with others using strategies they may have not used before. Plus, they were gaining experience with a newer metric used in marketing and in the hiring process by some companies. One of my students specifically told me a recruiter asked him about his Klout score.

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