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7 Tips for Harnessing the Energy of Social Media in Class

Social media can be a distraction for students — but used well, it can also invigorate teaching and learning with a relevant, immediate stream of communication. Here's how to make sure it's an asset, not a liability.

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Like the sand running through an hourglass, control of the learning process in American universities has gradually shifted from the institutions to the students. In colonial Harvard or Princeton, the college had a tight grip on what would be studied and complete entitlement to the undivided attention of students in the lecture hall. Administrators set rigid standards for student performance and there were severe consequences for not meeting them. By the late 19th century, though, students had much more to say about what they studied, how they studied it and how much effort they chose to give to the whole enterprise. The "gentleman's C" had become part of university culture even at the most elite institutions; When the student failed to rise above that C, it was not a sign of inability, but simply an announcement that he was above striving.

The arrival of social media in today's university classroom completes the trend. Students sit in class (if they attend class at all) with devices that permit instant two-way communication with anyone in the room or out of it. They often think of themselves primarily as "customers" and believe they owe the institution nothing but politeness and the reasonably timely payment of their semester bills. They reserve the right to evaluate, on a moment-to-moment basis, whether the words of the professor have sufficient entertainment value to justify their continuing attention. If a class doesn't float their boat at a particular instant, they can switch channels to content coming in from outside the building without suffering a moment of silence or boredom.

Every professor struggles with this — and it is not entirely a bad thing. It forces us to have a solid game plan that reflects a deep understanding of our students, and to be on our game every moment we are executing that plan. We can even try educational jiu-jitsu, co-opting the distracting energy of social media itself in a way that enhances the relevance and immediacy of our teaching. But we need to be very skillful when playing this "double-or-nothing" game. If we are clumsy in our use of social media, we will do nothing but assure that the tools for ignoring us will in the hands of our students, turned on, connected to the outside world, and beckoning students to info-snack in cyberspace instead of attending to our carefully-planned content.

Building effective successful social media components into university courses is not a deep mystery. People are going to respond like people, online or in-person. For example, the challenges that show up when trying to get an engaging discussion going — especially one which involves more than a few particularly outgoing students — will present themselves whether that discussion lives on an electronic platform or in a traditional classroom. Here are some tips for making social media an effective part of your tool set:

1) Don't fall in love with tools.

My Master of Education program students in Instructional Design & Technology at West Texas A&M University live in 23 states, three countries and six time zones. They are all working professionals who often do their schoolwork online in their bunny slippers at 1:00 in the morning. They enter the program to acquire marketable skills that will hasten their next job offer or close the deal on their next promotion. They have absolutely no interest in the type of warm, fuzzy, collegial sharing of views and ideas within a "professional learning community" that many liberal arts undergraduates live for. They hate group projects with a passion that I reserve for racial prejudice and canned spinach. If I were to drop a chat room onto their learning management system page without deeply weaving its use into the fabric of my course, I would open up the chat log on the last day of the semester and bats would fly out. (Been there, done that, burned the t-shirt.)

As much as I am excited about the potential of social media for student-to-student communication in undergraduate general education classes, it is often a poor fit for certain audiences, such as my group of goal-oriented portfolio-builders. Know your students well and use social media only when it matches their profile. Your personal fondness for the cool hammer you just discovered does not turn your students into nails.

2) Avoid "flavor of the month" platform hopping.

There are hundreds of social media platforms and more coming all the time. Chances are that most of your students who are already active on social media are using one or more of the most popular. As of this writing, that would likely be Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Google+, YouTube or Instagram.

You will want your students to be focused on the information flow, not the platform on which it is presented. Using the most common platforms assures near appliance-like reliability. It also eliminates the need for much technical support or bypasses a steep learning curve in getting to know the platform itself. The downside is that once the students are out on a platform that they normally use for their social life, it becomes more likely that they will be distracted from the pages related to your course.

3) Never evaluate social media participation with numbers.

Professors who are insecure about their early steps into social media and want to guarantee participation may try to force the issue by adding "points" to their grading formula for each contribution. This results in begrudging compliance to the formula and reams of garbage being posted. Avoid the temptation to force the issue. Let your social media attempt catch fire because you have created such enthusiasm about the subject matter that many students are bursting to share their opinions. If your social media project weakens to the point of needing life support through coercion, reflect on the whole course to see how you can make it genuinely more engaging, including the use of social media.

Truly passionate participation never happens under threat. That means the ideal relationship between grading and the use of social media is none whatsoever.

4) Weed the garden constantly.

Most social media attempts, especially blogs and wikis, are abandoned within a year of their inception. The problem is relevance. Target audiences stop connecting if they have to wade through too many items that don't interest them in order to get to something that does.

For example, a small, intensely vocal group of students in a chat room can suck the oxygen out of the communication space and crowd out quieter voices that have just as much of value to say. This is, of course, exactly the same dynamic that can happen in a regular classroom when the majority of students tune out a discussion because they are hearing too much from too few of their colleagues. They decide it's too much trouble to compete for airtime and recognition.

The solution is to have a very clear set of guidelines in place about how social media components are going to be used in your courses. Then you must be aggressive about curating the body of content that emerges in accordance with those guidelines, so that students perceive that a high percentage of what they see is worth attending to. Fail to do this and your postings will get further and further away from the topic at hand, and will earn the ear of an ever-smaller group of insiders and all-star communicators.

5) Create safety by being a supportive, guiding presence on the social media site.

Nobody wants to look like a jerk in public, and your students may be very uncertain as to whether a potential contribution they are thinking about posting will cause them to do just that. So they may decide to remain as "lurkers" hiding in the shadows. If they feel obligated to post at all, they may limit their opinions to what they think will be accepted by their peers rather than what they really think. This clearly defeats the purpose of using social media.

To prevent this, site leadership must be constantly present to set a positive, accepting tone in responding to well-intentioned contributions. When a still-small voice offers his or her first timid and tentative opinion on an issue, that opinion must be valued, appreciated and seriously considered with a timely response. Replies from other class members that are not sufficiently respectful should also draw an appropriate private response from the site leader(s) and be quickly removed. This will assure the site is a "friendly neighborhood" where everything students encounter is in keeping with a "We can learn something from everyone" spirit.

You will need to supply site leadership yourself initially. Once a positive and supportive tone is established, look to turn that role over to carefully chosen members of the class, since managing a social media site with sensitivity is itself a learning experience worth sharing.

6) Recruit the best communicators to bring the back-channel participants forward.

Not every high-visibility communicator sitting in the first row is a tone-deaf narcissist oblivious to the needs of others. More often than not, the vanguard students are gracious and socially skilled people who would much prefer a more balanced discussion. They have become unable to "see" many of their classmates simply because those classmates have made themselves invisible through consistent non-participation over time. The most engaged students do fill the vacuum, but would love the role of acting as a sort of classroom ombudsman for The Great Unheard.

Imagine you are having a lively classroom discussion in a regular classroom, and you have also encouraged a simultaneous Twitter back channel. This is the modern-day equivalent of note-passing, except the debate is hopefully so engaging that the tweets are actually a second tier of student-to-student observations about the arguments being made aloud. Encourage the most vocal students to bring the most interesting points from the back channel forward and present them for consideration in the mainstream discussion. This can be done without identifying the source, if the source prefers it that way. If an idea from a quiet student which is brought forward by a vocal student gets respectful and appreciative consideration, there is a good chance that the next time the quiet student comes up with an idea he feels strongly about, he will be ready to enter the front-channel discussion and present it.

7) Don't ask students to attend to two things at once.

Contrary to the pervasive delusion of modern multitaskers, neuroscience tells us that the human mind can only pay attention to one thing at a time. Social media will not strengthen the learning process if all students are consistently asked to split their attention for extended periods of time. That is why the back channel mentioned in the previous point is always a trade-off. Both the sender and the recipient of every tweet is going to be momentarily distracted from the main audible discussion. On the other hand, if a student is entirely blocked from moving forward because he doesn't understand something crucial, hearing what is going to be said next won't matter anyway. A little back-channel clarification from a buddy can be just the thing to get him back on track.

If you encourage a back channel, do not compound the potential for distraction by having the flow of tweets appear in real time on your classroom display, like the score summary that is always present at the bottom of the screen for some TV sports shows. Every student in the room does not need to see every uncurated tweet in real time. Instead, consider capturing the stream of tweets and posting it for everyone's later viewing and reflection.

All in all, approach learning with social media with great care. It is not just a trendy accessory to bolt on to your existing course materials and take credit for on the self-evaluation section of your annual review. Whether you teach in classroom, online or hybrid mode, it is absolutely certain that your students will be engaging in learning through social media during the time allotted for your class. The only question is whether that learning will have any relationship to what is on your syllabus.

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