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6 Alternative Social Media Tools for Teaching and Learning

Facebook and Twitter may be ubiquitous, but there are many other social media tools out there that can enhance teaching and learning. Here, three educators share their favorites.

Alternative Social Media Tools


Social media has changed the way people communicate and share information in their personal and professional lives. It's a safe bet that most students in any college classroom have used or are familiar with sites like Facebook and Twitter. Yet surprisingly, some instructors have felt resistance from students when they try to incorporate common social media tools into the classroom.

"For a lot of them, it's their friends on Twitter, and they don't really want to share their homework or talk with their teacher on Twitter," said Seth Dixon, an assistant professor of geography at Rhode Island College. "When I announced that I wanted them using Twitter and connecting things and using class hashtags, they gave me this look of, 'Oh, no!' like their mom was on Facebook now."

While Dixon still uses Twitter with his students, he makes it optional, and he finds that he gets less push-back using alternative social media tools with his classes. "It's not as though you're snooping in on their Facebook or Twitter," he said. "So it has that element where it's no longer this awkward divide between being a student or professor, or is it appropriate or not. It lends itself toward being very normal that way."

CT asked three educators to share their favorite alternative social media tools for teaching and learning.

1) VoiceThread

VoiceThread lets people upload and share images, videos and documents and then have an online conversation about each other's posts through audio, video or text comments. Alexandra Pickett, director of the Open SUNY Center for Online Teaching Excellence and an adjunct instructor at SUNY Albany, started using VoiceThread in 2006, primarily as an icebreaking activity in her online course. She introduces herself to her students through an informal video of herself at home with her daughter, so her students can get a full picture of who she is, professionally and personally. "One of the things that you want to do initially in an online course is to establish a sense of social presence among the participants in the course and with the students," said Pickett. "And so I want to represent myself as a real person because that way they know that I'm real; I'm not a robot, I'm approachable, I am multidimensional." She then invites her students to start a conversation about the importance of social presence in an online course.

Pickett likes the ability to have a conversation in multiple media. "It gives students a lot of options and flexibility in how to present themselves and in how to interact with a learning activity set up by the instructor or a presentation that they might be doing, so there are a lot of ways to use this tool instructionally," she said.

Pickett said her students usually start out using VoiceThread's text tool. To encourage them to branch out to audio and video, she models all of the different methods of interaction, and she makes it a "very low barrier in terms of expectations." Some students are initially very formal and scripted in their posts and responses, so she also encourages them to relax and be more conversational. She models that conversational style in her own posts, but experience has taught her that she also needs to explicitly state her expectations for a casual, conversational tone.

According to Pickett, VoiceThread is easy to use and its functionality is intuitive. "It allows you to make the material that you're talking about more engaging visually as well as in terms of interaction. It's less passive than just reading text."

2) Diigo

Pickett also uses the social bookmarking tool Diigo with her classes. Diigo lets users bookmark Web pages from any browser or computer, and it saves them to their Diigo account in the cloud. It also allows people to annotate and highlight Web pages to assist with research. Pickett uses it in her personal and professional life: "When things come across my screen that I find interesting or relevant or informative, I bookmark them using Diigo and tag them. That way I can retrieve them easily and share them."

Pickett requires her students to use Diigo as part of her course. "They can make any kind of contribution they want, but they need to support their assertions with credible, reputable research, so everything that they cite, including any Web sites or any research papers that they can link to, they need to bookmark in Diigo," said Pickett. "So essentially what we're doing throughout the course is collaboratively creating an annotated bibliography of resources as a class group. I contribute to it, they contribute to it, and it's visible and accessible to everyone in the course, and to everyone else who has ever taken the course." Consequently, all current and former students of her Education Theory and Practice course have access to a growing library of resources on online teaching and learning, educational technology, instructional technology, emerging technologies and some discipline-specific resources.

Pickett's students are required to keep blogs as part of the course, and she uses Diigo to provide feedback on their posts. "When I'm reading student blogs, I highlight passages, and I can color code them so they know that yellow is interesting and pink is I'm something I'm not sure about, and I can leave little comments that are associated with my highlights," said Pickett. "So all they have to do is look at their own blog post, and they can see that I've been there and they can mouse over the little stickies to see my comments and contributions. And they can do that to each other as well, so it's not just me."

3) is an online content curation and publishing tool that lets people search for Web resources related to topics of interest, post them on their personal page along with a note, and then publish their scooped content to a blog or other online media.

Rhode Island College's Dixon has been using since 2011. Initially he used it to share resources with a group of AP Human Geography teachers, and eventually he incorporated it into the courses he teaches. One of those courses is World Regional Geography, which covers a lot of current events, so he needs his resources to be up-to-date. lets him vet and curate a set of relevant resources that he can share with his students.

In addition to sharing resources with his students through, Dixon requires all of his students to create a digital portfolio, which is essentially a page. Students are required to do readings from Dixon's page, and then they "re-scoop" some of that information with their own notes to verify that they've read and understood the material. Dixon also expects them to explore for new material on their own, examine it critically, and then "scoop it" on their own page. So for his students, "acts as both textbook as well as the project," said Dixon.

Dixon likes the way that lets students discover resources and then put their own intellectual stamp on them. "It's no longer just the student consuming social media, but also producing, and I wanted that production element, where they're a part of of what they make, and they're a part of what they read, and a part of what they own — and that ownership element is what I was really looking for," said Dixon. also supports group curation, a feature that Dixon has considered but hasn't tried yet with his classes. "You can have an entire class of 30 students curating one particular topic," he said. "I think it could create a lot more group cohesiveness, and it could then also lead toward discussion on each other's posts."

4) Instagram

Instagram is an online social network for sharing photos and videos. Sarah Smith-Robbins, director of learning technologies and a marketing instructor in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, uses Instagram with her digital and social media marketing class. "Instagram gives us an immediate way to bounce interesting marketing off of one another," she said. When her students are out in their daily lives, they use their smartphones to take snapshots of online marketing strategies they encounter, such as QR codes, and post the photos to Instagram with a hashtag — the "#" symbol followed by a designated word or phrase — to share them with the class.

Students comment on each other's posts and vote for the ones they like. Then, when they're back in class, Smith-Robbins and the class discuss the marketing strategies they have discovered. "It gives us a way to bring that kind of immediate contribution into the classroom to let the students explain what they found — and they're applying what they're learning by explaining what they've found," added Smith-Robbins.

Smith-Robbins thinks Instagram is effective for getting students to use their camera lens to focus on the concepts they're learning in class. "I want them to view the world as a critical marketer and a critical consumer, and if I can get them to think about the lens of their camera as the filter through which they're seeing the world, it gives me a good metaphor to tie that activity to."

5) Pinterest

Pinterest is a social bookmarking tool for online images. "I think it's a really powerful curation tool," said Smith-Robbins. "It lets us pull together sources, inspiration, campaigns that we're looking at or that students find interesting, in a visual way that is easy for them to browse."

Smith-Robbins' students use Pinterest to contribute to a board for the course, so as they find things, they can pin them and comment on each other's pins. " I encourage them to comment in ways that tie those pins to the content of the course," said Smith-Robbins. "I'm not evaluating that in any way, but I use it as a way to kind of prime the discussion."

Smith-Robbins likes Pinterest's simple, visual interface because it doesn't require a lot of in-class time to teach her students how to use it. "And that's nice because the technology's not getting in the way," she said. She thinks it's most beneficial for visual sources, and probably wouldn't be as useful for a course that relies heavily on documents or multimedia. "It works for that, but not as seamlessly," she said.

6) Feedly

Feedly is an online feed aggregator for blogs and other sites that use RSS or Atom syndication. Feedly users can subscribe to feeds, and then receive updates to those blogs and sites on their Feedly news feed. Smith-Robbins has used Feedly, and the now-defunct Google Reader before it, for years to aggregate the updates from sites she follows personally. "I've always used RSS feeds from lots of different sources that post news about the industry, and I skim those every day to stay current," she said.

Eventually she started sharing her feed with her students, so they could get in the practice to keep themselves current on industry developments after graduation. Her students then started suggesting feeds to her, and she would add them to her list. "The next semester I would share the list with a new class and they would get in the practice," said Smith-Robbins. "It just grows and grows and grows."

Smith-Robbins uses articles from her feeds to spark in-class discussions. "I will point out an article and say, 'I want you to look at this in the context of what we've been learning about in class,'" said Smith-Robbins. "So the topics that come up in those feeds often become topics of discussion. It just makes it more immediate."

3 Benefits of Using Social Media in Class

Putting concepts in context. Sarah Smith-Robbins, director of learning technologies and a marketing instructor in the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University, thinks social media can help take learning out of the classroom. "I want students to see the concepts that we're talking about in class not just as things that are important when we're in class, but as things that are important in their lives," she said. "Because these tools live in their pockets and I can give them reasons to be on the lookout for content to curate for the course, it helps them think through the application of the concepts from class."

Helping instructors keep course content up-to-date. Smith-Robbins teaches digital and social media marketing. "It's a topic that changes so rapidly that we're constantly encountering new resources, new tools, new sources of information, and it is impossible for me to keep up with them alone," she said. "So I recruit my students to help do that and to curate sources for the class, and I'm able to use those in the class, and they use them themselves."

Fostering a sense of community both in and out of the classroom. "We have more presence to one another between classes," said Smith-Robbins. "It's an ongoing conversation that happens between classes and we didn't have that before."

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